Virginia Woolf was born on 25 January 1882. She was the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and the wife of Leonard Woolf. Fearing that she was going mad, she weighed her pocket down with a large stone and drowned herself in the River Ouse on 28 March 1941.
She wrote many books, works of non-fiction as well as novels, short stories and essays. I’ve only read a few – Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Kew Gardens (a short story), Flush: a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, and A Room of One’s Own and The Three Guineas (in one volume).
For this Challenge I decided to read The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, a book I bought in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago and have never read. This was originally published in 1942 by Leonard Woolf. Virginia had been getting together essays, which she proposed to publish in the autumn of 1941, or the spring of 1942. She had left behind her many essays, sketches and short stories, some of which had been previously published in newspapers, which he decided were worth republishing and in this book he also included some of those previously unpublished. In an Editorial Note he wrote that the first four essays ‘were written by her, as usual in handwriting and were then typed out in rather a rough state. I have printed them as they stand, except that I have punctuated them and corrected obvious verbal mistakes. I have not hesitated to do this, since I always revised the MSS. Of her books and articles in this way before they were published.’
I am reading these essays very slowly, just one or two a day, letting them sink into my mind as I eat my breakfast. The Death of the Moth is one of the previously unpublished essays. It is very short – just over 3 pages long. So much meaning is packed into these three pages. It is a meditation on the nature of life and death seen through the perspective of a moth. It flies by day, fluttering from side to side of a window pane.
He was little or nothing but life. … there was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life.
As the day progresses the moth tires and falls on his back. He struggles vainly to raise himself. She watches, realising that it is useless to try to do anything to help and ponders the power of death over life: ‘As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder.’
The essays I’ve read so far have a melancholy, sombre tone, considering the nature of the self in Evening Over Sussex, beautiful Sussex facing the sea with its ‘mottled and marbled’ fields‘, and the poignancy of death in Three Pictures and Old Mrs Grey.
Street Haunting: a London Adventure is lighter in mood telling of the pleasures of rambling through the London streets, watching other people and visiting a second-hand bookshop. This description expresses so well the pleasure of browsing among second-hand books:
Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books: they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub shoulders against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.
Also on a more cheerful note is ‘ Twelfth Night’ at the Old Vic (written in 1933), discussing the differences between reading Shakespeare and watching his plays acted on the stage. This seemed so timely to me as I’ve been bemoaning various TV productions of adaptations of books that I have loved reading.
Virginia Woolf expresses it so much better than I ever could. Not only is the scenery upsetting:
The actual persons of Malvolio, Sir Toby, Olivia and the rest expand our visionary characters out of all recognition. At first we are inclined to resent it. You are not Malvolio; or Sir Toby either, we want to tell them; but merely impostors. We sit gaping at the ruins of the play, at the travesty of the play. And then by degrees this same body or rather all the bodies together, take our play and remodel it between them. The play gains immensely in robustness, in solidity. The printed word is changed out of all recognition when it is heard by other people.
She continues to discuss how we begin then to criticise the actors’ performances and compare their versions unfavourably with our own. Still the performance has made us read the play again and whetted our appetite for other performances that are still to come. I felt the same when I saw Twelfth Night last year in Stratford. As I described here the RSC’s performance was not how I read the play. But I think I enjoy the performance of a play more than an adaptation of a book. As Virginia Woolf wrote Shakespeare was writing for the stage. Novels however, are meant to be read and that is why I think I have difficulty accepting a filmed version.
On Wednesday I went to see the film The Golden Compass and reacted mostly as she described in this essay. I thought the setting was good, the acting was fine, but yes Lyra was not my Lyra, Lord Asriel was not my Lord Asriel and so on through all the characters, although Ian McKellen was just right as the voice of Iorek. At the end of the film I felt a sense of anti-climax. The Golden Compass only covers the first of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials and there is so much more in the books than is in the film.
Yet to come in this collection are essays on Henry James, E M Forster, the Art of Biography, Why?, Professions for Women and Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid. I’m not going to rush reading these, but intend to savour every one.