When I read Alexandra Harris’s marvellous study of Woolf I learned that The Waves was originally to have been called The Moths. Six characters moving around and bumping against a central source – a seventh person who is there at the beginning of the book and then goes away to India where he dies in an accident before he has even got going.
The six characters are Rhoda, Jinny, Susan, Neville, Bernard and Louis. They and the seventh play together in gardens as children. As grown-ups they always keep abreast of one another. They compare who they are, finding things to envy and deplore and admire in each other. If one bell rings, the other six can’t help humming back a note in return.
The seventh person is Percival who is the book’s abiding presence/absence. We don’t hear Percival’s own voice but the friends love and slightly worship him. We believe them, so we probably love and slightly worship him too.
(Talking of naming, Percival – or Perceval – was Galahad’s predecessor as the Knight of the Holy Grail. In Chrétien de Troye’s twelfth century account he is innocent and slightly blundering but singular, separated from the other knights by the purity of his Quest.)
I’m very interested that Woolf changed her title idea from moths to waves. Moths go round and round, they can’t help being drawn to the light and to their own damage. (How horrid is that slight fizzing noise when a moth flies against a lit bulb?) There is something stupid about their frenzied patterns. They suffer and they cannot save themselves.
Waves are entirely different. Waves move forwards and backwards, inwards and outwards, breaking and then gathering themselves again. There is something tireless about the motion of waves, a soothingness that comes from knowing there will always be a next – that they will keep coming towards us because there is something they are seeking.
In Vanessa Bell’s cover illustration for The Waves, the wavy lines narrow but don’t quite close near the bottom of the page. Also near the bottom there is what may well be the ‘seven-sided carnation’ that stands in the vase on the table of the restaurant where the friends dine with Percival before he goes away. In Vanessa’s image there are two blooms, one resplendent, the other drooping and sorry. The wave shapes go up and down into little points which are steeper where the gap is narrower, as if they are being funnelled down into an estuary.
The colours don’t remotely conjure up the sea. They are green and brown – unmistakably earthy. And I’ve also just noticed that the wave shapes look like the W in the word Waves and the W in the word Woolf.
Vanessa has written the book’s title with a narrow paint brush. The title is in fact not The Waves but the Waves so that what we see is the word Waves and what we feel is the idea of waves. The Waves (capital T) would have to be particular waves, and we might find ourselves wondering which.
If you hold the image a little further away, you see that the waves are moving between two humanish figures, which are possibly male and female. The male seems to be dancing or walking and waving (yes, waving!) while the female sits with an arm across herself as if she is thinking. The wavy lines and the carnation are between the two figures – they are what connect them and what hold them at a slight distance from each other. The two people don’t appear to be looking at each other, one faces the waves and the other looks away from them.
No, I don’t think moths would have done at all. Moths cannot be symphonic and The Waves is a symphonic novel. Moths are too individual and discrete. Each creature is busy with itself. Waves may try briefly to lift themselves above the sea but they must always subside into it again.
Waves can do nothing but be drawn back down into the restless heavingness of the whole.
“And we ourselves, walking six abreast, what do we oppose, with this random flicker of light in us that we call brain and feeling, how can we do battle against this flood; what has permanence? Our lives too stream away, down the unlighted avenues, past the strip of time, unidentified.”