this is the real life

I must begin with two extracts (one rather long) from Virginia Woolf’s Diary. On 10th September 1928 she writes about summer at Rodmell:

That is one of the experiences I have here in some Augusts; and get then to a consciousness of what I call “reality”: a thing I see before me: something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist.

Just under a year later in June 1929 she is contemplating the opening of the novel she plans to call The Moths:

I think it will begin like this: dawn: the shells on a beach.  I don’t know – voices of a cock and nightingale; and then all the children at a long table – lessons.  The beginning.  Well, all sorts of characters are to be there.  Then the person who is at the table can call out anyone of them at any moment; and build up by that person the mood, tell a story; for instance about dogs or nurses; or some adventure of a child’s kind; all to be very Arabian Nights; and so on; this shall  be childhood; but it must not be my childhood; and boats on the pond; the sense of children; unreality; things oddly proportioned… The unreal world must be round all this – the phantom waves… Early morning light – but this need not be insisted on; because there must be great freedom from “reality”.  Yet everything must have relevance. 

Well all this is of course the “real” life, and nothingness only comes in the absence of this.

(As an aside, it delights me to notice how Woolf’s mind veers from ideas about how her novel will operate (“not my childhood”) to little visual notes to herself about things she might include (“and boats on the pond”).  It’s as if she sees no difference between theory and practice; both are part of the same long thought.  And how she loves semi-colons!  They must express the way her mind roves about, adding little dabs of ideas here and there as a painter might add detail to a painting.)

But what really catch my attention are the references to reality, unreality, the real life, the unreal world.  Woolf uses these terms so freely, as if they are almost nothing, or perhaps as if she thinks we must know what they mean. 

In the 1928 extract she says that the reality she seeks is abstract. Then she mentions the far-from-abstract downs (by which she means The South Downs) and the sky. I am trying to imagine those lovely folding/unfolding hills as a case of abstract reality. And how can the sky be abstract?

When it comes to The Moths Woolf has some very particular ideas about how the book will begin: shells and birds calling and lessons. All to be very Arabian Nights she says, although the utterances of the children at the start of the novel could not be more unlike anything in those ancient tales.

What she aspires to is a “sense of children;” and the first thing after the semi-colon is the word unreality.  And if there is no need to be too specific about the nature of the morning light it is because there must be freedom from reality.

There is a great deal to wrestle with here, and Woolf’s ideas seem sometimes to pull in opposite directions. Perhaps this is because it’s difficult to know which she treasures most: the real or real’s opposite. Indeed, might there be a place where the two cross paths?  Might a sense of children be another case of the abstract downs?


I have always been entranced by Woolf’s relish for things. In The Waves the world through which the characters move is cluttered with bits and pieces: chairs, trees, puddles, handkerchiefs, vases, clocks.  There are also the occasional people who move rather like objects through London’s streets, limping or shuffling or carrying baskets of groceries – always very specific although we never know who they are other than being tradesmen or women shopping and so forth.

Such real objects are in evidence when the friends meet for a last dinner with Percival before he leaves for India. Here’s Neville:

“After the capricious fires, the abysmal dullness of youth… the light falls upon real objects now. Here are knives and forks. The world is displayed, and we too, so that we can talk.”

The knives and forks seem to be a relief from abstraction, from the encompassing atmospheres that can sum up childhood and youth. Might Neville be saying that there is some sort of moral comfort in the straightforward usefulness of cutlery on a table – or, as Woolf says, in the world being displayed so simply and plainly?

Equally possible is that Neville is thinking about the difference between the past and the present. The past has a tendency to arrange itself into shapes and patterns whereas the present must be insistently specific. 

Or perhaps the knives and forks are a sort of instruction that the friends must not be sentimental or nostalgic. They must attend to the fact of sitting round a table together, seven bodies (a body can also be a thing) in a restaurant, together for the last time although they do not know this.


Most of the time Woolf’s things are simply there. But now and then they join forces to cohere into an energetic whole – something that Bernard calls the machine.  This usually happens in moments of suffering or joy. Thus, when learning of Percival’s death, Bernard stares at the street around him and sees ordinary things: the butcher, old men and sparrows.

“I note the rhythm, the throb but as a thing in which I have no part, since he sees it no longer.”

Just a page later:

“Yet already signals begin, beckonings, attempts to lure me back. One cannot live outside the machine for more than half an hour. Bodies, I note, begin to look ordinary.”

What is interesting to me is the last sentence. Things/real things are there under our feet or around us in our houses and we pay them scant attention. It is only when we are startled by tragedy or delight that we notice how they conspire to shield us.


Well all this is of course the “real” life, and nothingness only comes in the absence of this.

Because of all this, I take Woolf’s nothingness to be the fact of death and our knowledge of it – that real thing which we would love to put from our minds and which we must each contemplate and endure alone. Here is Rhoda:

“I must start when you pluck at me with your children, your poems, your chilblains … After all these callings hither and thither, these pluckings and searchings, I shall fall alone through this thin sheet into gulfs of fire.”

Nothingness is the frightening torrent that churns ever onward beneath the thin sheet and that will carry away our minds if we do not remember to be distracted. This is the work of the machine: to beguile us into bland contentment and keep our feet dancing across the sheet.

All this is so beautifully elusive that I would rather not arrive at any sort of concluding thought. Nevertheless, I do wonder whether for Woolf, those treasured (and abstract) downs and sky are a kind of stay against terror. They are real things, of course, but they are not part of the clutter of life. They are not knives and forks. They do not distract as a basket of shopping might. 

The downs and the sky are real and true. We see them before us. But not for a moment do they pluck at us and trick us into believing there’s no such thing as the rushing stream and the gulfs of fire.  

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