Jul

15

"Artists must know that they are understood and that there are ‘Common Readers’ in the background," read a heartbroken letter a devoted refugee reader had intended to send Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882—March 28, 1941) but never did; instead, the note was mailed to her husband Leonard after Virginia’s suicide, exponentially swelling in poignancy. And yet generations of such “common readers” were nursed on Woolf’s singular literary legacy, her elegant acrobatics of language, and her profound care for humanity.

A champion of the creative benefits of keeping a diary, Woolf began writing in her journal long before she was a published author. She finished her first novel, The Voyage Out, shortly after her thirtieth birthday, but was unable to find a publisher. It was eventually released three years later, in 1915, by her half-brother’s imprint, Duckworth Press.

But her major literary breakthrough didn’t arrive until a decade later, with the publication of Mrs. Dalloway in 1925, followed closely by To The Lighthouse in 1927.

Orlando came next, published in 1928 — a parodic fantasy-biography of a young hero who adventures across three centuries and changes genders. The novel was heavily influenced by the life and work of Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf had a short, passionate love affair followed by a close lifelong friendship. Nigel Nicholson, Sackville-West’s son, famously called it “the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which [Virginia] explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.” (Woolf actually did write a magnificent literal love letter to Sackville-West, positively one of the greatest romantic epistles in history.) But the novel was also a clever parody of historical biographies and their cliches. In fact, Woolf was a sharp-witted satirist whose penchant for subtle humor remains underappreciated. As early as 1923, with her greatest work still ahead of her, she teamed up with her teenage nephews on a small family newspaper full of wry humor and charming inside jokes.

Though all of her work to that point carried strong undertones of feminist thought, the 1929 book-length essay A Room of One’s Own gives unequivocal voice to her convictions, exploring above all women’s access to education and the history of women in literature. Indeed, Woolf was a formidable critic and observer of culture, from her prescient essay on the language of the moving image to her timeless meditation on how one should read a book.

In Craftsmanship, a 1937 BBC broadcast that remains the only surviving recording of the author’s voice, the intersection of Woolf’s remarkable eloquence and keen insight reveals itself with magnificent brilliance:

Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations — naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today — that they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages. … Our business is to see what we can do with the English language as it is. How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question.

This ineffable survival-struggle between beauty and death, tragically, permeated more than Woolf’s intellectual relationship with language. On March 28, 1941, shortly after the gruesome onset of WWII, she filled the pockets of her overcoat with rocks, treaded into the River Ouse behind her house in East Sussex, and drowned herself after a debilitating relapse of the all-consuming depression she had narrowly escaped in her youth. Amidst an outpour of grief, the world struggled to come to terms with having lost one of its greatest literary heroes.

But Woolf’s essence and legacy are perhaps best captured in the heartfelt condolence letter Sackville-West sent to Leonard Woolf upon learning of Virginia’s death:

The loveliest mind and spirit I ever knew, immortal both to the world and us who loved her.

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    La fresa de hoy. Happy birthday, Orlando.
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