There are three digital prints that hang in my house that I am particularly attached to. I commissioned them from a talented friend of mine when I got a promotion a few years ago, and they are the first pieces of art I spent any real money on.
Each is a quote about or from literature that I love, designed in lush, swirling typeface, with beautiful colours surrounding the words.
There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind, from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, is one.
I chose this quote, obvious though it might seem, because Woolf’s writing has been and continues to be a strong influence in my life. To me, she has always represented the beauty and the challenges of truly astounding literature. Her words read like a storm on a page, her style of prose—a stream of consciousness—is so immersive that I can feel myself entering into it and I have to will myself out of its flow when it is time to put my book down.
Recently, while living for a brief time in Edinburgh, I stumbled on a new range of Vintage Classics editions of Woolf’s work, each cover featuring gorgeous artworks in variations of amber and wine and blue, and I couldn’t resist picking up a copy of The Waves and treating myself to it.
Since then, I have been allowing myself a morsel of Woolf’s prose at a time, a small nugget of beauty before I go to sleep each night, a way of soothing myself into slumber.
This might seem a strange choice—Woolf’s style is not restful and The Waves is amongst her more challenging work. The book features six strands of narrative, written as a stream of consciousness, where the perspective shifts from one character to another without pause.
We meet Rhoda, Jinny, Susan, Louis, Bernard and Neville as children, at their nursery where they are playing outside and the uniqueness of their dynamics begins to emerge. The novel follows their school years through to young adulthood, to their eventual ageing, when the death of a mutual friend brings them together again.
The Waves has consistently been a book that people, who otherwise love the same books as me, loathe. It is too difficult, too trivial, too chaotic. There is too much. The emotion, the pace, the insights, all of it is seen to be overwhelming.
This isn’t the experience I have when I read Virginia Woolf. For me, the swirl of words in The Waves is exactly what makes me drawn to her work. I imagine it to be somewhat like living inside her mind, the way the characters’ thoughts flicker and change, and build on each other. She is able to draw connections between their insecurities and their hopes, and to the broader patterns that influence their friendships with each other masterfully. You don’t realise what conclusion you’re being led to, but when you arrive it feels like the most natural thing in the world.
In particular, I dismiss the assertion that Woolf’s focus on the everyday was in any way trivial. She wrote about the minutiae of daily lives because that was what fascinated her, and crucially, it was here that she found the evidence to make her broader political points in other writing.
The opening scene in her (much more accessible) book A Room of One’s Own, sees Woolf taking her evening stroll, musing on ideas and deep thoughts, when she is barred from access to the spaces she wants to occupy because she is a woman (first from the lawns of ‘Oxbridge’ where she is walking, and then from the library).
Woolf uses a seemingly trivial scene from her life to illustrate exactly how the personal is political, and how the moments of mundanity in our lives are often a privilege—to be part of the mainstream, boring as it may be, is a status preferable to existing on the fringes or outside in the cold entirely.
These themes of gender, class, sexuality and inclusion intertwine throughout The Waves, visible particularly in the gaps between characters—these six women and men who are connected despite the differences in their individual circumstance. We see Louis struggle with his Australian ‘new rich’ identity, the son of a banker from Brisbane. We see the difference between Jinny’s youthful exuberance and Rhoda’s subdued existence too, and we note the contrasts specific to their gender. We are aware of Neville’s homosexuality, though only through the anguish with which he tries to hide it.
If this description of the book feels vague or unfinished, it’s because The Waves is much like its title—the book roils and changes, is equally stormy and gentle, is ever-changing, is made of multitudes. A famous line from the book reads ‘I am made and remade continually’, reminding the reader that while we think of each wave as being individual, separate from the seething mass of the sea, in fact they are one and the same, a whole being remade again and again.
At times, it is as though Woolf herself is appearing through each of the six voices. ‘I desired always to stretch the night, and fill it fuller and fuller with dreams,’ she writes. Is her imagined voices, their differences and their inherent connection to each other the way that Woolf is stretching her voice, allowing capacity and room for multitudes?
I read a lot of new fiction. I read a lot, in general. I am yet to read anything that compares to The Waves in its depth and beauty. It is the kind of book that leaves you wondering how many more amazing phrases a single tome can hold.
It’s the kind of book that sits on your bedside table, with dozens of earmarked pages, holding place for you to flick back to whatever stunning collection of words moved you to mark the page.
It’s the kind of book you open when you’re sitting quietly in a grey house, alone except for the chilly air, and you want to read something that moves you.
It is a book that has stayed with me, and that I will read again and again in the years to come, knowing that the words will grow with me each time.
Zoya founded Feminartsy in 2014, following four years as Editor-In-Chief of Lip Magazine. She has been writing about feminist issues since the age of 15, and has had work published in a number of publications. Zoya was Highly Commended in the Scribe Publishing Non-Fiction Prize 2015, was the 2014 recipient of the Anne Edgeworth Young Writers’ Fellowship, and was named the 2015 ACT Young Woman of the Year. Her debut book, No-Country Woman will be released by Hachette Australia in August 2018. @zoyajpatel