Ardour and shyness: Virginia Woolf’s essays on women in The Common Reader vol. 2

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader vol. 2: cover

My Vintage Books paperback edition of 2003

When she turns her attention to female writers in The Common Reader vol. 2, Virginia Woolf’s tone become more fervent than in those essays that discuss male figures. More indignant, too. Not surprising, really, as this collection was published just three years after A Room of One’s Own.

Here she is, in her essay on the Letters of Dorothy Osborne, (1627-95), most of them written in the years of clandestine courtship to the man she married in 1654, Sir William Temple. ‘Material conditions’ that made it difficult for non-aristocratic men to become writers at that time were worse for women:

the woman was impeded also by her belief that writing was an act unbefitting her sex.

The odd ‘great lady’ might write and print her writings and be grudgingly tolerated, protected by her rank: ‘But the act was offensive to a woman of lower rank.’ Dorothy wrote as much herself when the Duchess of Newcastle published one of her books, exclaiming that she could never stoop to such unbecoming lack of decorum.

Yet she was a woman with a ‘great literary gift’, Woolf adds. Had she born 200 years later she’d have been a fine novelist. As it was, the only form of expression open to her was letters – and these allow us a rare example of the voice of men and women ‘talking together over the fire.’ Despite the stylistic (and social-domestic) constraints of the time for women of her station, Lady Temple took pains over her compositions, and produced a literature of her own,

a record of life, gravely yet playfully, formally and yet with intimacy, to a public of one, but to a fastidious public, as the novelist can never give it, or the historian either.

Jonathan Swift secured a position in the late 1680s as secretary to Sir William. ‘Mild Dorothea, peaceful, wise and great,’ is his description of her in her final years. He failed to perceive the passionate, spirited woman who is glimpsed in those letters to her forbidden lover, and whose voice has otherwise been muted or ignored, along with most of the other women who lived in those days, and for many years afterwards.

The sketch of Mary Wollstonecraft also glows with suppressed empathetic anger. Mary’s violent father’s profligacy forced her into that hated role of so many women of her class, governess: ‘she had never known what happiness was.’ All she knew was ‘the sordid misery of real human life’ – and yet she forged an identity and a philosophy all her own:

The staple of her doctrine was that nothing mattered save independence…not grace or charm, but energy and courage and the power to put her will into effect, were the necessary qualities.

Revolution was in her blood:

She had been in revolt all her life – against tyranny, against law, against convention. The reformer’s love of humanity, which has so much of hatred in it as well as love, fermented within her.

Only rarely does this fiery tone emerge in Woolf’s essays on male writers.

She’s more sober in the piece on the quiet, unassuming devotion of Dorothy Wordsworth to her brother, as revealed in her journals and letters. But even she is allowed some force and fervour, as here in an account of her writing about a waterfall:

She searched out all its character, she noted its resemblances, she defined its differences, with all the ardour of a discoverer, with all the exactness of a naturalist, with all the rapture of a lover.

Woolf notes how Dorothy effectively created the conditions in which her ‘beloved’ William could become a poet, not just domestically, but emotionally, artistically, even linguistically:

It was a strange love, profound, almost dumb, as if brother and sister had grown together and shared not the speech but the mood, so that they hardly knew which felt, which spoke, which saw the daffodils or the sleeping city; only Dorothy stored the mood in prose, and later William came and bathed in it and made it into poetry. But one could not act without the other.

A more sober account, then, but the language, imagery and style of that passage show the emotion tempered by intellect of the Metaphysicals, the graceful expressive symmetry of the Augustans. The brother ‘bathes’ in the life-giving spring waters of his sister’s self-effacing generosity and art.

Dorothy may have lacked the fiercely passionate nature and agency of Mary Wollstonecraft, but Woolf convinces us that Dorothy’s role in English literary history is just as significant – not just in acting as midwife to much of her illustrious brother’s work, but in her own surviving written work. There was a different type of passionate blood flowing in her veins, a different order of self-expression, and Virginia Woolf has the clear-eyed sympathy to perceive them, as she sums up a typical journal entry by Dorothy:

Her pen sometimes stammers with the intensity of the emotion that she controlled, as De Quincey said that her tongue stammered with the conflict between her ardour and her shyness as she spoke.

Yet ‘still she must control’ her impulsive nature, ‘still she must repress, or she would fail in her task – she would cease to see.’

As Nora says in A Doll’s House when her controlling, patronising husband talks about a man’s pride: millions of women have to swallow theirs, every day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wordsworth steals a boat

I’m still finding little time for my own reading as I work on the Romantics. So I thought I’d share here a piece I’ve adapted from something I’ve been preparing for my students to work on:

Wordsworth: The Prelude. The childhood boat-stealing scene

A central theme in Wordsworth’s epic blank verse ‘autobiography’ or history of the development of the poet’s mind, The Prelude, is that our identity and character are shaped by what he called “spots of time”. These significantly punctuate our lives, providing a “renovating virtue” by which “our minds / Are nourished and invisibly repaired.” They usually occur in the poem as an epiphany experienced arising from an incident or sight in the natural world.

One famous instance is the boat-stealing episode in Book I, ll. 372-441 from the 1805 edition (the first, 1799, and the third, 1850, are slightly different. Text from the Poetry Foundation

   One evening (surely I was led by her) [ie Nature]

I went alone into a Shepherd’s Boat,

A Skiff that to a Willow tree was tied

Within a rocky Cave, its usual home.                                   375

‘Twas by the shores of Patterdale, a Vale

Wherein I was a Stranger, thither come

A School-boy Traveller, at the Holidays.

Forth rambled from the Village Inn alone

No sooner had I sight of this small Skiff,               380

Discover’d thus by unexpected chance,

Than I unloos’d her tether and embark’d.

The moon was up, the Lake was shining clear

Among the hoary mountains; from the Shore

I push’d, and struck the oars and struck again      385

In cadence, and my little Boat mov’d on

Even like a Man who walks with stately step

Though bent on speed. It was an act of stealth

And troubled pleasure; not without the voice

Of mountain-echoes did my Boat move on,                       390

Leaving behind her still on either side

Small circles glittering idly in the moon,

Until they melted all into one track

Of sparkling light. A rocky Steep uprose

Above the Cavern of the Willow tree                                   395

And now, as suited one who proudly row’d

With his best skill, I fix’d a steady view

Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,

The bound of the horizon, for behind

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.                      400

She was an elfin Pinnace; lustily

I dipp’d my oars into the silent Lake,

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat

Went heaving through the water, like a Swan;

When from behind that craggy Steep, till then      405

The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,

As if with voluntary power instinct,

Uprear’d its head. I struck, and struck again

And, growing still in stature, the huge Cliff

Rose up between me and the stars, and still,                  410

With measur’d motion, like a living thing,

Strode after me. With trembling hands I turn’d,

And through the silent water stole my way

Back to the Cavern of the Willow tree.

There, in her mooring-place, I left my Bark,                       415

And, through the meadows homeward went, with grave

And serious thoughts; and after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days, my brain

Work’d with a dim and undetermin’d sense

Of unknown modes of being; in my thoughts        420

There was a darkness, call it solitude,

Or blank desertion, no familiar shapes

Of hourly objects, images of trees,

Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty Forms that do not live                      425

Like living men mov’d slowly through the mind

By day and were the trouble of my dreams.

 

Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!

Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought!

That giv’st to forms and images a breath               430

And everlasting motion! not in vain,

By day or star-light thus from my first dawn

Of Childhood didst Thou intertwine for me

The passions that build up our human Soul,

Not with the mean and vulgar works of Man,        435

But with high objects, with enduring things,

With life and nature, purifying thus

The elements of feeling and of thought,

And sanctifying, by such discipline,

Both pain and fear, until we recognize                   440

A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

The location for this incident is usually identified as Black Crag, west of Ullswater in the English Lake District, Cumbria, which would have been seen behind the nearer ridge, Stybarrow Crag; the ‘huge cliff’ as Glenridding Dod; Mary R. Wedd suggests an alternative site near Blowick; the ‘huge cliff’ would be Place Fell (The Wordsworth Critic, 11 [1980]: 248). 

Stybarrow Crag

Watercolour of Stybarrow Crag by James Barrett (fl. 1785-1819), from the Wordsworth Trust online collection. Their blog at the same site is highly recommended: plenty of useful essays on Romanticism in general, and Wordsworth and his circle in particular.

Rudimentary analysis of this extract at this site.  This site has  an analysis of the extract and a handy pen drawing of the topography of the scene.

The BL site has an interesting illustrated piece on a text by T. H. Fielding and J. Walton, who spent two years in the Lake District making drawings and collecting information and ‘extracts from admired poets’ to produce their magnificent A Picturesque Tour of the English Lakes, Containing a Description of the Most Romantic Scenery of Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Lancashire…(London, 1821). The text and beautiful design and illustrations indicate that this was a book for dedicated tourists wanting to plan informed tours of the area. The book contains forty-eight hand-coloured aquatints made from the original drawings by Fielding and Walton. There are several references to Wordsworth and locations referred to in his poetry, including this boating scene.