Monthly Archives: June 2016

Wordsworth Editions & Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and ‘The Voyage Out’

patou.jpg

I have mixed feelings about Wordsworth editions of classic texts.

Yay

They are cheap.

They are books.

The spines are standardised and tasteful.

The introductions generally include stimulating, wide-ranging analyses involving detailed, close-reading from experts in their field.

Nay

Footnotes are sparse and selective.

The poetry editions don’t give enough space to individual poems; you might get three different poems appearing on the same page if they’re short enough. White space should be retained, it’s an interpretative matter, dammit. Where the hell am I supposed to write my marginalia? On my phone’s memo pad or something? Hah?!

Cover design is patchy. The Woolf and Mansfield ones had nice art-deco type pieces on their front, but recently they’ve begun using some awful examples of digital art. Just look at this pseudo-photorealistic shitshow.

bad

They’ve done similar things to the Joyce editions, in ways that hurt my heart, so I won’t include an image, suffice it to say that I so much prefer the ones that used to be on the cover of the Wordsworth Finnegans Wake, which features a painting by Markey Robinson. The below image isn’t what’s on the Wake cover, I couldn’t find a version of it online, but it’s from the same series, and the cover could well be a detail from this canvas.

joyce

This brings me to one of the other perhaps dubious choices made by Wordsworth editions, in publishing A Room of One’s Own, an essay based on a series of lectures Woolf gave to female students in Cambridge with her novel The Voyage Out. On the one hand, this is a good thing, and even more cheap, two books for the price of one and all that, but, what are the implications for how we read the texts when they’re sat so close to one another?

Well, it has the consequence of making it seem as though The Voyage Out is a fictionalised re-iteration of what Woolf conveys in the polemic that precedes it. I wouldn’t posit that it actually is, but the essay inevitably operates as a screed through which The Voyage Out is perceived.

The Voyage Out depicts Rachel Vinrace, a sheltered young woman going away from home for the first time with her aunt Helen Ambrose and her husband Ridley. As the narrative develops, Rachel begins to further her own education, under the auspices of her aunt and the wider group of upper-middle class ‘intelligentsia,’ partially modelled, as most of the Woolf novels that I’m familiar with are, on Woolf’s own experiences with the intellectual coterie of the Bloomsbury Group. The Voyage Out’s title is a loaded one; Rachel is travelling outwards in an inner sense, exposing herself to atheism, the abstract ideas of her day, aswell as the more literal voyage to South America.

This metaphorisation of space is also central within A Room of One’s Own; in her introduction to the essay, Sally Minogue points to the ambiguous nature of the word ‘room.’ It is not only an actual physical space, necessary for a female writer in order that she may sit down and write, but alongside this autonomy in the space of the room, there is an implied wider connection with others. A room, after all, must be within a house, which is in turn a metaphor for the wider tradition of female novelists, the Brontës, Eliots and Austens, without whom, Woolf’s writing would never have been possible, as she herself puts it.

The oscillation between being inside or outside the novelistic tradition is significant for Woolf as it becomes a necessity for female novelists to salvage their own tradition. Seeing that they have been silenced or marginalised for so long, they must exert themselves, perhaps to compensate for the lack of a cultural and financial infrastructure that a male novelist may depend on. Woolf senses that this greater imperative on the female novelist brings with it a vitality that seems advantageous.

One might disagree, and see this positive spin on enforced individualism as unhelpful and Woolf would certainly not have been called an ‘ally’ in the contemporary sense. She disapproves of promiscuity, and, references a would-be biographer, Winifred Holtby, daughter of a Yorkshire farmer, as someone who, ‘learnt to read, I’m told, while minding the pigs.’ This snobbishness and disregard for the material circumstances of women of a lower class is an unpleasant feature of Woolf’s writing, and is surprising, considering that A Room of One’s Own advocates for wider access to education for women.

This political myopia is attributable to Woolf’s aesthetic concerns, as she disliked materiality or political beliefs making themselves clear in a writer’s work. She preferred instead the notion that through art, the material may be transcended, which is ironic considering how informed her work is by her own social position; Woolf is probably the standard bearer of the English fin de siècle bourgeois class. Her own background, her material advantages seems, in this ideological position, to have been rendered invisible to her. The material condition of the lower classes is what she objects to. The disabled, too. She doesn’t like them either.

What are we to make of the fact that Rachel Vinrace dies, spoiler alert? In the Victorian novels that I’ve been unfortunate enough to read, death is often used to reinforce conservative moralising, one thinks of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of d’Urbervilles, Madame Bovary, for instance, but in the case of The Voyage Out, Woolf may be protesting this usage of death for political ends. She is not, unfortunately, protesting how protracted these affairs are when they are rendered, but the language in which these are conveyed. Woolf’s style becomes mechanistically descriptive and neutral: (“The second day did not differ much from the first day, except that ther bed had become very important, and the world outside, when she tried to think of it, appeared distinctly further off.”) not sentimental, as one finds in the ghastly death scene, one of many, in Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son:

“Yes, yes. No other stranger would have shed those tears at sight of him, and called him her dear boy, her pretty boy, her own poor blighted child.

‘Remember Walter, dear Papa,’ he whispered, looking in his face. ‘Remember Walter. I was fond of Walter!’ The feeble hand waved in the air, as if it cried ‘good-bye!’ to Walter once again.”

Rachel’s fever makes her inchoate and delirious; making her incapable of such indulgent faffery in her last moments. What is being critiqued here is Rachel’s failure to not get married, so soon after having achieved a degree autonomy. She merely exchanges one sequence of patriarchal variables for another in choosing to marry Hirst.

I’m not sure I find this entirely convincing. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf castigates herself for being overly attentive to material conditions, and, from what I’ve said so far, the ridiculousness of her assertion should be pretty clear, for both texts. There is obviously no other choice for a woman seeking to live independently, other than coming into large amounts of money through an inheritance. This is to leave aside the thin nature of the relationship’s development, the Proustian social comedy veers into Restoration farce as Rachel and Hirst are uncertain whether they love or loathe one another, whether marriage is the best or the worst idea, then find all of a sudden that they are very much in love, but only when they’re not speaking; when they do dialogue, they are mostly bickering and bristly with one another.

Hey, maybe it is realistic after all.

Advertisements

Benjamin Clementine’s Untitled Ode to Cavan and Kevin Barry’s ‘Beatlebone’

During an encore to a gig in the Olympia Theatre, Benjamin Clementine expressed a desire to live in Ireland in order to develop his understanding of Irish folk music. Dublin wouldn’t hold much interest for him though. Throughout the evening, having dealt with an intermittently attentive and somewhat rude audience, he realised he’d prefer to live somewhere more remote. The suggestions from the crowd came almost immediately.

Someone yelled up ‘Waterford!’ which got a laugh, as a Dublin audience getting reminded of other counties without warning can often be induced to guffaw. Another audience member warned him against living in Cavan, but however the acoustics in the theatre work, Clementine took Cavan as a suggestion also, making clear that he preferred the sound of it, to the ‘scary’ sounding Waterford. He then began musing on his pastoral Cavan idyll, picking out a few sparse notes and chords on the piano while singing and talking through some lyrics. Anything related to Waterford tended to be accompanied by the bass end of the keyboard, whereas Cavan, with its ‘pigs, cows and precipitation’ (‘rain’ didn’t quite ring correctly) was accompanied by more uplifting, higher notes.

This escape to the more remote parts of Ireland has a long history, as part of the communal living experiments practiced by those participants in the Age of Aquarius, as the character of ‘John,’ an analogue for John Lennon that appears in Kevin Barry’s novel Beatlebone, realises when he, wrestling with angst, depression, restlessness, fatigue, etc, attempts to escape to a remote island he bought, called Dorinish, off the coast of County Mayo.

Many ‘back-to-the-land’ intentional communities took to the West of Ireland in the sixties and seventies. Accounts of this bohemia emerge fleetingly in Edna O’Brien’s In the Forest, by the bye, and many of them thrived, enduring as pragmatic and solvent communities driven by the hard work and dedication of its members. John’s fictional journey to Dorinish, with the help of the local Cornelius O’Grady, is analogous to the impulse of the stereotypical would-be communal liver, a desire to reject ‘society,’ escape into the wilderness and rid himself of residual emotional baggage from his childhood via primal scream therapy, in typical Freudian fashion.

Very few remote parts of Ireland remain to be escaped to in 1978, especially when the British gutter press is trailing him. John encounters plenty of the locals in a pub, the residua of a primal scream-based commune called ‘Black Atlantis’ and a talking seal from Formby. John isn’t terribly successful in purging himself of everything that he might wish to, perhaps subverting the notion that isolating oneself from society and curing oneself through self-reflection is viable.

John spends some time with the Black Atlantis commune and adopts their therapeutic methodology, by getting ‘the rants on,’ removing the filter that would normally discourage one from speaking one’s true thoughts on someone else, or even reaching for nasty, negative things to say, with the rationale that they’re better expressed than repressed:

“SUE . . . all you want is others to give, give, give and justify all you’ve fucking done and said and you want us to say oh John, John, all your choices were the right choices, John and you didn’t want to hurt nobody never but the truth is you’re a fucking sell-out, John, and you’re a liar, John, and you’re just suck-suck-suck, it’s everybody else’s energy you feed on, John….”

This section goes on at some length, with no narrative interpolations, just stage directions, of a sort, in italics, depriving us of a hold on John’s thoughts, the interiority that indirectly colours the narration in other parts of the novel, giving our viewpoint an immediacy, as if the reader were participating in the process. The utilisation of the formal structure of a play within a novel comes from Ulysses and in a similar way to the ‘Circe’ episode in which this happens, we feel as though John’s character may be on trial, but in a synthetic, performative sense. The members of the commune seem to be reaching for subject matter to irk John with. When the break does happen, and John’s sarcastic, defensiveness disintegrates, it also seems synthetic, and not addressing the root cause of whatever his issues may be:

“JOHN Do you really want to know what I am? Do you? Well I’ll tell you exactly what I fucking am. I’m fucking anxiety. And I’m fucking lust. And I’m a fucking booze hound and I’m a fucking dope fiend or I was and I’m a fucking sad sentimental Scouse sentimental bastard…I want to scrape his peasant fucking eyes or what’s left of em from the sockets of his skeleton head and tear his fucking bones apart with me fucking teeth or what’s left of his fucking bones.”

It’s visceral dialogue, but I think that’s most important to derive from it, if you’re in deriving form, is to regard its excess, rather than see it as a breakthrough moment. When the press do find John, not necessarily on Dorinish, but on one of many islands he finds similar enough for his purposes, he slips right back into his media-playing persona, adeptly having them hanging on his pseudo-profound verbiage:

“Any follow-ups, gents? Any further enquiries? A little more Manley Hopkins? Certainly. Blue-bleak embers shall fall, gall themselves and gash gold-vermillion. He was a fucking laugh, wasn’t he? Good night, gentlemen. Safe home the sea road.”

Amidst all this, and there’s no shortage of extended, semi-sensical rambles of the sort in Beatlebone, there’s the following: “Nature? I’ve had my fill of it, gents. Turns out it’s all an illusion. Pull the fucking drapes back and it’ll disappear.” Barry has spoken on the inevitability of the Irish writer’s lyrical response to the landscape, and how easy it can be to lapse into the extolling virtues of the scenic mode, but in Beatlebone, you can see Barry resisting it. At a number of points, there are references to the night moving around John, or enfolding him, in an almost sinister way. Nature isn’t facilitating John’s flight from himself, ‘ he is very much the John he is when he sets out for Dorinish as he is when he significantly, fails to complete the journey.

That said, I hope Clementine does move to Cavan. The bleakness of the landscape could hardly do his next record harm, and seeing someone of Ghanaian descent re-invent Irish folk, because you know he would, would be class.

Beatlebone is also very good.

Margaret Drabble reads Katherine Mansfield

Margaret Drabble reads a short story by Katherine Mansfield about class and how cruel children can be. The ending made me feel things.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2010/dec/07/margaret-drabble-katherine-mansfield