Virginia Woolf’s children

Famously she had none. But she loved them, for example her sister Vanessa’s. There is a beautiful photograph of Virginia and Angelica sitting outdoors, side by side. Virginia holds something in her hand and looks at the camera. Angelica looks down; she may be reading or making a daisy chain. Virginia’s face, half-shadowed by the wide brim of her hat, seems to be expressing something to the camera along the lines of Look at this child. How absorbed and separate she is. How little she needs or wants me.

In December 1927 Virginia went to Nessa’s house for a party and watched the children performing in a play.  She wrote in her diary:

“Angelica so mature and composed; all grey and silver; such an epitome of all womanliness;”

Wanting to write about the children in The Waves but not knowing where or how to start, this little description of Angelica gave me a clue. When Woolf describes Angelica as “all grey and silver” and as “an epitome of all womanliness” it’s as if she sees her as already complete – not a child on the way to being grown-up but already containing and exemplifying the adult she is to become.

I wonder if Woolf thinks that a child doesn’t transform into an adult – as a caterpillar turns into a butterfly or an acorn into an oak tree. Perhaps she thinks it’s more like Russian dolls: the netsuke-like inner doll accruing layers but persisting unchanged at the heart.

The characters in The Waves are children at the beginning. By the end they have grown-up.  But there is nothing in the language to signal this. Susan the child who leaves home for boarding school thinks, feels and speaks in exactly the same way as Susan the mother who rocks her baby in the kitchen and wonders if her life has lost its shape.

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One of the (many) extraordinary things about The Waves is the image-making. It’s something that we notice from the very first page and it’s there on the second page when the children appear. All six children say the most remarkable and unlikely things that it might take a poet to think of. Nevertheless, we don’t balk when Susan says:

“the leaves are gathered round the window like pointed ears”

or when Bernard says:

“the cock crows like a spurt of hard, red water”

or when Rhoda says:

“islands of light are swimming on the grass .”

Or when Louis says something that he continues to say/think throughout the novel:

“I hear something stamping. A great beast’s foot is chained.  It stamps, and stamps, and stamps.”

These are the first words we hear from the children who are up early; it is before lessons and there is a sense that the world they are taking stock of hasn’t yet been impinged upon by adults. The children are gathering impressions of a spring morning – noticing leaves, light, insects, birds singing, the occasional domestic noise as the house wakes up.  They are seeing as if for the first time and it’s almost as if the world has been created especially for them.

I’m not sure why they are noticing these particular things – there’s a randomness. There is also an unarguableness. The observations have something of the force of poetry – by which I mean that we believe what is being said not because it is true but because it has never been said in this way before.

I’m also not sure whether the children are speaking their observations aloud to each other or whether these are private thoughts. The scene could be one in which they are excitedly comparing notes, or one in which each child is vividly lost in their own Angelica-like reverie.

In fact, this is of no concern. Woolf isn’t remotely bothered about creating convincing scenarios. We are looking down the telescope from the other end.  

When she was thinking about the opening pages of The Waves, Woolf wrote:

“… this shall be childhood; but it must not be my childhood”

She goes on to refer to a “sense of children” and to “unreality; things oddly proportioned.”

The children’s thoughts/utterances are a thousand miles away from being real. No living child would ever speak or think like this. And yet … the childlikeness of what is being said is what strikes us again and again. Each and every utterance flashes with conviction and freedom and vividness.

The effect of this clamour of voices at the beginning of the novel seems to me to be to capture the essence of childlike-ness.Everything in this opening movement makes us feel and live what it’s like to be a child – airily bypassing literalness and realism in the way that music does.  

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The children move through a series of childish experiences: going away to school, returning home for holidays, meeting/liking/disliking/admiring teachers, playing cricket. Neville’s first sighting of Old Crane the headmaster goes like this:

“Behold the headmaster. Alas, that he should excite my ridicule. He is too sleek, he is altogether too shiny and black, like some statue in a public garden. And on the left of his waistcoat, his taut, his drum-like waistcoat, hangs a crucifix.”

Behold! Alas! I don’t think we even notice how unlikely the vocabulary is. For Bernard:

“Old Crane, the headmaster, has a nose like a mountain at sunset, and a blue cleft in his chin like a wooded ravine.”

One of the ‘Martian’ poets might have come up with the nose like a mountain with its strange/funny imaginative leap. It is the sort of thing that a child might conceivably say but would never actually say.

After this, Bernard’s outlandish similes subside into a simple statement of sad fact:

“This is our first night at school, apart from our sisters.”

It’s if all the impressions which have been like as dazzling and distracting as a firework display suddenly melt away in the harsh light of what’s true.

The words lie down quietly on the page and there is nothing more to be said.

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