I believe it was the author Virginia Woolf who said that ‘one must learn to be silent just as one must learn to talk.’ This quote has lived with me for quite some time. Perhaps, it has never been more pertinent than at this moment when I think about the recent news and all the airing and sharing that has been spread all over my newspaper!
I first came across this piece of wisdom whilst studying for my final exams – Virginia Woolf’s books were part of my set texts. In preparation for those exams, I also explored her life. One hundred and forty years ago, on January 25th to be precise, Adeline Virginia Stephen was born. She was the seventh child of Julia and Leslie Stephen, who shared an affluent household with the modernist painter Vanessa Bell. Virginia was home-schooled and subsequently attended King’s College London, where she studied history and the classics.
With her father’s support and encouragement, Virginia began to write professionally in 1901. Her father died in 1904. The family then moved to Kensington, bringing Virginia into contact with a more bohemian intellectual circle. It was during this time that Virginia became a founding member of the Bloomsbury Press with Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, the Bells and the art critic and post-impressionist painter Roger Fry.
It was through the Bloomsbury Group that Virginia met her husband, Leonard Woolf, whom she married in 1912. The couple then founded the Hogarth Press in 1917. A lot of Virginia’s work was published through this, then, small independent press. But the imprint still exists today as part of the Penguin Random House publishing empire. And if you search for the right works in the right places, you find fabulous volumes of poetry and prose published under the name of Hogarth Press or Bloomsbury Classics.
It was Woolf’s flowing narratives that particularly drew my attention to her books. I read far more of her works than I actually needed to for my exams. Along with the set pieces, we also had a short list of other works that we were expected to read. I read just about everything, beginning with her first novel, The Voyage Out, published in 1915. It seemed to me back then, and now when I re-read her books, that every word on every page was specifically chosen for the pervading mood of the scene she wished to create in my imagination. Even now, I still find myself putting her books down so that I can fully lose myself in the sentiment or the emotion of that one chapter, sometimes that one sentence. I’ve always thought that Woolf’s ability with language and stream of consciousness to tell her stories was second to none. And perhaps, I am a little jealous of that talent.
My collection of her books is a mix of my old paperbacks – now quite well-worn and fragile – and some first editions that have replaced my original texts from school. But I will never stop reading them.
|Bloomsbury Press Classics|
Virginia Woolf suffered from depression, and it was during one of these particular bouts that she crafted her final letter to her husband. On March 28th, 1941, she filled the pockets of her coat with stones and walked out into the river Ouse near her home and drowned.
I have always wondered if she had learned to talk a little more or to use silence a little less, what else might she have achieved with more time.