Moments of Being: Listen to the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf
07.06.2013
03:32 pm

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Virginia Woolf


 

“Words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.”

Virginia Woolf discusses words, language and writing in this the only surviving recording of her voice.

Originally broadcast for a programme entitled Words Fail Me, by BBC Radio, on April 29th, 1937. Woolf’s almost regal pronunciation can be heard reading her essay on “Craftsmanship,” which was later published in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942).

The transcript of this broadcast can be found here.
 

 
H/T Art Is Now

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
The Cook’s Story: An extract from the Journal of Katherine Mansfield, 1919

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Virginia Woolf was never sure of Katherine Mansfield. She thought she was a literary rival, someone to be wary of, not quite trusted, and never to be fooled by her appearance, especially those big brown eyes, the severe bangs in a line across her forehead, her school marmish uniform, or the way she sat crossed-legged and drank tea out of bowls. Mansfield frightened Virginia, and it was only after Katherine’s early death in 1923 (a hemorrhage caused by running up a flight of stairs), and the subsequent publication of her journal, did Woolf see that Katherine Mansfield wasn’t a rival but her own distinct and brilliant talent.

Mansfield’s journal contained a heartbreaking tales of hardship, poverty, and debilitating illness. Woolf was shocked that Katherine had achieved so much against such very terrible odds. Virginia noted in her own journal how she would think about Katherine for the rest of her days. She did more than that, Woolf was directly influenced by Mansfield’s Modernist short stories and tried her own hand at Modernism with Mrs Dalloway, To the LIghthouse, The Waves and Between the Acts.

Mansfield’s Journal contained many short notes, ideas, descriptions and oblique details of her life - situations were often ill-defined, people disguised by initials, and important events missing - she destroyed much. Originally, the Journal had been edited for publication by John Middleton Murry, her indifferent husband and part-time lover, who literally abandoned Mansfield at the time of her greatest need. It was for him that she ran up those fatal stairs. Murry was a selfish, ineffectual and weak man, who exploited others to maintain a fantasy of his own genius - his books are lifeless, poorly written and dull. Woolf saw through him, and this may have clouded her judgment on Mansfield.

That’s the unfortunate thing about relationships, too often individuals can be limned by their other half. Mansfield was fiesty, brilliantly intelligent, and a very real talent, compared to Murry’s straw man.

There is a story in the Journal which is heartbreaking, and sad. And though not really about Mansfield, it in part mirrors something about the worst parts of relationships. Where Katherine suffered Murry’s damning indifference and torturous infidelities, the Cook of this tale suffered in a more brutal way.

I want to share it, because I think we can often judge too quickly, and too harshly, without ever knowing how another lives.

The Cook.

The cook is evil. After lunch I trembled so that I had to lie down on the sommier - thinking about her. I meant - when she came up to see me - to say so much that she’d have to go. I waited, playing with the wild kitten. When she came, I said it all, and she said how sorry she was and agreed and apologised and quite understood. She stayed at the door, plucking at a d’oyley. “Well, I’ll see it doesn’t happen in future. I quite see what you mean.”

So the serpent slept between us. Oh! why won’t she turn and speak her mind. This pretence of being fond of me! I believe she thinks she is. There is something in what L.M. says: she is not consciously evil. She is a FOOL, of course. I have to do all the managing and all the explaining. I have to cook everything before she cooks it. I believe she thinks she is a treasure…no, wants to think it. At bottom she knows her corruptness. There are moments when it comes to the surface, comes out, like a stain, in her face. Then her eyes are like the eyes of a woman-prisoner - a creature looking up as you enter her cell and saying: ‘If you’d known what a hard life I’ve had you wouldn’t be surprised to see me here.’

[This appears again in the following form.]

Cook to See Me.

As I opened the door, I saw her sitting in the middle of the room, hunched, still…She got up, obedient, like a prisoner when you enter a cell. And her eyes said, as a prisoner’s eyes say, “Knowing the life I’ve had, I’m the last to be surprised at finding myself here.”

The Cook’s Story.

Her first husband was a pawnbroker. He learned his trade from her uncle, with whom she lived, and was more like her big brother than anything else from the age of thirteen. After he had married her they prospered. He made a perfect pet of her - they used to say. His sisters put it that he made a perfect fool of himself over her. When their children were fifteen and nine he urged his employers to take a man into their firm - a great friend of his - and persuaded them; really went security for this man. When she saw the man she went all over cold. She said, Mark me, you’ve not done right: no good will come of this. But he laughed it off. Time passed: the man proved a villain. When they came to take stock, they found all the stock was false: he’d sold everything. This preyed on her husband’s mind, went on preying, kept him up at night, made a changed man of him, he went mad as you might say over figures, worrying. One evening, sitting in the chair, very late, he died of a blood clot on the brain.

She was left. Her big boy was old enough to go out, but the little one was still not more than a baby: he was so nervous and delicate. The doctors had never let him go to school.

One day her brother-in-law came to see her and advised her to sell up her home and get some work. All that keeps you back, he said, is little Bert. Now, I’d advise you to place a certain sum with your solicitor for him and put him out - in the country. He said he’d take him. I did as he advised. But, funny! I never heard a word from the child after he’d gone. I used to ask why he didn’t write, and they said, when he can write a decent letter you shall have it - not before. That went on for twelvemonth, and I found afterwards he’d been writing all the time, grieving to be taken away. He’d done the most awful things - things I couldn’t find you a name for - he’d turned vicious - he was a little criminal! What his uncle said was I’d spoiled him, and he’d beaten him and half starved him and when he was frightened at night and screamed, he turned him out into the New Forest and made him sleep under the branches. My big boy went down to see him. Mother, he says, you wouldn’t know little Bert. He can’t speak. He won’t come near anybody. He starts off if you touch him; he’s like a wild beast. And, oh dear, the things he’d done! Well, you hear of people doing those things before they’re put in orphanages. But when I heard that and thought it was the same little baby his father used to carry into Regent’s Park bathed and dressed of a Sunday morning - well, I felt my religion was going from me.

I had a terrible time trying to get him into an orphanage. I begged for three months before they would take him. Then he was sent to Bisley. But after I’d been to see him there, in his funny clothes and all - I could see ‘is misery. I was in a nice place at the time, cook to a butcher in a large way in Kensington, but that poor child’s eyes - they used to follow me - and a sort of shivering that came over him when people went near.

Well, I had a friend that kept a boarding house in Kensington. I used to visit her, and a friend of hers, a big well-set-up fellow, quite the gentleman, an engineer who worked in a garage, came there very often. She used to joke and say he wanted to walk me out. I laughed it off till one day she was very serious. She said, You’re a very silly woman. He earns good money; he’d give you a home and you could have your little boy. Well, he was to speak to me next day and I made up my mind to listen. Well, he did, and he couldn’t have put it nicer. I can’t give you a house to start with, he said, but you shall have three good rooms and teh kid, and I’m earning good money and shall have more.

A week after, he come to me. I can’t give you any money this week, he says, there’s things to pay for from when I was single. But I daresay you’ve got a bit put by. And I was a fool, you know, I didn’t think it funny. Oh yes, I said, I’ll manage. Well, so it went on for three weeks. We’d arranged not to have little Bert for a month because , he said, he wanted me to himself, and he was so fond of him. A big fellow, he used to cling to me like a child and call me mother.

After three weeks was up I hadn’t a penny. I’d been taking my jewels and best clothes to put away to pay for him until he was straight. But one night I said, Where’s my money? He just up and gave me such a smack in the face I thought my head would burst. And that began it. Every time I asked for money he beat me. As I said, I was very religious at the time, used to wear a crucifix under my clothes and couldn’t go to bed without kneeling by the side and saying my prayers - no, not even the first week of my marriage. Well, I went to a clergyman and told him everything and he said, My child, he said, i am very sorry for you, but with God’s help, he said, it’s your duty to make him a better man. You say your first husband was so good. Well, perhaps God has kept this trial for you until now. I went home - and that very night he tore my crucifix off and hit me on the head when I knelt down. He said he wouldn’t have me say my prayers; it made him wild. I had a little dog at the time I was very fond of, and he used to pick it up and shout, I’ll teech it to say its prayers, and beat it before my eyes - until - well, such was the man he was.

Then one night he came in the worse for drink and fouled the bed. I couldn’t stand it. I began to cry. he gave me a hit on the ear and I feel down, striking my head on the fender. When I came to, he was gone. I ran out into the street just as I was - I ran as fast as I could, not knowing where I was going—just dazed—my nerves were gone. And a lady found me and took me to her home and I was there three weeks. And after that I never went back. I never even told my people. I found work, and not till months after I went to see my sister. Good gracious! she says, we all thought you were murdered! And I never see him since…

Those were dreadful times. I was so ill, I could scarcely hardly work and of course I couldn’t get my little boy out. He had grown up in it. And so I hard to start all over again. I had nothing of his, nothing of mine. I lost it all except my marriage lines. Somehow I remembered them just as I was running out that night and put them in my boddy - sort of an instinct as you might say.

An edited version of Journal of Katherine Mansfield is available here, and her brilliant Collected Short Stories are available here and here. A documentary on Katherine Mansfield’s life can be viewed here.
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Dear Me: Diaries and those who keep them

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It’s around this time that the enthusiasm started almost a month ago begins to wane, and the pages of the diary remain blank, as days dissolve into weeks. Keeping a diary is hard work, but it is rewarding work. If you’ve started a diary and want a little encouragement to keep going, or even just to start writing, then here is a personal selection of diary and journal writers, who may inspire.
 
Sylvia Plath kept a diary throughout her life, which reveals a world beyond her poetry. Here is Sylvia setting out on her adventures as a writer, from November 13th 1949.

As of today I have decided to keep a diary again - just a place where I can write my thoughts and opinions when I have a moment. Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being seventeen. Every day is so precious I feel infinitely sad at the thought of all this time melting farther and farther away from me as I grow older. Now, now is the perfect time of my life.

In reflecting back upon these last sixteen years, I can see tragedies and happiness, all relative - all unimportant now - fit only to smile upon a bit mistily.

I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will. But I feel free – unbound by responsibility, I still can come up to my own private room, with my drawings hanging on the walls…and pictures pinned up over my bureau. It is a room suited to me – tailored, uncluttered and peaceful…I love the quiet lines of the furniture, the two bookcases filled with poetry books and fairy tales saved from childhood.
At the present moment I am very happy, sitting at my desk, looking out at the bare trees around the house across the street… Always want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.

 
Playwright Joe Orton filled his diaries with his sexual escapades, and vignettes of the strangeness of the world, from January 18th 1967.

On the bus going home I heard a most fascinating conversation between an old man and woman. “What a thing, though,” the old woman said. “You’d hardly credit it.” “She’s always made a fuss of the whole family, but never me,” the old man said. “Does she have a fire when the young people go to see her?” “Fire?” “She won’t get people seeing her without warmth.” “I know why she’s doing it. Don’t think I don’t,” the old man said. “My sister she said to me, ‘I wish I had your easy life.’ Now that upset me. I was upset by the way she phrased herself. ‘Don’t talk to me like that,’ I said. ‘I’ve only got to get on the phone and ring a certain number,’ I said, ‘to have you stopped.’” “Yes,” the old woman said, “And you can, can’t you?” “Were they always the same?” she said. “When you was a child? Can you throw yourself back? How was they years ago?” “The same,” the old man said. “Wicked, isn’t it?” the old woman said. “Take care, now” she said, as the old man left her. He didn’t say a word but got off the bus looking disgruntled.

 
More diaries from Jack Kerouac, Emily Carr, John Cheever, and Andy Warhol, after the jump…
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Patti Smith reads Virginia Woolf

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Virginia Woolf put stones in her pocket, left home, and walked out into the River Ouse. It was March 28th 1941.

Drowning isn’t the easiest of deaths, it can take up to 7 minutes. We can pretend and romanticize it as much as we want, but it was not an easy death.

In January 1941, Woolf had dropped into depression, she wrote in her diary:

January 26th 1941

“A battle against depression…I think, of memoir writing.  This trough of despair shall not, I swear, engulf me.”

Then 3 weeks before she took her own life:

Sunday March 8th 1941

“I intend no introspection.  I mark Henry James’ sentence: observe perpetually.  Observe the oncome of age.  Observe greed.  Observe my own despondency.  By that means it becomes serviceable.  Or so I hope.  I insist upon spending this time to the best advantage.  I will go down with my colours flying.”

Woolf fought. Woolf struggled. Woolf lost. Or, rather we lost. In a note to her husband Leonard, she wrote:

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ‘til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

The fear of madness had always been there, and once described her nervous breakdown:

“My own brain -

“Here is the whole nervous breakdown in miniature. We came on Tuesday. Sank into a chair, could scarcely rise; everything insipid; tasteless, colorless. Enormous desire for rest. 

“Wednesday - only wish to be alone in the open air.  Air delicious - avoided speech; could not read. Thought of my own power of writing with veneration, as of something incredible, belonging to someone else; never again to be enjoyed by me. Mind a blank. Slept in my chair. 

“Thursday.  No pleasure in life whatsoever; but felt perhaps more attuned to existence.  Character and idiosyncrasy as Virginia Woolf completely sunk out.  Humble and modest.  Difficulty in thinking what to say. Read automatically, like a cow chewing cud. Slept in chair. 

“Friday : sense of physical tiredness;  but slight activity of the brain.  Beginning to take notice.  Making one or two plans.  No power of phrase-making.  Difficulty in writing to Lady Colefax.  Saturday (today) much clearer and lighter.  Thought I could write, but resisted and found it impossible. 

“A desire to read poetry set in on Friday.  This brings back a sense of my own individuality.  Read some dante and Bridges, without troubling to understand, but got pleasure from them.  Now I begin to wish to write notes, but not yet a novel.  But today scenes quickening.  No ‘making up’ power yet: no desire to cast scenes in my book.  Curiosity about literature returning; want to read Dante, Havelock Ellis and Berlioz autobiography; also to make a looking glass with shell frame.  These processses have sometimes been spread over weeks.”

Even at its worst, Woolf’s desire for creativity, to create, to write, to survive, never weakened.

Monday October 25th (First day of winter time)

“Why is life so tragic; so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss.  I look down; I feel giddy; I wonder how I am ever to walk to the end.  But why do I feel this: Now that I say it I don’t feel it.  The fire burns; we are going to hear the Beggar’s Opera.  Only it lies about me; I can’t keep my eyes shut.  It’s a feeling of impotence; of cutting no ice. 

Here I sit at Richmond, and like a lantern stood in the middle of a field my light goes up in the darkness.  Melancholy diminishes as I write.  Why then don’t I write down oftener?  Well, one’s vanity forbids.  I want to appear a success even to myself.  Yet I don’t get to the bottom of it.  It’s having no children, living away from friends, failing to write well, spending too much on food, growing old.  I think too much of whys and wherefores; too much of myself.  I don’t like time to flap around me. 

Well, then, work.  Yes, but I so soon tire of work - can’t read more than a little, an hour’s writing is enough for me. Out here no one comes in to waste time pleasantly.  If they do, I’m cross.  The labour of going to London is too great.  Nessa’s children grow up, and I can’t have them to tea, or go to the Zoo.  Pocket money doesn’t allow of much.  Yet I’m persuaded that these are trivial things; it’s life itself, I think sometimes, for us in our generation so tragic - no newspaper placard without its shriek of agony from someone.  McSwiney this afternoon and violence in Ireland; or it’ll be the strike. 

Unhappiness is everywhere; just beyond the door; or stupidity, which is worse.  Still I don’t pluck the nettle out of me.  To write Jacob’s Room again will revive my fibres, I feel. Evelyn is due; but I don’t like what I write now.  And with it all how happy I am - if it weren’t for my feeling that it’s a strip of pavement over an abyss.


On March 28 2008, Patti Smith read a selection of interpretations from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, creating an abstract impression of the writer. As Patti explained in an interview with Sean O’Hagan:

‘Virginia wrote The Waves for her brother, Toby. I think that’s part of the reason I chose to read from it. I feel very comfortable in those areas. I feel comfortable with her clawing her insides out to express her grief about her brother. I feel very comfortable when she writes about looking in the mirror and seeing the gaunt, greying face of her dying mother and also feeling strong and OK about that. Maybe that’s why I didn’t come to her work until late in life. I hadn’t gone though enough before to understand what she had to offer as a person and as an artist.’

Patti Smith is “waving to Virginia”, with accompaniment from her daughter, Jesse Smith on piano.
 

 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion