October 18, 2017
Jacob's RoomOn this day in 1922 Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room was published. This was the first full-length book published by the Woolfs' Hogarth Press, with a Post-Impressionistic cover designed by sister Vanessa. Having her own publishing house -- this is literal, as the Woolfs began with a small handpress in their dining room -- meant the freedom to experiment. Shortly before starting the book, Virginia said she was after "a new form for a new novel ... no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen; all crepuscular, but the heart, the passion, the humour, everything as bright as fire in the mist."
The book is a "fictional biography" of Woolf's brother, Thoby Stephen, who had died in 1906 of typhoid, and it was Woolf's first experiment with the style by which she would soon become famous. When she was done, Woolf felt sure of her direction, though not of her achievement: one diary entry expresses confidence "that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice"; another says, "Either I am a great writer or a nincompoop." In a letter that Christmas she reaffirms that her fragmentary, impressionistic, questioning style is right for her, and the times:
This passage from chapter four is of Jacob Flanders swimming off Cornwall, where the Stephens had spent many summers while growing up:
But imperceptibly the cottage smoke droops, has the look of a mourning emblem, a flag floating its caress over a grave. The gulls, making their broad flight and then riding at peace, seem to mark the grave.
No doubt if this were Italy, Greece, or even the shores of Spain, sadness would be routed by strangeness and excitement and the nudge of a classical education. But the Cornish hills have stark chimneys standing on them; and, somehow or other, loveliness is infernally sad. Yes, the chimneys and the coast-guard stations and the little bays with the waves breaking unseen by any one make one remember the overpowering sorrow. And what can this sorrow be?
It is brewed by the earth itself. It comes from the houses on the coast.
We start transparent, and then the cloud thickens. All history backs our pane of glass. To escape is vain.
But whether this is the right interpretation of Jacob's gloom as he sat naked, in the sun, looking at the Land's End, it is impossible to say; for he never spoke a word....
Buy at Amazon
Buy at Barnes & Noble