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Virginia Woolf
Image: Chris Waywell

Where to get started with... Virginia Woolf

Get to grips with the works of legendary authors while in lockdown

By Alexandra Sims
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Virgina Woolf is a glorious enigma. As a feminist, she called for women’s creative liberation in ‘A Room of One’s Own’; as a pioneering modernist, she smashed literary conventions with her stream of consciousness writing style and bent gender politics out of shape (‘Orlando’ was the first gender-shifting trans novel the English canon had ever seen). She was a rebel, creating her own publishing imprint and hand-pressing hundreds of groundbreaking texts with her husband Leonard, a bourgeois socialite galavanting around the pleasure-filled parties of the Bloomsbury Set and falling in love with landscape garden designer Vita Sackville-West. But despite all this, her novels are remarkably chaste; sex is implied but never explicit in her work.

Yet, it’s this multifacetedness that makes her a giant of twentieth-century literature. Her exquisite, painterly writing elevates women’s supposedly ‘trivial’ domestic lives. Her melodic sentences make existences planning dinner parties and arranging flowers as important as that of government officials. Her style is overtly feminine, drawing interior worlds to the fore and making ordinariness extraordinary. Through it, she exposes the oppressive structures of male privilege, all laced with a deep poignancy only someone who has plumbed the darkest mental anguish could reveal. Her novels play with time, emotion and truth. They concentrate on tiny moments and details that slowly shape themselves in overwhelming stories that helped pave the way for more women to take to their rooms and write. Virginia, we stan. 

Get started with: ‘Mrs Dalloway’

When Virginia Woolf first began writing what is now probably her most famous novel she said: ‘I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity [...] I want to criticise the social system, and show it at work, at its most intense.’ And she achieves all this (and more) despite seemingly very little actually happening. In fact, the plot of ‘Mrs Dalloway’ is simple: 52-year-old society woman Clarissa Dalloway runs errands around London, bumps into an old love interest, throws a dinner party and that’s about it from the title character. And somehow the novel perfectly epitomises Woolf’s definitive writing style. The minute details of Clarissa’s life morph into universal truths as her story intertwines around that of Septimus, a WWI veteran stuffing from trauma. In her distinct way, Woolf plays with time and societal structures and seemingly simple objects like clocks and bells take on deep symbolic significance. And if you’re missing the buzz of the city right now, you’ll find some of its ‘bellow and the uproar’ here. It’s perfect. 

If you liked that try: ‘To the Lighthouse’

Woolf’s fifth novel is another tale where nothing and everything happens all at once. Despite a very straightforward plot, centred around a family planning to sail to a lighthouse, Woolf confronts the passing of time, consciousness and pivotal world events through complex shifts in the characters’ stream of consciousness and overlapping memories and experiences. If you want to get closer to Woolf’s own life this is probably the most biographical of her novels, she even described it as an ‘elegy’ for her parents and childhood.  

Still into it? Read: ‘The Waves’

If you really want to experience the sublime, lyrical beauty of Woolf’s writing, ‘The Waves’ has it in spades. Described by the writer as a ‘play-poem’ it follows the internal worlds of six characters from childhood to middle-age as they come to terms with the world around them. All the way through the repetitive, pulsing of waves imbues Woolf’s writing. It requires concentration, but if you’re prepared to commit, it’s an utter beauty to read.

Recommended: Where to get started with... Charles Dickens 

Want to order ‘Mrs Dalloway’? Try one of these London bookshops

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