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Haunted By Virginia Woolf

Discovering my literary self

To the lighthouse

I can’t say Virginia Woolf was an icon as I was growing up. In fact, she was rather a closed book, in all senses. Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë — it was they who created the worlds I could inhabit, worlds of love and longing and female displacement, wild worlds of running across moors or hiding behind curtains, that I felt I belonged to. Or Jane Austen’s stifling worlds of drawing rooms and decorum, tight-knit community, misunderstandings, enforced containment, with the burning hope, perennial, of being able to assert oneself, discover one’s better nature, and escape.

Mrs Dalloway came into my possession when I was about thirteen, and I was too young for it. It wasn’t until I read it again, a decade later, that the quickfire twists and turns in consciousness, the dizzying shifts in narrative view, began to make sense.

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer's men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning —fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

Bang! In the reader is plunged — but to what? With whom? And why? And where? A very different world, this, from the leisurely perambulations of Austen’s opening to Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’

It struck me with considerable force that these different ways of writing represented very different ways of looking at life — as well as very different senses of what writing is, and how it should communicate. Austen opened a door for me into a world of moving, breathing people going about their business. A wonderful world, rich, varied and wholly enterable. With Woolf the ‘camera’ – what I saw and experienced – was based near to, or inside, somebody’s head. It didn’t present me with a scene or a fact or an action. It was an impression, a glimpse, a flitting butterfly of somebody’s consciousness. ‘The moment of importance came not here but there’, Woolf was to write later. And then: ‘Life is not a series of gig-lamps […]; [it] is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end’. This was how I understood ‘being’ to be. Brought up in the deep country of rural Monmouthshire, an isolated child and introspective, the fall of a leaf, the filigree of a spider’s web, the shadow of a cloud, all this was imprinted on my brain, not something I observed from the outside but something I inhabited and which inhabited me. The boundaries, in other words, between ‘out there’ and ‘in here’ were always permeable.

As I grew older, my acquaintance with Woolf broadened and deepened. We had so much in common. Her mother died when she was thirteen — just like my mother. She was ‘interfered with’ (as the saying used to be) by a family member. She was shy and didn’t know what to do at parties. She loved St Ives, was intimately acquainted with Carbis Bay where my family spent the last holiday we were ever to have, by the sea, together. When I went to Carbis Bay quite recently there was a peculiar sense of double vision: the ghosts of those old times, mine and Woolf’s, mixed and mingled. They paced those flat sands and those running wavelets like simulacra. I could almost have reached out and taken Woolf, or my mother, by the hand.

The relation between life and art is complex and sometimes you only get to see connections in retrospect. I discovered much later that Wales, the country of my own birth, held a special place in Woolf’s creation of herself as a writer. On 3 September 1922 she recalls in her diary that it was ‘at Manorbier aged 21, walking the down on the edge of the sea’ that the ‘vision came to me more clearly’ than it ever had done before, of the kind of writer she wanted to be. And in a letter to Clive Bell, 19 August 1908, on her second visit to Manorbier, she tells him: ‘I think a great deal of my future, and settle what book I am to write — how I shall re-form the novel and capture multitudes of things at present fugitive, enclose the whole, and shape infinite strange shapes.’

Infinite strange shapes. Here was the core of what Woolf was, and I had a compulsion to make it mine. Her method at once intrigued and challenged me. I knew she’d been influenced by the post-Impressionists, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso. I knew that, on seeing the first post-impressionist exhibition in London she’d written the famous words ‘On or about December 1910, human character changed’. Character was to be revealed in the flick of a wrist, the blink of an eyelid. Story was there to be constructed by the reader from hints, guesses, intimations, distortions.

This chimed with something deep at the heart of my writerly self. I’d started off as a (not very good) poet, and had never been weaned from the method of juxtaposition rather than explanation. And so, more and more, I inhabited her character in those far-off days and that far-away place (Manorbier, even the sound of it was alluringly exotic); that place at the edge of the land where she sat, pen in hand, watching ‘the flapping of a red admiral who has come in’ and outside, ‘Rain all day, storms at night, and such a croaking in the swamp as sends all the dreams away’. I saw how she used that croaking as a central motif in her first novel, The Voyage Out, to stand for the inarticulacy of human communication, the need to reach beyond language to make oneself understood. That resonated with me, still the shy child living in my head, but desperate to make herself heard via words on the page. And here my own method was born, perhaps: to reach, like Woolf, beyond words, as Beethoven tried in his last quartets to reach beyond music. It was what the language suggested that mattered — not exactly what it said. No black and white signposts. No right and wrong. Indirection, allusion, nuance, these became the watchwords for me — borrowed from Woolf via transformative Manorbier but appropriated and transmuted as my own voice.

The need to take Woolf’s stay in Manorbier into my own work became more and more pressing. When I thought of her spending time under the shadow of that brooding castle overlooking the bay; when I found that she had written ‘one hundred pages’ of her first novel there in 1908; when I realised there were ten ‘lost days’ around that stay, that didn’t seem to be accounted for in letters or diaries; and when I then saw she’d gone on a spiritual retreat (a spiritual retreat? Woolf was an atheist!) immediately afterwards — I knew there was a story right there which was intertwined with my story. Our paths crossed somehow in the firmament (or so I wanted to believe).

I made those paths cross in one of my novels. It happened by accident but grew imaginatively, a kind of haunting. She became a central character in a story that transcended time and space — and factual ‘truth’ too. I caused her to do things undocumented, unimagined even, in all accounts of her life so far. I gave her a relationship, a passionate encounter, with a figure from history who did not exist. I bestowed on the young Woolf, Adeline Virginia Stephen as she was, a child, a daughter, such as was never to come to her. I caused her path to intersect with the path of a grandmother (my own) who was in want of a daughter. I engineered an adoption, the kind of informal arrangement you could have then, and so brought into being a fictionalised version of my own mother, as illicit offspring of Virginia Woolf. I brought Woolf, in short, into the family of my own characters, made her at one with the world in my head, made her kith and kin in actuality, brought into being a make-believe world where past and present, reality and imagination, art and life were no longer divided. This was the nearest I could get to possessing Woolf and making manifest the idea of writerly and artistic inheritance.

Nineteen years after she left Manorbier Woolf published To the Lighthouse, her own intensely autobiographical account of her family-equivalent on holiday on a windswept coast with a lighthouse baldly visible in the near distance. ‘I used to think of [my father] & mother daily […] I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily […] but writing The Lighthouse laid them in my mind.’ The disquieting memories of her mother and father, which had haunted her ever since their untimely deaths, had ceased. She could rest easy. I can’t say my own obsessions have ceased, and as to resting easy — what writer ever does so? But I can say that being haunted by Woolf continues to sustain me and ignite my writerly imagination. Sometimes she’s there at my elbow, I swear it. How do I know? Through a moment of being, the merest flick of a wrist.

Clare Morgan is a fiction writer and literary critic. Her novel A Book for All and None was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and her short story collections, Scar Tissue and An Affair of the Heart, by Seren. Her stories have been widely anthologized and broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

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