Truth in Fiction

Robert Gulliver Cover pic

In his unpublished novel, Gulliver’s Travels, the writer Michael K Freundt* tackles this notion of truth in fiction. His protagonist, a young writer, Robert Gulliver, takes over his mother’s work after she dies suddenly. Edith McGowan was a novelist, an agoraphobic, and not a very good wife and mother who only lived for the books she wrote, published, and sold on-line: a series of novels about a free-lance psychologist called Veronica.

Up until her death Robert had been helping her with her research and increasingly writing scenes and even full chapters; so much so that when she died it didn’t take much for him to take over her work completely. However, his intelligence and precociousness stimulated his marketing prowess and turned him into a social media star and eventually into the mainstream when a paper-book publisher picked him up. The books were moderately successful but then he craftily manoeuvred himself into a literary festival where his good-looks, charm, and audacity wowed the audience. It was at this festival, the inaugural Tathra Literary Weekend, that the following interview, in front of a live audience, took place with Emmy Mueller, an arts administrator and partner of the Festival’s director, Michelle Day.

Emmy finally gets around to Robert’s mother’s death.

‘I read in a newspaper report, Robert, you emailed it to me I think, that she died suddenly at her keyboard. She fell forward and her head typed hundreds of thousands of pages of the letter ‘t’ before you found her and lifted her off!’ 

‘Well, not quite like that.’ 

‘But hundreds and thousands of pages of the letter ’t’? That’s amazing!’

‘Actually, it was only 4378 pages. 

‘But, I’m sure I read hundreds and thousands …’

‘No, it was 4378 pages. The exaggerated figure was, to be real, from a tabloid report.’

‘You sent me fake news then.’

‘You could say that.’

‘But with the letter ’t’.’

Robert adopts a well-rehearsed naughty boy expression, smirks, and says, ‘Actually, no.’

‘Another bit of fake news?’ 

‘No. I changed it to the letter ’t’.’

‘Sorry?’ Emmy Mueller had been annoyed at Robert’s email; taking it as a bit of author interference in her moderating role but the thousands of pages, still being created before Robert lifted his mother’s head off the keyboard, appealed to her sense of the theatrical, but she wasn’t prepared for this little admission.

‘I changed it to the letter ’t’,’ repeats Robert with a little uncomfortable burr in his brain, as if his little plan isn’t going to work.

‘So, if the letter isn’t true, what about the pages?’

‘Oh, there were thousands of pages.’

‘Over four thousand pages?’

‘Yes. 4378.’ 

‘But not with the letter ’t’.’

‘No.’ 

‘You changed it.’

‘Yes.’ 

‘You altered the facts. You lied to the police.’

‘No, I’m pretty sure I didn’t lie to the police. They could see the pages and what was written on them.’

‘So when did you lie?’

‘When I was interviewed a few days later.’

‘Why did you lie to the Press?’

‘So it would be believed.’

‘Robert, you’re going to have to explain that to us.’ 

‘The facts are not believable.’ 

‘You mean, the truth is not believable?’ 

‘ … Yes.’

‘What is the truth?’ 

‘The number of pages is the truth…’

‘But the letter that took up thousands of pages is not?’

‘No. That’s right. The letter is not.’

Suddenly a frustrated voice comes from the audience: ‘What was the bloody letter?’

After the laughter dies down he says, ‘The letter ‘y’ – next to the letter ’t’; so it could’ve quite easily have been the letter ’t’.’

‘But it wasn’t.’

‘No. It was the letter ‘y’.’

‘What is so unbelievable about the letter y?’

‘Well, think about it. If you read the truth: the e-novelist, Edith McGowan died, suddenly, inexplicably at her computer. She was discovered face down on her keyboard where her head had typed 4378 pages, and counting, of a single letter y, why why why why why why why…. Would you have believed it? I think your reaction would’ve been, ‘Oh, come on!’ Doesn’t it sound … a bit manufactured? Why did I die? Why why why! It has a false ring about it. You see? Like it was made up to be so ‘neat’ so ‘ironic’, so … not-real.’ 

‘So you changed it.’

‘Yes. I changed it to make it believable. I only changed one letter. In my report to the police, everything is true. But I needed to change that letter for the public. I needed to fictionalise it in order for the whole story to be taken as truth. Which it is. 99.9999% is true. And that’s what I love about fiction: it has the undeniable capacity of creating the believable, revealing the believable, and re-making the truth.’ 

‘The old, Truth is stranger than fiction, cliche?’

‘No. Fiction can also be more believable. And that’s what writers do: we take something made up and make your brain believe it. So much so that you laugh, cry, feel annoyed, or angry at what you really know is a made up story. Humans can do this, and we’re the only animal on the planet that can, and we do this because we have imagination. You can believe in it and not believe in it at the same time – the suspension of disbelief trick – you know you’re sitting in your living room in your reading chair by the window but your imagination is not with your body but with the story. Multi-tasking at its best.’

It’s not that truth is stranger than fiction, it’s that truth, in a novel, can be weaker than fiction; and this is possible because from a very young age we are lied to by our parents and by the society in which we live: told stories, usually for educational, sociological, and disciplinary reasons, good reasons it could be argued, but lies none-the-less. The Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Boogie Man, god, growing pains, the trustworthy priest, the helpful policeman, the benevolent government, the winning lottery, the best price, the fool-proof diet … I’m sure you could add a few more. We are so used to this duality that sometimes they get confused and people can become to rely on the lie because it’s all that they know and it’s comforting to believe in something, even if it’s not true.

Our imagination, the sole thing that makes us human, has it’s own dark side.


* Michael K Freundt is an Australian writer. His first novel How to be a Good Veronica    https://books.apple.com/au/book/how-to-be-a-good-veronica/id1179204673 and it’s sequel Veronica Tries to be Good Again https://books.apple.com/au/book/veronica-tries-to-be-good-again/id1229567719 are available through iBooks via the links. Also in iBooks is a short story collection My Brother, My Love & Other Stories https://books.apple.com/au/book/my-brother-my-love/id1171638404                                    He lives in Bali with his husband. 

The Novel Game.

The Novel Game - Aussie Rules pic
Australian Rules Football

After I finished my 4th novel, well, the 3rd draft of it, who knows what needs to be done to it and at what time it needs to be done, I sent it off to my ‘agent’. He’s not really my agent as we don’t have a writer/agent relationship, he doesn’t have a relationship with me but with a book of mine, my 3rd novel, Johnny William & the Cameraman. However, what’s a writer to do after finishing number 4 but send it on to someone and an agent who has a relationship with number 3 is as good as any. He said he was looking forward to reading it. He said he liked it. With number 4 out of my hair, I felt like my pet budgie had flown away, a little lost. I scanned two abandoned pieces of prose, both over 20,000 words, one set in a declining rural town that seeks its survival only to have that thwarted by the media; and a story of a group of people who witness a tragedy on Sydney Harbour. Neither re-tickled my novelistic fancy.

But then, I found an old note on my Notepad App called The Owls of Kensingtown. The idea was to chart the reactions and romances of a small group of queer-minded people after the sentencing of Oscar Wilde in 1895. I changed the name to Arcadia Lane, but the title is still up for grabs. Actually Up for Grabs isn’t such a bad title itself. The Owls are metaphorical (“Who is that?  Who? Look at them, Who is that one? Who? The one in the hat. Who are you? Who? Who? Who? ….” a chorus like a parliament of Owls. Oh, and A Parliament of Owls isn’t a bad title, either).
As I read through my very brief sketch a scene occurred to me, a scene that has become the opening of this new work, a scene that also sets up a need, which in turn will become the narrative. I have no idea, yet, where the story is going; I only have a direction, not an outcome.
Because of the first scene one of my characters, I’ve called him Henry, leaves his employment. I have no idea where he’s going, but a quick look at Google maps of rural England leads me to a village of Cockley Cley in the east – very obscure, very small – so Cockley Cley becomes his destination, where his peasant parents live.
Along the way he helps a farmer fix a broken down dray and gets a lift from him (This scene isn’t written yet, just mentioned, but as I write this I’m beginning to understand that it needs to be fleshed out. Later). They spend the night at a hogsman’s barn. I don’t know if there was such an occupation as hogsman, but a quick ask of Ms Google tells me that it’s a family name, so an occupation it could’ve been; anyway, I like the sound of it, so hogsman it is.
I don’t believe that a potential reader will stop and Google ‘hogsman’ and then complain that it’s an occupation that doesn’t exist, and has never existed. The sound of it alone fits the times (late 1800s)  and it’s also self-explanatory. It is within the realm of possibility and so I believe a reader will accept it.
With the intention of Henry continuing his journey in the morning, I open the next scene early in the morning
with him pissing behind the barn. As he is returning a small girl comes running around the corner and almost knocks him over. I did not plan this. It was as if I was watching this scene, like an audience, and then the little girl appeared. She is strange, precocious, and manic. She is followed by the hogsman, a character I had not intended to draw. The relationship between the hogsman and the girl is ambiguous, and even a little sinister. The hogsman attempts to get the child back into the house with the help of Henry but the child bites Henry on the arm and screams, “He’s a prince!”. This also wasn’t planned. But, serendipitously, (and serendipity plays a very great role in novel-making) a reason for her outburst occurs to me. Henry, a gentleman’s valet, has left his employment because he was having a sexual affair with his gentleman employer, a very satisfying and loving relationship, but the morning paper’s reporting of Oscar Wilde’s sentence of two years hard labor scares the young man and he leaves, leaving the gentleman bereft and without anyone to cook his breakfast. Henry is therefore dressed and groomed very well, courtesy of his employer/lover and his appearance, especially to the little manic girl, seems that of a wealthy man, maybe even a prince!
I continue to ‘watch’ the scene and write down what I ‘see’. The hogsman invites Henry into his house to tend to the wound, shoving the girl into a room where the voices of other young girls can be heard. As the hogsman tends to Henry’s wound the young man looks around the house and notices its two fires, one in the sitting room, one in the kitchen, its heavy wooden and polished furniture, and its decorations, rugs, and paintings. This is not the house of a lowly pig farmer, unless my unnamed hogsman has a very lucrative side business.
The hogsman tangentially suggests a deal: he is willing to pay the young gentleman a tidy sum for his silence about the presence of the little girl/girls in his house. He knows his guest doesn’t look like he needs it, but a deal is a deal and an exchange of money between men who can afford it is as good a deal as most. Henry remains silent, a little character trait I just happened to give him earlier when he saw the wisdom of remaining silent when the truth, which is his usual trope, might do more harm than good (serendipity again). Henry takes the £5 silently, money he, now unemployed, sorely needs.
Understand that this scene may not make it into the final cut.
What has occurred to me since beginning this novel, if that’s what it is, is the similarities between writing prose and playing football. Writers take courses and listen to experts and go on writers’ retreats – players listen to coaches and go on training camps; writers read other writers – players watch other games; writers hone their skills, trying out ideas, different voices – players go to training, honing their skills; writers are disciplined – players are disciplined; writers know and understand grammar – players know and understand the rules of the game; but when it comes to doing the work, writing the thing, playing the game, there is no time to think about rules, advice, examples, and should I write this, should I tackle that; you just write it, play it, and hope to kryst that all the rules, advice, examples, and shoulds have oozed into your intuition, become your default mechanism, and what comes out is eventually a readable novel, a win. 
 
I’m not yet convinced about the veracity of this work but I keep ‘seeing’ scenes, and as long as the scenes keep coming I’ll keep writing. Wish me luck. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

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Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli Historian and Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

For a man who likes fiction, and who usually only reads fiction, I found myself, because of Christmas, with 4 new non-fiction books on my bedside table: Anne Summers’ memoir, Unfettered and Alive; Colm Tóibín’s Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know: the Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce; Stephen King’s On Writing, and this one, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014).

The first I have because Anne Summers is a friend; the second because I am a fan of Colm Tóibín and I collect everything he writes; the third was a Christmas gift from my sister; and the fourth was a grab-bag gift from the festivities of Christmas Day. They all interest me, in fact many non-fiction books interest me, but volumes of fiction always got in the way. Even now, there are seven novels hovering ready to pounce and to grab my attention.

Let’s start with Harari’s definition of history: the development of elaborate human structures called cultures which the organism known as Homo Sapiens began to form about 70,000 years ago. Once I read this I knew I was in safe hands and that I was going to, not only find out stuff that would fascinate, but that it would all be in accessible language.

Sapien’s time on this planet is a very short period in the cosmic time frame: if you could squeeze the time from the beginning of the universe to the present day into a 12 hour period, Homo Sapiens would have first stood upright at about 11.59.

The book is full of fascinating detail and remarkable insights. Homo Sapiens was not the only Homo species to exist at the same time but the reason Sapiens prevailed and destroyed the others – as one theory goes – is not because of our strength or our brain size – the Neanderthals had bigger brains and bigger bodies –  but because of one fundamental difference: our cognitive ability, via language, to imagine things that do not exist: fictions like religion, nationalism, honour, human rights, politics, literature, and (the only fiction that everyone in the world believes in) money.* These mental constructs were what enabled Homo Sapiens the where-with-all to organise themselves in large numbers. Large crowds of people, from 2,000 to 100,000 individuals can organise themselves to behave well and orderly for many hours to witness the outcome of a competition (football) or the staging of a story (Wagner’s Ring Cycle). If you put only 500 of our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, in a theatre there would be chaos. Of course, large crowds of humans can degenerate into chaos but only when the acceptable boundaries, rules; i.e., agreed constructs, that all members of the gathering adhere to, or believed would be adhered to, are broken. For example, the premier of Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring.

And fundamental to the success of our ability to co-operate in large numbers is our obsession with social information: gossip. This fascinating topic and its historical necessity I’ll leave for you to read about.

English suffers from the absence of the third-person singular and genderless personal pronoun. We have plural ones: themthey, and their, and they are allowed to be used in singular form (“Each writer needs to be merciless when re-writing their work” – his/her is no clumsy), but the long standing acceptable way around this problem has been to use the masculine singular personal pronouns: he, his, and him.  Harari raises the finger to such ‘traditions’ and opts for the feminine: she, her, and hers. A nice touch, given our current social and linguistic shenanigans around gender. It puts it firmly in the 21st century.

The language is not simplistic but is easily digestible – you need to read it with the TV off –  and is peppered with humour, irony, and hyperbole. It’s a wonderful read, entertaining, enlightening, and often astounding.

You can watch and listen to an excerpt from Harari’s TED talk (June 2015) on “Why Humans Run the World” here.

Everyone is reading this book and the two that follow it: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). They are everywhere. If you haven’t seen a copy you’re either blind or have just returned from Mars.

* Money was created many times in many places. It’s development required no technical breakthroughs – it was purely a mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imagination. Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services. Money enables people to compare quickly and easily the value of different commodities (such as apples, shoes and divorces), to easily exchange one thing for another, and to store wealth conveniently. Sapiens, Page 197

 

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

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Charles John Huffam Dickens      1812 – 1870

 

Original illustrations by George Cruikshank

“It’s all among Workhouses, and Coffin Makers and Pickpockets,” said Lord Melbourne, the young Queen Victoria’s prime minister. “I don’t like those things; I wish to avoid them; I don’t like them in reality, and therefore I don’t wish them represented.”

I think it’s “excessively interesting,” said the young Queen.

Oliver Twist (1837) was a bit of a shock for Dickens’ fans who were introduced to the writer through that plump, accident-prone, well-off, and comic character, Mr Pickwick. And then along comes the serialised Oliver Twist, even before the serialised The Pickwick Papers, which garnered a circulation  of 20,000,  had finished; and in a new magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, edited by Dickens. The underworld of London low life had, in the past, been treated lightheartedly, even comically, but Oliver Twist was something very different. Thieves, house-breakers, pickpockets all living squashed together in dingy slums and mud, taking pride in their work, but seemingly surviving in little groups that resembled something close to ‘a family’; and dealing not only with petty crime, but also, kidnapping, murder, treachery, and domestic violence.

If you think you know the story, you probably do.

A young orphan, innocent and alone, is put to work in a workhouse, fed on watery gruel, and where he has the audacity to ask for ‘more’; is mistreated, runs away, meets Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, and Fagin and his gang of thieving street boys; is saved from the same occupation by the kindly Mr Brownlow; is kidnapped by Nancy, harassed by the villainous Bill Sikes and forced into a stint of house-breaking, only to be shot and taken in by the also kindly Mrs Maylie and her ward Rose – really his aunt; threatened by the mysterious and dangerous, Mr Monks – who is actually Oliver’s half-brother; but saved by the pitiable but kind Nancy, who is murdered by her lover, Sikes for her efforts; and ultimately reunited with the kindly Mr Brownlow, who adopts him for a predictable happy ending: the oft used, and abused, first rule of novel writing. Oscar Wild said it best and said it better by giving it to Miss Prism to say in his most famous play, The Importance of being Earnest (1895):

The good end happily; the bad end unhappily. That’s what fiction means.

George_Cruikshank_Oliver_Twist 1
“I want some more.”

However, what is equally as interesting is what Dickens can teach writers.

Expression.

Oliver took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection.

Dickens sentences, usually long, are full of information and in a way that makes them seem packed with it; and sarcasm.

Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, which made him tremble; and the beadle gave him another tap behind, which made him cry; and these two causes made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice; whereupon a man in a white waistcoat said he was a fool, which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease.

These two lines are early in the book, carrying some of the lightheartedness his readership would’ve expected having read The Pickwick Papers, but then surprising them later by his darker themes.

He also uses expression to mirror action. After Sike’s failed house-breaking attempt, during which Oliver is shot, the friends and neighbours of the assailed inhabitants, Mrs Maylie and her ward, Rose, decide to investigate the crime-scene.

Lights were then procured, and Messrs Blathers and Duff, attended by the native constable, Brittles, Giles, and everybody else in short, went into the little room at the end of the passage, and looked out at the window, and afterwards went round by way of the lawn, and looked in at the window, and after that had a candle handed out to inspect the shutter with, and after that a lantern to trace the footsteps with, and after that a pitchfork to poke the bushes with.

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Oliver discovers what his street-mates are up to

A lot of repetitive energy, and phrases, to produce not a scrap of evidence.

Character.

Dickens is a great character-builder with the use of dialogue.

Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’), uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’), and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’. Mr Grimwig, a friend of Mr Brownlow’s, uses a unique expression not ‘… I’ll eat my hat” but ” … I’ll eat my head.”  Barnaby, a street urchin, has an adenoidal problem over the letters ‘n’ and ‘m’: “Dobody but Biss Dadsy” (Nobody but Miss Nancy.) Bill Sikes regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it was replaced simply by ‘D-‘; they understood what it meant but were not forced to actually ‘read’ such a shocking word. In a hierarchical society such as Dickensian London where one’s status is ruled by birth, income, education, and gender, such distinctive character differentiation may not be appropriate in a modern context but giving characters vocal habits is a useful device for character differentiation. Dickens has Fagin call everyone, regardless of gender, age, or status, ‘my dear’. Ascribing a character with a particular grammatical habit of, say, never using contractions helps to paint a rather serious and stern person. If characters are not first speakers of the readers’ first language grammatical mistakes ( no plural ‘s’, wrong prepositions, gerund misuse, etc) are really essential. I once heard a writer, a young male American, read, at a literary event, a section of his new novel that was set in Rome but had a Mexican character who sounded, when he spoke, nothing like a Mexican English-speaker living in Rome; he and each of the characters sounded like a young male American. A missed opportunity.

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Nancy is betrayed.

Narrator.

In contemporary fiction the narrator is, usually in the third person, a nameless, genderless, all-knowing, god-like voice with access not only to characters’ thoughts, desires, and plans, but also to their past and future lives. Not so with Dickens. He writes directly to the ‘reader’, calling them such, and refers to himself as the ‘biographer’, and ‘faithful historian … who knows his place’. He even chastises himself for keeping an esteemed character waiting while dealing with other plot necessities. The use of the narrator for plot-based effects is rare but was used effectively by Ian McEwan in his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, where the first person narrator turns out not to be the writer; and, most intriguingly, the satisfying ending is only evident because you, the reader, have read the book: it’s because the book is available to read that you then know the ending. Curious? Check the link above. Dickens used his narrators in a far freer and more colourful way with direct input into not only the plot but the tone. Here, in a recent short story, Serendipity, is an example of the narrator not only intruding into the writing of the story, but also is a secondary narrator with his own story: a double narrative, if you like, one feeds on the other.

Dickens’ reference to himself, the narrator, as ‘historian’ leads now to another novelistic ‘trick’: creating

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The end of Bill Sikes

Verisimilitude.

Yes, we know that we are reading fiction, that most of the whole thing – sometimes not all – is made-up but the writer wants us to believe that the story is true. Writer’s rely on our imagination to create for ourselves our own reality, and so allowing our emotions to do their work. However, writer’s don’t want to ‘lose’ their readers by letting the text slip too far from possibility. A text in the first person has a better chance of doing that, more so than a text in the third.

However, Dickens ‘tricks’ us several times implying that what he is saying is true: 1) he (the narrator) admits to omitting a word in the dialogue of a character because it is too impolite for your, the reader’s, ears. By refusing to tell us what the word is he is implying that he actually heard it, but decided it was not suitable; 2) a character observes a conversation between two people in the same room but can’t hear the exact words and so infers what is said. This is a plot point but it also implies that the conversation actually happened – no, the narrator is not making this up because if he was he would’ve placed the character closer to the talkers; and 3) forgetting a name. We, real people, do this all the time, so by the narrator confessing he has forgotten someone’s name, or the name of some place, reinforces the truth of the scene because actually the person or the place is made-up – this is fiction, remember – and being made-up the writer (narrator) could’ve provided a name. But he didn’t, so the implication is that the action must’ve happened.

It is true to say that contemporary fiction is the mainstay of a modern reader’s literary diet. However, a dip into the classics now and again, is a palatable way to hone critical thinking, get a grip on literary history, and understand where our literary tastes may be heading, and where our cultural references came from.

Most of the classic literary texts from Australia, Britain, Europe, and America are out of copyright and are, therefore, available online for free. The University of Adelaide has established a website where you can find a myriad of classic texts. It contains all of Dickens’ novels as well as a large collection of his short fiction and you can download ebook versions in various formats and for various devices. Happy exploring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dickensian sentence p 10
“He took the hint at once, for the fist had been so often impressed upon his body not to be deeply impressed upon his recollection”
Sarcasm –
P12 “… made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice… at his ease.”
p13
“… the poor people liked it …”
Sinecure
Narrator as biographer p46
D is a great teacher of dialogue for character building:
Mr Bumble, the beadle, drops the first syllable of ‘apprentice’ (‘prentis), the ‘n’ off the article ‘an’ (‘a old lady’), and any syllable that gets in his way (‘unfort’nate’ p 296).
Ie Dodger,
Mr Grimwig ‘… I’ll eat my head” p110
And Barnaby p119 with his adenoid problem
P155 Bill Sikes who regularly uses the word ‘damn’ but too risqué for British readers of 1838 so it is replaced by ‘D-‘. Mr Bumble, the beadle, uses ‘porochial’ (instead of ‘parochial’) and ‘w’ instead of ‘v’.
The relationship between narrator and reader: strong in OT but rare in modern lit. P135
The narrator calling himself “author” and “faithful historian …. who knows his place” p216 and insinuating what kind of an author would he be to keep a beadle waiting …
Unpleasant description of Fagin: “loathsome reptile” p153. P154, by telling the reader that he, the narrator, will not mention something adds veracity to the tale.
Also, like forgetting a name, not hearing a conversation because the whispers were too quiet. P213;
Describing 1 or 2 minutes when nothing is said p 218
Possible theme: what Dickens can teach us about writing. Use of narrator. A N can be a biographer, a person, not just a dissociated god-like voice. But take it further, if s biographer, then why not a person; and one with opinions, attitudes, even a history, even a present history! Narrators nowadays are usually ‘apart’ from the narrative; what if the narrator was a part if the narrative, or framed a parallel story, see Serendipity. Link to Tablo.
Character: Nancy’s ‘acting’ p165 OT nor the reader is ever quite sure what Nancy is playing at.
Dickens on description p234-5 “0f the two ladies …” He describes not so much what they wear but the impression the whole picture gives.
Action
“Lights were then procured, and …with” p246
The bad are bad but show a little bit of good, ie Fagin. The good are good but not bad (Rose).

 

 

 

 

The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein

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American academic, Bill Goldstein is the founding editor of the books site of The New York Times on the Web, reviews books and interviews authors for NBC’s “Weekend Today in New York.” He is also curator of public programs at Roosevelt House, the public policy institute of New York’s Hunter College.

Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the year that changed literature.

In January 1922 Adeline Woolf, everyone called her Virginia, turned 40 and was very sick with influenza that prevented her from writing; T. S. Eliot, everyone called him Tom, 34, had been over worked, unhappy, in therapy, but now quietly confident since he had started writing again but fearful of returning to the Bank that trapped him between the concrete and the sky; E. M. Forster, called Morgan, 43, was sexually and artistically frustrated; and D. H. Lawrence, called Bert, 36, had the threat of his books being banned  (Women in Love, 1921, ” … ugly, repellent, vile”), and a libel suit against him so wanted to know “For where was life to be found” and thought by going to a quiet place by himself he might find it: Ceylon, New Mexico, or New South Wales.

All four had achieved some degree of literary fame: Woolf had published two novels and the third, Jacob’s Room, was waiting for her final revisions, however her illness kept her away from her work. Eliot had published successfully The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock in Poetry magazine in 1915 and had been a regular contributor of reviews and essays, primarily for The Times Literary Supplement right up to December 1921. Forster had achieved great success with a series of novels, usually about the English abroad, beginning with Where Angels Fear to Tread in 1905 but by 1922 nothing had appeared after the very successful Howard’s End in 1910. Lawrence was more infamous than famous and had had Women in Love published in June 1921. It garnered bad reviews, and low sales. This added to the outrage caused by its prequel, The Rainbow, 1915, when it was withdrawn by the publisher after it was banned under the Obscene Publications Act. Lawrence had also characterised in the latter work, an acquaintance, Philip Heseltine, and thought he had disguised him enough, but Heseltine was not fooled and threatened legal action.

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Adeline Virginia Woolf 1882 – 1941

For all four writers 1922 did not begin well.

Artistic endeavour is always trying to solve the problems of the art form itself. How does a writer write an autobiography and make it interesting without using the boring phrases, “Then I went …. she cried and so I said …., Then I said, and he went ….”? Novelists for centuries have been using description and dialogue to draw a character; but in an autobiography how do you create an image of the narrator? There must be another way. Yes, there is, and one of the first writers to find another way was James Joyce who began his autobiographical novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) like this

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

First of all he writes not in the first person, but in the third (very radical, this is an autobiography, remember) and the above opening is not dialogue, it is prose; it’s not said by the protagonist but by the narrator using the language that the little boy, James, might use to describe what he sees and what he sees is himself! It’s as if the third person narrator is not some all-pervasive, god-like know-it-all but an imp sitting on the shoulder of the little boy seeing the world through his eyes and hearing the thoughts in his head. This literary device has become known as free indirect discourse, or as the literary critic of The New Yorker, James Wood, calls it, ‘close writing’; and it’s as common today in contemporary fiction as Vegemite is for an Australian breakfast. But it can’t be used in the first person. Or can it? Now, there’s a challenge for an adventurous writer!

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Edward Morgan Forster 1879 – 1970

Painters  sought to bypass the ‘real’ bit in order to paint, say, serenity, by trying to paint serenity with just the paint on the canvas, not trying to be something else, a face, a landscape, to ‘portray’ serenity. In other words, they painted not what they saw but what they felt. Writer’s similarly de-focused the ‘real’ bit and concentrated on, not what the characters did – the plot – but what the characters felt and thought. The plot became internalised.

Before January 1922 was over Eliot and Lawrence had succumbed to the influenza that brought Woolf so low and was rapidly becoming an epidemic to rival the devastating outbreak of 1918-19 that killed more people than the Great War. At least for Eliot the influenza kept him away from the bank and, despite the disease, hard at work on his long poem. His ill wife, also being absent, was yet another and usual worry out of the way.

On his way back to London from the unsuccessful trip to India Forster bought and read Proust’s first volume, Swann’s Way in French. He was “awestruck” and marveled at Proust’s use of memory to drive the narrative. Later in the year as the weather warmed he used Proustian ideas, and a poem by J. R. Ackerley, Ghosts, to impinge on him the truth that there is life after tragedy. His tragedy was the slow death of his unrequited lover in Egypt, whose death he almost wished would be sooner than later, as he was slowly re-reading the abandoned pages of his Indian novel, making notes and yearning for his tragedy to be behind him.

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Thomas Stearns Eliot 1888 – 1965

Woolf, with her illness almost past, read Proust too, in the spring while working on an essay about reading and dabbling with a minor character from her first novel, The Voyage Out, Clarissa Dallaway, weaving her into a short story called Mrs Dallaway in Bond Street.  Woolf too was enthralled with Proust’s use of memory to evoke the current state of mind of a character. In the opening scene of the short story, which eventually evolved into the novel Mrs Dallaway, Woolf has Clarissa arrested by the chiming of Big Ben which announces the convergence of the past and present, not only in the character’s mind but also on the page. Very Proustian! Clarissa Dallaway in Woolf’s first novel is described by the narrator but Woolf was determined in this one, this modern one, to have Clarissa think everything the reader needs to know about her. As Woolf wrote later to a friend, she didn’t mind being sick as “Proust’s fat volume comes in very handy.” Woolf, who wrote that she wanted to write like Proust, didn’t of course, but it was because of him that she began to write like herself again.

Joyce, for her, was different. Woolf and Joyce were both British, they were both the same age, and Joyce in 1922 had “a novel out in the world, a massive – expensive – box of a book”, Ulysses, and Woolf had not published a novel in two and a half years. She was jealous. Besides, Ulysses didn’t impress her. She thought it was “underbred” by a “self-taught working man.” What she failed to realise was that Joyce had a degree, she didn’t; it was she, not him, who was self taught.

Lawrence left England in early 1922 for Ceylon, but found it unsatisfactory, then Perth, Western Australia, very unsatisfactory, then Thirroul, south of Sydney, where he transferred his thinking back to what he called his ‘interim’ books, short stories and journalism. Could he write a novel like those, in a month, or less, using nothing but what he had around him, namely Frieda and himself, and what he thought and felt? He decided to give it a go and the novel Kangaroo was born, but this too stalled. It was the third novel in a row that got ‘stuck’. However, without the help of Proust, Lawrence turned to memory, and chapter 12, the longest in the book and the only one not set in Australia, describes the fear he and Frieda experienced at the outbreak of World War I (she was German and had abandoned her first husband and children; he was excluded from service because of his frail body). Lawrence had instilled in his protagonist, Richard Somers, a ‘fear’, exemplified by the vastness of the Australian continent, and it was Lawrence’s explanation of this fear, via his personal experience, his memory, that ‘unstuck’ his progress, and he got the thing finished.

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David Herbert Lawrence 1885 – 1930

T. S. Eliot finally saw his long poem, The Waste Land, the poem that had battled with his job, his contemporaries, his wife, his past, and his health, finally published. Goldstein spends a lot of time, too much you may think, on the procrastination, arguments, letters, late replies, betrayals, that stall the publication; and all concerning people, publishers, agents, friends, supporters, who want it published.

For a year that started badly for all of them, 1922 ended like a new dawn: Virginia Woolf had a new novel, Mrs Dallaway; E. M. Forster was well on his way with his Indian novel, the one that had caused him so much anguish, A Passage To India, (1924), and would become his most celebrated; D. H. Lawrence had written a new novel, very different from his previous works, no sex, but had also been vindicated by the courts: The Rainbow and Women in Love were judged not obscene, although some passages were, but the press-obsessed trials led to a resurgence of sales and interest in his work; and T. S. Eliot finally saw his long poem in print, and received the accolades he thought it deserved.

For readers who are interested in literature and its history this book is a must-read. Goldstein has sculptured a surprising and complex narrative, esoteric and detailed, yes, but intriguing, stimulating, and fascinating.

In the year 1922 these four writers, for various reasons, had already been chipping away, with varying intensities, at a ‘crack’ in the English literary world, hoping their artistic challenges and vaguely-inspired experiments would lead them in a new and exciting direction. Then came the thundering blows of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Joyce’s Ulysses which, along with The Waste Land, caused the ‘break’ and English literature did indeed cleave in two and took off in a new direction. However, the ‘piece’ that remained behind kept the majority of readers with it and it was those readers who demanded, and got, a whole array of plot-based genres, the names of which you can see topping a multitude of racks of books in any sizable book shop today; and over there in the corner of the shop topping a not insubstantial, but nevertheless alone, book-stack is another sign: literary fiction.

You can find the book in various formats here.

Arguably. Essays by Christopher Hitchens

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Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) Anglo-American author, columnist, essayist, orator, religious and literary critic, social critic, and journalist. “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

This book is for dipping into.

The essays, 97 of them, are entertaining, enlightening, short, but sometimes challenging, and not just because of the subject matter, literature, science, history, politics and more. They are challenging because his language can be of a higher form and one should read this book within easy reach of a dictionary, app or paper; and that’s a good thing, as we all should not let an unknown word pass us by. Hitchens was a prolific writer, but he also was a prolific reader: every essay is full of references, anecdotes, comparisons, opinions, and so wide-ranging and eclectic is his accumulated knowledge that one wonders when he had time to sleep, eat, and raise a family.

Most of the writings in this volume were first published in magazines or newspapers such as The Atlantic, Newsweek, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, Vanity Fair, Foreign Affairs, among many others.

Just a glance at the Contents page will throw up depths of interest that one can look forward to plumbing: Abraham Lincoln: Misery’s Child; In Defence of Foxhole Athiests; The Dark Side of Dickens; W. Somerset Maugham: Poor Old Willie; Stephen Spender: A Nice Bloody Fool; Harry Potter: The Boy Who Lived; Why Women Arn’t Funny; So Many Men’s Rooms, So Little Time; Charles, Prince of Piffle; The Swastika and the Cedar; North Korea: A Nation of Racist Dwarfs; you see what I mean?

His asides are where the fun is:

” … Bertrand Russell, who could have been world famous in several departments, from adultery to radicalism …”

” … [Isaac] Newton spent much of his time dwelling in a self-generated fog of superstition and crankery.”

re Jessica Mitford. “These themes – of kinship and class, flight from same, residual loyal-ties to same, commitment to revolution, and stiff-upper-lippery in the face if calamity – recur throughout this assemblage of Jessica’s correspondence. ”

re W. Somerset Maugham. “Despite his exile and his increasingly distraught public and private life, Maugham eventually received an honour from the Crown – but it was for “services to literature” rather than for literature itself, and this distinction represents all the difference in the world”, as bitchy as his subject is arch.

What I have learned from Mr. Hitchens:

The French ‘ban’ on the burka can be seen as not a ban at all: it is a lifting of a ban on women being able to choose their own attire, and it is a lifting of the ban on women being able to question clerical, ie male, authority, and to be free to communicate to fellow humans face to face.

Isn’t it ironic that the Promise Land that god promised the Jews, a promise that was finally fulfilled, is the only bit of land in the Middle East that doesn’t have any oil.

“Jewish humour, boiling as it is with angst and self-deprication, is almost masculine by definition.”

The fundamental tenant of Christianity may contain its own unravelling: we are created bad, but commanded to be good.

The Magna Carta was not written in English. Of course it wasn’t; look at its name!

The Sixth Commandment, Thou Shall Not Kill, has nothing to do with pacifism since Moses told his Levite faction after receiving the original tablets containing the Ten Commandments from god on Mt. Sinai, to “slay everyman his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour” (Exodus 32:27-28). Killing for honour, revenge, or conquest is not really killing at all. The three monotheistic religions were born in extremely violent times and they continue to be violent religions to this day. Maybe God meant ‘murder’ and he was mis-translated. So, we must remember that the problem of ‘authority’ in the first 1500 years of Christianity was solved by having it all ‘wrapped up’ in languages that the majority of adherents could not understand; its mysteries being decoded by a select few: a ‘special caste’; and recoded many times since.

And while we’re on the subject of The Ten Commandments, it seems they were specifically written for men who had staff: “Thou shall not covert thy heighbour’s house, his wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, ass, …” lumping his wife (wives) in with all of his other chattels.

Kurdistan (The Other Iraq) is (was) marketing itself as an investment and tourism hub.

America’s first military tussle with the world of Islam was from 1801-1805, The Barbary Wars, which not only gained US access to European trade but created the U.S. Navy.

The meaning of the phrase ‘tumbril remark’; his examples are hysterical.

How it feels to be ‘waterboarded.’

The etymology of the phrase ‘blowjob’ and who will, and who will not, do it.

An intelligent person sifts out the truth with a lot of ‘senses’, far more than the original five; hearing and understanding words being the least of them.

Hitchens died at the age of 62 in December 2011 from pneumonia, a complication of oesophageal cancer (he was a nicotine addict; by his own reckoning he smoked 15,000 cigarettes a year ). Although his death came before the rise, and now continuing decline, of IS, his essays on the politics of the Middle East and north Africa give important insights into the recent history of these regions; and it’s recent history that seems, paradoxically, the easiest to forget.

One of his last pieces, from May 2011 in Vanity Fare, gives an enlightening and humorous account of how the language of the Bible has been used, politically, commercially, and sect-affirmingly to, not only sell bibles, but to make them accessible to absolutely every one, like an offering in a “cut-price spiritual cafeteria”. Only in America could there be published bibles called “Extreme Teen Study Bible” or “Policeman’s Bible” or, my favourite, “One Year New Testament for Busy Moms.”

But what one is left with after browsing in, flipping, and giggling through this entertaining volume is his precise and educative use of the English language. It may be of an un-coffee-table-book shape, given its fatness, but the coffee table is where it should be; or, at least, somewhere as easily accessible. Happy dipping!

You can get this book in various formats, including audio CD, here.

Don’t be Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf, 1902

Virginia Woolf, 1902

In London on 7 February 1910 a telegram was received from Sir Charles Hardinge, the Permanent Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, by the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet and the captain of the H.M.S. Dreadnought, the flagship of the British navy, then lying off Portland, Dorset. It informed him that Prince Makalin of Abyssinia and his party were arriving in the afternoon and were to receive every attention. When they arrived by private train carriage they were received with an honour guard and taken ceremoniously on board. The chatter of the dusky-skinned entourage was completely unintelligible although one of the party, Prince Mendax, wearing a sky-blue silk robe, beard, jewels and a turban, constantly murmured “Bunga bunga” which their interpreter explained was Abyssinian for “Isn’t it lovely?” They refused all refreshments which the interpreter again explained was due to their religious beliefs as they could not be served food or drink with the naked hand. Gloves were not available.

A few days later the officers and crew of the Dreadnought were amazed and dismayed to learn, via the Daily Mirror, that it was all a monumental practical joke and the Royal navy was pilloried and laughed at for weeks in the national press and at every dinner table in the land. It has become known as the Dreadnought Hoax and was reported all over the world.

One of the hoaxers, Prince “Bunga Bunga” Mendex, was, in reality, a young girl who was quoted as saying “I found I could laugh like a man easily enough but it was difficult to disguise the speaking voice. As a matter of fact the only really trying time I had was when I had to shake hands with my first cousin, who is an officer on the Dreadnought, and who saluted me as I went on deck. I thought I should burst out laughing, but, happily I managed to preserve my Oriental stolidity of countenance.”

This young lady was the 28 year old Miss Adeline Stephen, who two years later married and became Mrs Woolf. We know her better as Virginia.

The Dreadnought hoaxers. Virginia Woolf far left. 1910

The Dreadnought hoaxers, 1910. Virginia Woolf, far left.

Apart from being a practical joker, Virginia Woolf was a very beautiful woman. This is certainly not how we think of her today but all the people who wrote about her, and there were many, used adjectives, especially those that knew her well, like, beautiful, mischievous, intelligent, talkative, and inquisitive. She would say things like, “You said you went for a walk, but what made you go for a walk?” When out walking herself with a friend she would see a farmer tossing hay and say, “Look at that farmer pitching hay. What do you think he had for breakfast?” It was this inquisitiveness that made her attend to everything you said to her; and attend with real interest. When you talked to Virginia you always felt that you were intently listened to, and, once literary fame came into the picture, you didn’t even mind that she was mining you for information, words and reasons for human behaviour; in fact, you were flattered that such a famous and beautiful woman was hanging on your every word; gazing into your eyes and eagerly waiting for your next pronouncement. Of course under such scrutiny, if you simply said ‘I don’t know’ you could be sure that she would lose interest immediately and seek someone else’s company. She had a habit of forcing you to search your brain for the right words, because nothing less than the right words were always expected.

She was tall, with a thin face, slender hands and always wore shapeless clothes of indeterminate colours: fashion was of no concern to her.

She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882 but almost immediately was called Virginia despite the confusion of initials with her elder sister, Vanessa. She came from a good family of landowners and was well but home educated. She was the third child of her father’s second wife and an incident with her half-brother, George Duckworth, was to have a profound effect on her.

“I still shiver with shame,” she wrote many years after the incident, “at the memory of my half brother standing me on a ledge, aged about six or so, exploring my private parts.” Then, many years later, when her father lay dying from cancer three floors below, George would fling himself on her bed, kissing and hugging her, aged in her early 20s, “to console her”, he later said. Quentin Bell, her biographer and nephew, would write, “in sexual matters she was from this time terrified back into a posture of frozen and defensive panic.”  She briefly considered accepting Lytton Strachey’s proposal of marriage knowing that he was homosexual so she thought a simple brother-sister sort of marriage may be preferable to one that included the ‘horror of sex’. She wanted to be married, since being a spinster was considered a failure and finally accepted the proposal of Leonard Woolf and they were married on August 10 1912 after an engagement that, her sister wrote, was “an exhausting and bewildering thing even to the bystanders.” Virginia said to him “I feel no physical attraction to you, … and yet your caring for me as you do almost overwhelms me. It is so real and so strange.” They were planning a honeymoon in Iceland (how metaphoric) but settled for a Mediterranean one instead. Michael Holroyd wrote,

“There seemed some unfathomable inhibition that made male last, even when compounded with love, if not horrific, quite incomprehensible to her. The physical act of intercourse was not even funny: it was cold. Leonard regretfully accepted the facts and soon brought the word in line with the deed by persuading her that they should not have children. It was a sensible decision for, though she could never contemplate her sister’s fruitfulness without envy, children with their wetness and noise would surely have killed off the novels in her: and it was novel-writing that she cared for most.”

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, The Hours, 2002

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, 2002.

In 2002 the film The Hours was released with much fanfare and a stellar cast. It was written by David Hare and based on the Michael Cunningham Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name, which in turn used Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway (1925) as the core of the film about, not only Virginia Woolf and the writing of the book, but also its effect on two women. one in the 1950s and one in the 1980s. Readers can find Mrs Dalloway curious, annoying and tedious but when you read you must not let the words wash over you as one lets light from a fire without looking into the flames; into the beauty at its core.

Her novel of 1928, Orlando, is dedicated to Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s friend, neighbour and sometime lover and tells the story, over a period of 300 years, of the romantic adventures of a man called Orlando, who suddenly, miraculously, half way through the book becomes a woman. This is revealed in the film version, starring Tilda Swinton, as Orlando with his long, straight, reddish blond hair gazes at himself standing naked in front of a full length mirror and seeing the reflection of a long, straight, reddish blond haired naked woman staring back saying, “Same person, different body.”

Vita Sackville West

Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for Orlando (1928).

Virginia confessed her affair with Vita to her sister Vanessa and in a letter to Vita describes the moment.
“I told Nessa the story of our passion in a chemist’s shop the other day. ‘But do you really like going to bed with women’ she said – taking her change. ‘And how’d you do it?’ and so she bought her pills to take abroad, talking as loud as a parrot.”

Uncharacteristically a lot happens in Orlando but it’s not plot that interests Virginia Woolf ( “facts are a very inferior form of fiction”) but the feelings, nuanced emotions that precede the action, or arise because of it; she was more interested in, not the ‘What’, but the ‘Why’, and, more importantly, how one                                                would describe that ‘Why’.

Leonard and Virginnia Woolf photographed by Vita Sackville-West, 1926

Leonard and Virginia Woolf photographed by Vita Sackville-West.

Nowhere is this more evident than in her novel (most call it her masterpiece) To the Lighthouse (1927). The very title is full of expectation and when the possibility is revealed to little six year old James he is transfixed, incapacitated with the joy of it. This is the opening, including the title which is really part of the first sentence.

“To the Lighthouse
“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.
To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy.”

And what is illustrative, most of all, of her genius, and her deep and all-consuming curiosity of human intention and behaviour, and her determination to create art, is that by the last page the lighthouse itself disappears into a mist and we, the readers, along with the remaining onlookers in the house, can only assume that they have arrived.

Leonardo de Vinci fought tooth and nail to acquire a particular block of marble, also much coveted by, his rival, Michelangelo because he knew that inside there was a statue of David and all he had to do was chip away the extraneous rock to reveal the body within. If Virginia Woolf were present it would be the act of chipping the marble and the chips of marble lying on the floor that would attract her interest and not the finished, polished figure.

Janet Vaughan (a medical scientist and friend) had this to say about Virginia Woolf and ‘genius’.
“Well, it’s a sixth sense. It’s somebody who jumps a gap which other people would need a very, very solid bridge to walk across. She didn’t do it as a scientist might, she did it by interpreting what she saw and what people might be thinking and how they interacted with one another. But she had this quality of jumping gaps.”

And similarly Vita Sackville-West describes it thus: “I always thought her genius led her by short cuts to some essential point which everybody else had missed. She did not walk there: she sprang.”

But it’s the adjectives ‘mischievous, witty, warm and humorous’ that are most intriguing. She loved to tease and teased most those she was most fond of; and those teased seemed to love it and certainly were not offended by it since the teasing was done with such warmth.

In the early 20s Virginia Woolf used the name of writer Berta Ruck (albeit mis-spelt) on a minor character, and a subsequent tombstone, in her novel Jacob’s Room (1920). Angus Davidson, friend, literary critic, and manager for a time of their publishing house, The Hogarth Press, said this was done unwittingly. This is hard to believe as the name Berta Ruck is quite distinctive and her name and the names of her novels were emblazoned on the tops of London buses. However Ms Ruck was a writer of a very different genre than Virginia’s. She wrote romantic stories and almost seventy novels (Khaki and KissesLove on Second Thoughts, etc) where beautiful young women were treated dismissively by fathers, brothers and men in general but who fell in love with one of them and lived happily ever after. One can imagine Virginia Woolf thinking this scenario extremely unlikely and with a name like Berta Ruck, and the married name of Mrs Onions, perfectly ripe for mischief. Ms Ruck, however, did not see the humour in the incident and with urgings from her indignant husband, wrote to Woolf in sorrow and indignation threatening legal action. Virginia wrote back rather sarcastically, “I am more pleased than I can say that you survived my burial. Never will I attempt such a thing again. To think that you have bought my book.” It took Ms Ruck eight years to discover the slight so Woolf could hardly have taken her seriously. However they ‘made up’ via correspondence and almost a year later Ms Ruck got her own back by becoming the success at a party, attended by Virginia, by singing a very risqué song, “Never Allow a Sailor an Inch Above Your Knee.” Virginia was reported as being “filled with amazement and delight.” All animosity was forgiven.

Unfortunately, the memory of her is clouded by her diaries which record her mental suffering and her depression even though her husband, and editor, went to great pains to explain; “…diaries give a distorted and one-sided view of the writer, because, as Virginia Woolf herself remarks, one gets into the habit of recording one particular kind of mood – irritation or misery say – and of not writing one’s diary when one is feeling the opposite. The portrait in therefore from the start unbalanced.”

Her bouts of illness sprung from the effort of writing, and in particular the exhaustion from finishing a particular work. Her headaches would begin and if left unchecked, she would lose coherence of speech, and her brain would race with images and noises (birds crying out in Greek) and delusions (King Edward VII, among the azaleas, swearing in the most foulest language). Complete rest and quiet would eventually restore her normal life but her recovery would be ridden with doubt and worry about the worth of her just-completed work. Praise and encouragement were oxygen to her.  So eventually with Leonard’s care and concern, her own courage, immense courage, she would roll up her sleeves and begin to write again, knowing that creation was hard, completion fearful, and a bout of madness inevitable.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, 1939 by Gisele Freund.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, 1939, by Gisele Freund, two years before her death.

And then this: her final piece of writing; a short letter to her husband, written on the day she died.

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

She then put on a hat, a coat, grabbed a walking stick and headed to the river. There she put down her stick, took off her hat, put rocks in her pockets and disappeared into the water. When Leonard found the letter, he, along with the house keeper, Mrs Meyer, searched the house, the grounds, and the surrounding countryside and when they found her stick and hat assumed the worst. Three weeks later her gruesome body was found by children as it bumped against the bank of the river many miles downstream. She was 59.

Remember Virginia Woolf as a beautiful and intelligent woman, a prankster, a great and innovative writer, the creator of the outrageous Orlando, and the cheeky biographer of Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s little cocker spaniel; she was a curious and inquisitive human being, a tease, a lover, and a writer who launched modernism on the literary world. And remember that when her little nephews, nieces, and their friends were preparing for a party who was number one on their invitation list?

“V-i-r-g-i-n-i-a!” they would shriek with delight, because Aunt Virginia always made them laugh. Virginia Woolf, 1927

 

 

Virginia Woolf, 1927, aged 45, the year To the Lighthouse was published.