Virginia Woolf was born and raised during the turn of the 20th century. This is a period in writing history known for rule-breaking and new-ground-covering. Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce are the trademark “modernists,” writers who experimented with form and substance to completely break the trends set by Victorian writers like the Brontes, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope.
You’ve heard the terms associated with these modernist guys, I’m sure. Terms like ‘stream-of-conciousness’. Chapter breaks were often eliminated, or indicated shifts in the entire genre of the piece–Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway has zero breaks and Joyce whips from narrative to drama to poetry in Ulysses, for a couple examples. These styles were considered simultaneously amazing and discombobulating. (Even today a lot of readers scratch their heads and wonder what the fuck these writers were thinking/drinking.)
An interesting result of this stylization, at least for this reader, is that the voice of these stories always sounds young. Wild. Out of the ordinary. Somehow I always picture a younger writer writing this stuff–after all, who else could be so unconventional, if not the young?
Well, a piece of perspective that (I think) is forgotten a little too easily is this: modern writers are the children of Queen Victoria’s reign. Propriety. Family. Structure. Empire. Woolf is a very rebellious writer, but she didn’t grow up in a a wild and crazy home life. It’s very hard to remember when I’m reading her work that she is of my great-grandmother’s generation–the generation of homemakers with dozens of children.
Because she learned control, propriety, and structure from the literature that surrounded her, the ‘wildness’ (which some readers find tedious, in all honesty; there’s only so much streaming that people can take) is tempered. She could ‘break’ the rules because she knew the rules. Her innovation, while seemingly unrelated to the gigantic volumes of Victorian literature, is reigned in so tightly that the words almost squeak. Every word, every comma, every piece of white space is carefully and meaningfully constructed. Nothing is out of place.
I didn’t have a great appreciation for Woolf’s time period until I heard the only known recording of Virginia Woolf’s speaking voice. It sounds exactly like I imagine a proper English grandmother would speak. This didn’t jive with the literary voice I hear in my head as I read Woolf’s work. It made me rethink how I evaluate what I’m reading; it seems more complete to me now.
Please check this out and see if it doesn’t shift whatever preconceptions you may have regarding her work. Wild? Yes, she definitely is. A veritable crazed rock-star of literature. But this woman knew her craft, knew her technique–and knew what effect it was supposed to have.