Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf.

Jacob's Room (1922) is Virginia Woolf's third published novel, and follows The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919), yet it was, she felt, one of her earliest pieces of writing where she began, at forty years old, to say something in her own voice. Indeed, the previous two novels were far more conventional: Jacob's Room represents her step from the almost Victorian style into modernism. It was also her first novel not to be published by her half-brother Gerald Duckworth of Gerald Duckworth and Company (now Duckworth Overlook): it was published by her own printing press, the Hogarth Press.

Thoby Stephen by George Charles Beresford.
It's a novel that gradually came together during World War I: Virginia was very much anti-violence (there was an incident when, as a little girl, she and her brother Thoby were fighting but she suddenly stopped, thinking, "why hurt another person?"), and she found the patriotism and propaganda greatly distasteful. Jacob's Room, in one sense, is a war novel in that it depicts a man, Jacob Flanders, fated (if that's the word) to join the Great War, yet there is no patriotism or the glory. In another sense, as To the Lighthouse (1927) was in part inspired by the grief at the loss of her mother in 1895 (when Woolf was thirteen), loss also is an underlying feature in Jacob's Room: Jacob is her brother Thoby (who died in 1906 of typhoid), as Mrs. Ramsey of To the Lighthouse is Julia Stephen.

Scarborough in the 1890s.
It is a particularly sombre and complex novel, and so everything I've said so far and everything I will say is with caution. Though inspired by Thoby (who incidentally began the Bloomsbury Group's Thursday evening meetings), really to say Jacob is Thoby is rather simplistic. Jacob is a man, perhaps almost any man, who had a life, relationships, and passions as any man, any civilian, who became a soldier. The novel almost searches for Jacob, as his brother Archer does in the very beginning,
"Ja-cob! Ja-cob!" Archer shouted.
By the end, we're not much closer,
"Jacob! Jacob!" cried Bonamy, standing by the window.
As Woolf writes,
It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done.
Roger Fry's Landscape with Shepherd,
near Villa Madama, Rome (1891)
And so we try to follow these hints, and perhaps we try to sum him up anyway (isn't it natural to do so, however fruitless?): we follow Jacob from Scarborough (North Yorkshire) with his brother and recently widowed mother Betty, then to Trinity College of the University of Cambridge (where Thoby attended, as too did Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Lord Byron, John Dryden, and Lord Tennsyon to name a few) where he meets Clara Durrant, then to London where he meets Florinda, then to Essex, then to France, Italy, and Greece, then back to London. Throughout these numerous travels the point of view shifts from the women in his life: Mrs. Flanders his mother, Clara, and Florinda: Jacob is, in this sense, a sum of different impressions of those who he is somehow involved with. As a result there is some inconsistency with no real or definitive answers. Unlike Mrs. Dalloway (1925) for example, this seems very much about outer life as opposed to inner. We see the public life contrasted with the private (shown in Jacob's own room), an exploration of sexuality, and an awful feeling of temporality where the future at times echoes the past, and even the other way around.

It is a particularly difficult novel and not for the faint hearted. Woolf here is beginning to shape her craft which she perfects in subsequent novels (particularly, in my opinion, in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse). It's hard to simply 'go with' as one might in her later works, or indeed Proust's In Search of Lost Time (which she was reading at the time of writing Jacob's Room and was very influenced by), but it's important nonetheless because it is a kind of bridge from early, more conventional Woolf to the Woolf we know and love.

A few weeks after its publication The Guardian reviewed it, saying,
Her book is certainly remarkable; one recalls with interest The Voyage Out, but that wasn't like this; its method was, comparatively, traditional. Perhaps it is partly by the aid of the novelists that we have come to imagine our lives as sequences, but Mrs Woolf won't have that at all. She provides us with chunks of what seems arbitrary and is certainly not explicit, and leaves us to sort them. There is art in it, of course, and doubtless the unaccustomed reader permits himself to be disconcerted too much by the disjointedness. Mrs Woolf has no turn for the plausible, and scorns the canny. But she does not appear to have much interest in character except as it is manifested in the capacity to receive and record impressions.
Their review seems almost as cautious as mine: it is a brilliant piece of fiction, and the concept is most admirable, and I am, as ever, in awe of Woolf's writing. But it is an extraordinarily difficult novel. The very obvious example is with an Post-Impressionist painting (for example Roger Fry's; one is pictured above), full of light and colour and feeling, but with blurred boundaries, and distortions. 'Impression' is the word - it is an impression and it literally impresses upon one, so difficult it is to come up with an adequate response to it, however much one was moved by it. It is not a good introduction to Woolf, but it is a great read.


This novel moves around the south of England and into Europe, but I picked it for my Reading Challenge for Cambridgeshire. Jacob Flanders, in the third chapter, goes to the University of Cambridge in October 1906 (Trinity College).

King's College Chapel.
"They say the sky is the same everywhere. Travellers, the shipwrecked, exiles, and the dying draw comfort from the thought, and no doubt if you are of a mystical tendency, consolation, and even explanation, shower down from the unbroken surface. But above Cambridge - anyhow above the roof of King's College Chapel - there is a difference. Out at sea a great city will cast a brightness into the night. Is it fanciful to suppose the sky, washed into the crevices of King's College Chapel, lighter, thinner, more sparkling than the sky elsewhere? Does Cambridge burn not only into the night, but into the day?"
Trinity College.

"Such is the fabric through which the light must shine, if shine it can - the light of all these languages, Chinese and Russian, Persian and Arabic, of symbols and figures, of history, of things that are known and things that are about to be known. So that if at night, far out at sea over the tumbling waves, one saw a haze on the waters, a city illuminated, a whiteness even in the sky, such as that now over the Hall of Trinity where they're still dining, or washing up plates, that would be the light burning there - the light of Cambridge."

Further Reading


  1. You have such a wonderful way of critiquing books. I am envious of your analytical and writing skills. My Woolf experiences are limited to Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse; I remain indifferent about the latter but completely enthusiastic about the former. (Note: I did not care for the MD homage "sequel" by Michael Cunningham -- The Hours.)

    1. Thank you, I appreciate that - this was a hard post to write, so thank you :)

      I actually *did* like The Hours, the film at least, but I think I should admit that it was mainly because it looked pretty that I liked it. As I said in another Virginia Woolf post, there's a danger of framing Woolf's work in terms of her suicide. The Hours was very guilty of that.

  2. Great review, you and I share many similar thoughts on this novel. I am always curious to read what others have to say about the works of Virginia Woolf. I like the way you highlight the idea of the novel "searching for Jacob" even though it is a fruitless endeavor. Here is my review if interested: http://literaturefrenzy.blogspot.ca/2014/10/jacobs-room-by-virginia-woolf.html

    1. Thanks for sharing that, I'll go have a read :)

  3. Not for the fainthearted? Uh-oh. But I think I can muster up enough courage to try another Virginia Woolf at some point in my life. I almost bought a copy of Night and Day. Maybe I should read her more conventional novels first.

    1. I really like her conventional novels, Night and Day and The Voyage Out are favourites. If you're interested I'm wondering if I might propose a read-along of The Voyage Out in March to celebrate it's centennial - I think it would be worth marking as it was her first published novel. :) It would be something I'd announce in March and go for on it's publication date (26th March).

    2. I reviewed the plot of The Voyage - sounds intriguing. I may be interested. And then maybe I'll check out Nigh and Day.

    3. I'll let you know if I go for it :)

    4. I would definitely be interested in a Voyage Out read-along at the end of March...esp since it would coincide with my own personal voyage out to Vietnam at that time :-)

    5. Excellent - I'll go for it, then :)

      Vietnam - wow! I hope you enjoy it - I'll watch out for your posts :)

    6. Just curious, where in Vietnam are you going to travel to?

  4. Jacob's Room does bridge the gap between Woolf's early novels and her later ones. You can see her changing voice and style in it. I remember liking it, although not as much as I like Mrs. Dalloway. You make me want to pick it up and read it again. I guess that's what I like about Woolf's novels...one read-through is never enough. Great review!

    1. Exactly right. I read Jacob's Room a few years ago and was lost with it. This read was a bit better. It's good, but not a favourite! :)

  5. This one sounds interesting, even though it is a building block to her better known novels. I'm intrigued by the title as well. I wonder if we truly have a hard time knowing people because of their "private rooms"?

    I like the idea of reading Woolf's books in order, as I have a feeling it would give much more insight into them.

    1. Reading them in order might well give more insight. It would be interesting to do that with a lot of authors, and I did intend to do that with Chaucer but I never did!

      Next Woolf I want to read is The Voyage Out (see my comment to Ruth above - would you be interested in a read-along? A no-pressure one of course, my usual style!), which is her first. And I've a yearning to re-read Night and Day. After that I'll be leaping forward to her 1930s novels! :)

    2. Of course, I would love to read-along. Perhaps she'll pull me out of my cranky-towards-20th-century authors mood that I've acquired lately. And since you're the Woolf-expert, I consider myself in esteemed company. ;-)

    3. I'm not so into 20th Century myself, at least not after.... I don't know, say 1915. Modernists, in short! I like some Edwardian novels, but I'm not that familiar with novels of that period I don't think. Victorian's the best.

      Glad you'll join. I'll announce it early March for the end of the month. :D


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

The Prevention of Literature by George Orwell.

Moments of Being: Slater's Pins Have No Points by Virginia Woolf.