“And yet the only exciting life is the imaginary one.”
Virginia Woolf, Diary, 21 April 1928
On 25th January, 1882, Adeline Virginia Stephen was born–
into a literary family surrounded by intellectuals, writers, and publishers. The literature on Virginia Woolf often highlights that it is no surprise then reading and writing had always been at the center of Virginia’s life.
Without a doubt, this connection is valid; she was, as anticipated, influenced by her father Leslie Stephen’s literary career, as well as her mother Julia Jackson’s active participation in the arts scene. As biographies on Woolf emphasize, her family’s literary and upper-middle class background played an integral role in the cultivation of her love for literary activities. I can’t help but feel, however, that a love for literature came naturally for her, irrespective of her family history. She was, I feel, simply one of those spirits who innately seek to escape, contemplate, and comprehend this complex yet simple thing called life through literature.
Of course, I have seen several examples of how much further one can go in the field of literature if they were born to an academic family, or an educated family who valued reading. Having been born into a literary family, however, is by no means a prerequisite for a deep love of literature. Yes, you may occasionally feel inadequate if you, unlike some of your peers, don’t discuss Lord Byron’s correspondence from 1788 to 1824, or Salman Rushdie’s latest novel with your parents over Thanksgiving break, but that’s a different story, one I may or may not have experienced. I also may or may not have experienced first-hand that —
if a love for literature was prehumously planted in someone, their family and socioeconomic status are relevant only to an extent. I could be a case in point.
This is by no means a comparison of myself to Virginia Woolf, but while reading her letters and diary, I often paused and thought about why and how literature has become such an intrinsic part of my identity too.
My mother fancied reading theological texts while my father didn’t even enjoy reading. Despite my vehement yet futile efforts to gift them books that I thought would be enticing to them– with such titles as How to Live a Life? and Tips for a Powerful Life: Are You In?— I don’t recall the last time I saw them immersed in a book. Turns out, no, they are not in.
However, their indifference to literature did not deter them from acting as my literary sponsors. Unlike Woolf’s father who was a literary critic and a writer, mine was a talented carpenter. But he’d constantly bring me stacks of books to consume, like the Ömer Seyfettin’s short story collection he bought from the book vendor outside the mosque after the evening prayer and all the books of Jules Verne he borrowed from his librarian friend.
My mother too realized my peculiarity when it came to literature. She would indulge me, albeit reluctantly, when I was immersed in a book, ensconced in my favorite armchair in my room. “Oh, she is just reading, you know how she is,” she would say, with a hint of embarrassment in her voice, when her family and friends visited and inquired about me. Satisfied, I would tuck into my book, knowing now for sure not to anticipate an interruption to say hi to aunts and uncles whom, compared to Tom Sawyer, Heidi’s Peter, and Serra Noyan (if you know, you know), I found dull and predictable. I would continue to find them dull, predictable, and belligerent as their reproachful comments on my weight and how I was too skinny turned into unsolicited advice years later about how I was getting too old to marry and have kids at 33, the two things I have not wished on myself thus far. This is all to say:
a deep-seated love for reading and writing came naturally to me, not because of but, in spite of my upbringing in a suburb of Istanbul where the neighborhood invested not in public libraries, but in tea houses frequented by idle men, and in the construction of more and more mosques that continued to remain empty.
What or who planted this irrevocable love for literature in me still eludes me. I suppose a fascination with intriguing characters and faraway places, a desire to understand the human condition, was somehow baked into my being from an early age. It would later flourish with the help of my close friends in high school with whom I exchanged books. We read anything we could get our hands on: V.C. Andrews, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Maxim Gorky, Charles Dickens, The Bronte Sisters, and more. The only explanation I can muster for why I preferred the company of writers and fictional characters to my peers is this: I, too, was simply one of those spirits who innately revel in escaping, contemplating, and comprehending this complex yet simple thing called life through literature.
And I often thought while reading Woolf’s letters: having inhabited the earth in different centuries yet fighting for our right to be our authentic self and taking refuge in books, could Virginia Woolf and I be “congenial spirits”? The letters in which she made elitist and somewhat racist remarks surely made me second guess this thought, but I found myself drawn to the way in which her writing reflected her deep, abiding love for books. Having read most of her oeuvre, I knew her mastery in capturing the essence of the present moment. What I was set out to learn was, the presence of books brought balance, harmony, and peace into Virginia Woolf’s tumultuous life.
“Writing is a divine art,” she wrote in a letter to Violet Dickinson, “and the more I write and read the more I love it” (25). Elsewhere, she asserted that “Of course, literature is the only spiritual and humane career […] the more you write the nicer you become (113), which in itself was a good enough justification for reading. As she asserted in her essay “How Should One Read a Book” written for The Yale Review (1926):
If the moralists ask us how we can justify our love of reading, we can make use of some such excuse as this. But if we are honest, we know that no such excuse is needed.
It is true that we get nothing whatsoever except pleasure from reading; it is true that the wisest of us is unable to say what that pleasure may be. But that pleasure—mysterious, unknown, useless as it is—is enough.
That pleasure is so curious, so complex, so immensely fertilizing to the mind of anyone who enjoys it, and so wide in its effects, that it would not be in the least surprising to discover, on the day of judgment when secrets are revealed and the obscure is made plain, that the reason why we have grown from pigs to men and women, and come out from our caves, and dropped our bows and arrows, and sat round the fire and talked and drunk and made merry and given to the poor and helped the sick and made pavements and houses and erected some sort of shelter and society on the waste of the world, is nothing but this: we have loved reading.
The human condition, simultaneously terrifying and enigmatic, became decipherable, and perhaps was rendered more meaningful, to Woolf through books. When she was around seventeen, in a letter to her cousin Emma Vaughan, she wrote:
Yesterday we bicycled to Huntingdon- and paid a visit to our relatives. Coming back we forgot all our cares […] in gazing –absorbing–sinking into the Sky. You dont [sic] see the sky until you live here. We have ceased to be dwellers on the earth. We are really made of clouds. We are mystical and dreamy and perform Fugues on the Harmonium. Have you ever read your sister in laws Doges Farm? Well that describes the same sort of country that this is; and you see how she, a person of true artistic soul, revels in the land …I want to read books about it, and to write sonnets about it all day long. It is the only place for rest of mind and body, and for contentment and creamy potatoes and all the joys of life.pp. 5-6
Towards the end of her letter, she told Emma how she coped with the heat: reading. “I am a little cracky this afternoon, it is the hottest day I have yet lived thro,” she wrote, “I have read a whole long novel through; beginning at breakfast this morning and ending at 4 p.m” (6). In another letter mailed to Emma a few years later, she wrote:
The only thing in this world is music–music and books and one or two pictures. I am going to found a colony where there shall be no marrying- unless you happen to fall in love with a symphony of Beethoven–no human element at all, except what comes through Art–nothing but ideal peace and endless meditation.p. 41-2
Books were not only a source of joy for Virginia but also a tool through which she braved mental illness, sexual trauma, and isolation. Both reading and writing, as Phyllis Rose demonstrates in A Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf (1978):
…had been her refuge as a child. She escaped from the emotional turmoil and fitful hypocrisy of downstairs life at Hyde Park Gate to the quiet of her own room, where the authentic life could be lived, the life of the mind. […] Art provided the way of reconciling personal contradictions into harmonious wholes […] It was a way to make use of her internal sense of division.p. 258
I was fortunate enough not to have suffered from any major trauma, but like many book lovers, I know what it means to find solace within literature, shutting yourself up in your room, “read[ing] yourself into peace” as Woolf stresses in another letter. This notion of “shutting herself up” in a room filled with books and music is a recurrent theme in both her diary/letters and novels, a state which ostensibly brought delight, inner peace, and quiet into Woolf’s life. The company the stacks of books offered her was an anti-dote to the exigencies of the outside world. In letter mailed to her friend Violet Dickinson from Cambridge in 1904, she wrote:
It is such a natural thing from an outsiders point of view, that I get only congratulations, and people say how lucky I am, and how glad I ought to be to be out of London. They dont realise that London means my own home, and books, and pictures, and music, from all of which I have been parted since February now,– and I have never spent such a wretched 8 months in life…The only place I can be quiet and free is in my home. [..] I long for a large room to myself, with books and nothing else, where I can shut myself up, and see no one, and read myself into peace.p.16-17
Woolf’s exasperated tone in this particular letter is evident; her father had passed away a few months earlier, and she suffered from a mental breakdown triggered by grief. The space she carved out for herself while reading, writing, and thinking in silence empowered her to make meaning of life, death, illness, and joy. What I find particularly intriguing in this context is this: “shutting herself up” doesn’t appear to imply alienation and seclusion. To the contrary, it seems that confining herself into a room of her own, reading and writing in silence paradoxically allowed her to be more communicative. It was a way of simultaneously being fully present with herself and “retiring from the world without abandoning the hope of communication” (258) as Rose (1978) suggested.
Her novels too reflect the significance of turning inwards for connecting with the self and the outside world. As we well know, Woolf’s fiction broke tradition by reducing traditional elements of a narrative to the periphery, prioritizing instead interiority and silence. The narrative space(s) she constructed in her novels worked to spatialize thoughts through silence.
For instance, in The Waves (1931), Bernard, one of the characters, narrates:
‘This Self now as I lent over the gate looking down over fields rolling in waves of colour beneath me made no answer. He threw up no opposition. He attempted no phrase. His fist did not form. I waited. I listened. Nothing came, nothing. I cried then with a sudden conviction of complete desertion. Now there is nothing. No fin breaks the waste of this immeasurable sea. Life has destroyed me. No echo comes when I speak, no varied words. This is more truly death than the death of friends, than the death of youth. I am the swathed figure in the hairdresser’s shop taking up only so much space.
‘My book, stuffed with phrases, has dropped to the floor. It lies under the table, to be swept up by the charwoman when she comes wearily at dawn looking for scraps of paper, old tram tickets, and here and there a note screwed into a ball and left with the litter to be swept up.
What is the phrase for the moon? And the phrase for love? By what name are we to call death? I do not know.
I need a little language such as lovers use, words of one syllable such as children speak when they come into the room and find their mother sewing and pick up some scrap of bright wool, a feather, or a shred of chintz. I need a howl; a cry. When the storm crosses the marsh and sweeps over me where I lie in the ditch unregarded I need no words. Nothing neat. Nothing that comes down with all its feet on the floor. None of those resonances and lovely echoes that break and chime from nerve to nerve in our breasts, making wild music, false phrases. I have done with phrases.
‘How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself. Do not come and worry me with your hints that it is time to shut the shop and be gone. I would willingly give all my money that you should not disturb me but will let me sit on and on, silent, alone.
The subtle movement in the passage from the exterior– the land, the view, speech– towards the interior –thoughts and the present moment– has a meditative quality like the several scenes in To the Lighthouse (1927) where Mrs. Ramsay repeatedly ponders her need to be by herself:
For now, she need not to think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of–to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated, and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.p.45
Patricia Laurence in Escaping the Alphabet: The Reading of Silence in the Novels of Virginia Woolf (1989) states that pauses, gaps, and interruptions, among many other techniques, serve as the formal devices that convey silence in Woolf’s prose. “They generally mark a suspension of narrative movement” she explains, “by arresting all human speech and with the vocabulary and sensation of ‘sinking,’ move the character and the reader from external reality to internal thoughts” (pp. 54-5).
In this context, it was curious to see the interplay between the external and the internal in Woolf’s life also. A heightened awareness of silence, peace, and the present moment can be detected in Woolf’s letters when she described a day spent in nature and when she discussed books, reading, and writing. In a letter mailed to Clive Bell in 1909 from Cornwall, she wrote:
The life I lead is very nearly perfect. A horrid tone of egoistic joy pervades this sheet I know. What with the silence, and the possibility of walking out, at any moment, over long wonderfully coloured roads to cliffs with the sea beneath, and coming back past lighted windows to one’s tea and fire and book –and then one has thoughts and a conception of the world and moments like a dragon fly in air – with all this I am kept very lively in my head.p. 57
Almost a decade later, in a letter to her friend Lytton Strachey, she captured a precious moment of silence in Cornwall:
One walks out of the window on to the cliff. There are 2 seals bathing in the bay. Two adders curling around my ankles. Gorse, cowries, Cliffs, Choughs, Ravens, Cream, solitude, sublimity and all the rest of it […] We take our books out and lie in the sun; occasionally I say, why aren’t you here?p. 133
The external and internal realities–snakes, birds, hills, flowers, tea, silence, and the sublime– all residing within the same realm harmoniously coexisted in Woolf’s world.
And what more would a writer wish for?
To Woolf, solitude, silence, and peace, it seems, are inextricably intertwined with the acts of reading and writing. Not as a way of regressing per se but as a way of opening up. This notion, I was immediately drawn to while reading her letters.
This concept of opening up and finding your authentic self as a result of confining yourself in a room with books made me feel, for the lack of a better word, understood–which, I realize, sounds too sentimental.
But, really, how many of us, “congenial spirits” are left out there, as Woolf writes in The Voyage Out (1915), “feel[ing] intensely the delights of shutting oneself up in a little world of one’s own, with pictures and music–
and everything beautiful.”
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I will do just that.
I’d love to hear why you think you love reading (and/or) writing! Who/What planted the love of literature for you?