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Picture of Virginia Woolf, author of Jacob's Room; twentieth century American Literature

October 27, 1922
Virginia Woolf   (1882 - 1941)
Jacob's Room
by Steve King

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On 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:
    The human soul, it seems to me, orientates itself afresh every now and then. It is doing so now. No one can see it whole, therefore. The best of us catch a glimpse of a nose, a shoulder, something turning away, always in movement. Still, it seems better to me to catch this glimpse, than to sit down with Hugh Walpole, Wells, etc. etc. and make large oil paintings of fabulous fleshy monsters complete from toe to toe.
The critics gave the book qualified praise, though some sided with John Middleton Murry's judgment that her abandonment of conventional story-telling had "brought the novel to an impasse," and that Jacob's Room, like Eliot's The Waste Land -- also 1922, as was Joyce's Ulysses -- would be forgotten in ten or fifty years' time.

This passage from chapter four is of Jacob Flanders swimming off Cornwall, where the Stephens had spent many summers while growing up:
    Strangely enough, you could smell violets, or if violets were impossible in July, they must grow something very pungent on the mainland then. The mainland, not so very far off -- you could see clefts in the cliffs, white cottages, smoke going up -- wore an extraordinary look of calm, of sunny peace, as if wisdom and piety had descended upon the dwellers there. Now a cry sounded, as of a man calling pilchards in a main street. It wore an extraordinary look of piety and peace, as if old men smoked by the door, and girls stood, hands on hips, at the well, and horses stood; as if the end of the world had come, and cabbage fields and stone walls, and coast-guard stations, and, above all, the white sand bays with the waves breaking unseen by any one, rose to heaven in a kind of ecstasy.

    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....

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Related authors:  Aphra Behn, Bertrand Russell, E. M. Forster, Edward Albee, Ephelia, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield, Lytton Strachey, Radclyffe Hall, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Vita Sackville-West
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