Over the Pond, Into the Stream of Consciousness (Woolf Blog Post 1)
“I’m here for Virginia Woolf,” I said, looking down at the crude hand-drawn map being superimposed over the official Cornwall Tourism map. “You know, the famous modernist writer—”
The smile that overtook my b&b host’s face in that moment was a welcome change to the looks of obscurity I’d been receiving the previous few days whenever I mentioned Virginia Woolf, or modernity, or even English literature. For a country with such a prolific and rich history of literary writers, few people in England understood my motivations for being there.
“For Virginia! Well then, you’ve got to see your mate’s house.” My b&b host drew another circle on the map of St Ives, and suddenly there it was: Talland House, Virginia’s Talland House, within walking distance. 123 years since her last Cornwall childhood summer, 113 years since she’d returned at the same age I am now, 77 years after her death, the view that meant so much to her was just as it had always been. And then I was there, too.
I became ‘mates’ with Virginia Woolf in the second year of my undergrad degree. I didn’t expect to like her; my first impression was that she was old and stuffy, and wrote about simple things in complicated ways. I didn’t want to like her. But she was just so finely witty, so understanding of words, and so very very human, that I couldn’t resist.
You see, Virginia sees straight through us. She knows we don’t know what we’re talking about most of the time, knows we’re false and faulty and great and good. She believes in us. She was a lot of things, including a great writer, but above all, she was a person. And she dedicated the years she had to trying to understand people, strangers and loved ones alike. She wanted to know about us, wanted to think about us, wanted to see us living our lives, and to live through us, too. She fixed her mind on humanity, and watched us all squirm under her knowing gaze.
Virginia Woolf spent much of her life in London, and her intimate knowledge of the city and its people can be found in works such as Mrs. Dalloway and “Street Haunting: A London Adventure.” In contrast to her city life was her nostalgia for St Ives, a seaside town in Cornwall where she spent her first 12 summers with her family at Talland House—the circle on my map—a vacation home her father leased annually. Talland House and its view of Godrevy Lighthouse across the bay would later become her inspiration for the setting of To the Lighthouse.
Virginia published Mrs. Dalloway—what I view as her London book—in 1925 and To the Lighthouse—her St Ives book—followed two years later in 1927. Quite unintentionally, my reading of the two books also followed this chronology. I had read A Room of One’s Own in the intermediate year—appropriately—after moving into my own apartment.
Now, I won’t lie to you; I’m the kind of person who writes in their books. I dog-ear, I highlight, I circle in red pen. I believe in the power of palimpsests.
I’ll forever be grateful that I annotated my Woolf books. After finishing my last classes at Trent this past spring, I nostalgically leafed through my copy of A Room of One’s Own, and found, underlined in blue ink:
“I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”
It’s because of that underlined sentence that I’m writing this. I started rereading my other notes in other Woolf books and essays, and I found within them a travel guide, a call to action, endless allusions to real intersections, parks, and public spaces that Virginia had encountered throughout her life. She idled in London, she travelled to St Ives. And now I have, too.
In London, I found Mrs. Dalloway. I bought the flowers myself. I heard the chime of Big Ben, interrupting my days, my ways. I saw myself in other people, and imagined how my consciousness might dip into theirs. On my first day in there, I decided to become a local. I knew there would be no point in trying to see London as Virginia saw it while playing the tourist. I didn’t try to see the sights. Instead, I investigated the rhythms of the city. I followed the crowds. I let myself be fascinated.
From my hotel on Bloomsbury street, I wandered to and through Regent’s Park, one of Virginia’s favourites. I laid in the grass under trees she might’ve known. I walked around, found cobblestones and fountains, and people—people wherever I looked. I sat on a long green bench and told my jet-lagged eyes to people watch. This was one of the tasks I’d set for myself, my first step toward becoming (like) Virginia Woolf.
Strangers came and went, stayed and sat. I listened to their chatter, their quips, their tattle; I saw how they walked, what they wore, where they stopped—as if these things would somehow suggest who they were, where they were went, what they came from. I paid attention to the types of people who drew my eye, and I asked myself why. Like Virginia, I invented stories for them.
One woman, reading on a bench just like mine, sitting one-leg-crossed-over-the-other just like I do, post-it notes, the same colour as the trees all around us, haphazardly lining the pages of her book just like mine would be. She leaned back on the bench as if she it had been built for her, for that exact moment in time. She wasn’t reading for pleasure—the presence of post-it notes suggested a search for something—but she was taking pleasure in the story nonetheless. She might be a reader for a publisher, or doing research for her doctorate degree. Her glasses made her look, stereotypically, academic—no, I was projecting onto her. I was seeing too much of myself in her stance, her circumstance. I saw her as if in a mirrored world—me, but not-me.
On the main thoroughfare, there, by a map, was the most colourful couple I had ever seen. They were fashionable in a way that suggested they’d stopped paying attention to fashion in the mid-80s, or the mid-1900s, or maybe both. The sunlight dappled on them, for them. They looked like they’d waited their entire lives to be there; as if they’d done the whole thing, marriage, kids, jobs—but couldn’t quite wait the last year till retirement, and they’d left their meetings early, told the kids they weren’t invited. They looked like they were making their first transgression and were loving every minute of it. They had abandoned their suits and skirts and finally embraced the complementary technicoloured lives they’d always held close within them. They were extraordinary for the fact that they were newly liberated from being ordinary.
Further down the path, a little pig-tailed girl swooped in and out of her mother’s reach as she skipped in lopsided loops around their bench. She held aloft an apple larger than her hand, bitten down to the core. She watched as the wind blew her dress against her legs, watched the people passing by, how big they were, how small she was—she paused, staring—I followed her gaze and found a bird had caught her attention—in a single moment she had forgotten whatever she had been thinking of in the previous moment—another pause—she looked down, and she was startled by her dress, by it blowing against her legs, by the things she couldn’t see or understand, but could simply observe.
That afternoon, with my jet-lag-drunken perspective set on the public passersby, I saw pieces of myself in other people, lived in their lives for long lolopping minutes, until the sun went down, until my stomach stirred.