I have been reading A Room of One’s Own. I have been entranced by Woolf’s rovings and ramblings, which would not be any good, of course, were they not pierced now and then by moments of the most intense precision/vision. It is as if she is walking through woods and aimlessly kicking up leaves. Once in a while her boot strikes something hard and sharp, which turns out to be a diamond or a ruby or some other jewel. She would not have found it if she had not been kicking, although that was not the point of the kicking.
Here is one of those precise jewels which we should hold up to the light so that many ideas and associations glint and glance from its surfaces:
… it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. (p100)
Fatal is such an un-Woolfish word, being categorical and slightly 2-D. But her point is neither of these things. To write means to set oneself entirely aside – something that Woolf thinks Jane Austen manages and Charlotte Bronte does not. Whether or not this setting aside has taken place is visible at the level of the sentence. Where Bronte’s sentences have a tendency to stretch and strain, Austen’s flow easily forwards without impediment. For Woolf, Bronte’s sentences bear the faint imprint of the many male writers who have preceded her (even if that imprint is formed of Bronte’s resistance and avoidance). Austen on the other hand is unencumbered – (by the tradition, we might say?) – and achieves in her sentences what Woolf later describes as “peace”.
In A Room she provides an example of what she calls “a man’s sentence” which she says is not fit for use by a woman. Because a man’s sentence has existed for so many centuries it is now hard and inflexible. A woman must not think she can change a man’s sentence; she must devise her own form of transport.
Or she must write as a woman-manly and not think at all of her sex.
I think I have written elsewhere about the fact that in The Waves it’s possible to open the book at any page, read a sentence and not be sure whose mind we are in. So I’m interested in looking at some sentences to see if Woolf does as she says.
This might end up being a little mechanical – we will have to consider verbs and adjectives and adverbs and punctuation – and also a little haphazard, but there is nothing else that will do the job. I will close my eyes and open The Waves three times and write down the sentences that my eye falls upon first… And here they are:
A “We may wander to a lake and watch Chinese geese waddling flat-footed to the water’s edge or see a bone-like city church with young green trembling before it. (I choose at random; I choose the obvious.)” (p152)
B “Plato and Shakespeare are included, also quite obscure people, people of no importance whatsoever. I hate men who wear crucifixes on the left side of their waistcoats. I hate ceremonies and lamentations and the sad figure of Christ trembling beside another trembling and sad figure.” (P127)
C “The growl of the boot-boy making love to the tweeny in the gooseberry bushes; the clothes blown out hard on the line; the dead man in the gutter; the apple tree, stark in the moonlight; the rat swarming with maggots; the lustre dripping blue – our white wax was streaked and stained by each of these differently.” (p173)
In A we find a speculative frame – we might go wandering and when we do so we might see this (geese) or that (a church). There are three adjectives: flat-footed, bone-like, young. Green is a noun and we’re not sure what it is – grass seems likely. There is a parenthesis containing one of Woolf’s beloved semi-colons which is the pivot on which turn near-opposites (randomness and obviousness). Most of all there is beauty. The bone-like church is so intensely right, although we have never heard of such a church before. We don’t need to wonder what the bones are exactly as we feel their paleness and the structuring strength of their arches and pillars. The bones are the opposite of the waddling geese, so soft in their flat-footedness.
The speaker is recording what he/she sees. An eye is scanning a scene and lighting on greenness and whiteness, hardness and softness. The roving quality of the first sentence is somewhat balanced by the accounting sentence that follows it. If you are wondering why I tell you about geese and the church it is because they took my fancy and it is because anyone would notice them.
It seems to me that the speaker knows they might all-too easily continue in the geese/church mode and so feels they need to account for it – or perhaps rein in the tendency to be wander without direction. Although of course the speaker doesn’t know that we are listening.
Passage B is more of the philosophising kind. It is almost staccato, with the first long sentence chopped up by commas. Then there is a short sentence of almost shocking starkness, although it sets us to puzzling. Is it the left-sidedness of the crucifixes that is so distasteful? Or is it the wearing of a crucifix on a waistcoat – the fact that it is a sort of ornament? I hate is repeated (this is almost rhetoric!) and then there are two four-syllable words which contrast with the gentle thud of sad figure. What is wonderful, of course, about this last sentence is the repetition of sad and trembling in different configurations: sad figure… trembling / trembling and sad figure. I would say this is poetry.
I suppose passage B is almost the opposite of A. It moves from almost factual statement to a sentence of sheer painful beauty. How can we bear to hold these two sad/trembling figures in our minds?
Passage C is a slightly trickier one; reading it in isolation I am not sure what we are looking at. It might almost be a painting, although I know that cannot be the case. We begin with the growl of the boot-boy, which is the only thing we hear. But what a peculiar noun! It makes the “love-making” to the tweeny (a maid who assists other members of a domestic staff – I had to look this up) sound primitive and unpleasant.
There are few adjectives (dead/stark) and much of the work is done instead by verbs which are rather forceful ones: swarming, dripping, streaked, stained. There are five semi-colons and a single comma, and then the dash which calls a halt to the tumble of impressions. Something must call a halt because it is all becoming too frightening. Perhaps this is akin to what happens in the other passages – a reining in to account for what we are being shown, a making of sense.
Having rather clumsily anatomised these passages, I wonder where I find myself. First of all, I find I have no sense of who the speakers might be. When I first read them, I had an inkling but that has been snuffed out by the close-reading. All three passages have a quality of movement from one type of thinking to another – from something that is almost daydreaming to an obligation to make sense, or vice versa of course.
All three passages are full of punctuating elements (often semi-colons) and of visual impressions, which we might call painterly detail. I would even say that each passage has something of poetry in it – in the many lovely patterns and repetitions which make us experience the same word or phrase in different lights.
And of course now there is the question. Is there anywhere to be found a maleness or a femaleness?
I cannot see it. We are each time in a mind that now roves about and now takes stock, that notices and asserts, that declares and falters. But as for a man or a woman, I can find evidence for neither – by which I mean that I find no difference in the writing.
I am not going to look and see. I would rather be left holding this sense I have now of the brimming aliveness of each of those minds, which is of course the brimming aliveness of Woolf’s mind. This is what both A Room and The Waves make me feel – that we are in the presence of a mind (or minds) thinking (one of my favourite definitions of the Baroque, in fact). It is Woolf’s extraordinary achievement is that she makes us experience all these tumbling thoughts as vividly and compellingly as if they were our own. It does not matter whether the mind belongs to a he or a she, just as it does not matter whether the reader is a man or woman.