Thursday, 31 July 2014

Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf.

Last weekend I finished Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf, a collection of autobiographical writings (edited by Jeanne Schulkind, and first published in 1972, and again with new material in 1985). It's divided into three:
1. Reminiscences, from 1907.
2. The Memoir Club Contributions: 
  • 22 Hyde Park Gate, 1920 or 1921.
  • Old Bloomsbury, 1921 or 1922.
  • Am I a Snob?, 1936.
3. Sketches of the Past, 1939 - 1940.
It largely focuses on the early life of Virginia Woolf, from her birth to around 1907, and it also gives biographical details of her parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen. Before getting into it all, though, I think it might be helpful to have in mind who is who in Virginia Woolf's family:

The Stephens

Leslie Stephen,
Woolf's father.
1832 - 1904.
Julia Stephen,
Woolf's mother.
1846 - 1895.
George Duckworth,
Woolf's half-brother from Julia's first marriage.
1868 - 1834.
Stella Duckworth,
Woolf's half-sister from Julia's first marriage.
1869 - 1897.
Gerald Duckworth.
Woolf's half-brother from Julia's first marriage.
1870 - 1937.
Laura Stephen, Woolf's
half-sister from Leslie's first marriage.
1870 - 1945.
Vanessa Bell née Stephen,
Woolf's sister.
1879 - 1961.
Thoby Stephen,
Woolf's brother.
1880 - 1906.
Virginia Woolf,
née Stephen.
1882 - 1941.
Adrian Stephen,
Woolf's brother.
1883 - 1948.

It is, as I've said, a collection of writings: the 'Reminiscences', which would appear to have been started in 1907, contain Woolf's memories of Julia Stephen, her mother, her sister Vanessa Bell and half-sister Stella Duckworth. They were addressed to Julian Bell, Vanessa's son, who was born in 1908. The exact dates of the first two essays from 'The Memoir Club Contributions' are uncertain, though it is believed that '22 Hyde Park Gate' was written either in 1920 or 1921, and 'Old Bloomsbury either 1921 or 1922. 'Am I a Snob?' was written in 1936, and all these essays would have been read at Molly MacCarthy's Memoir Club, which formed in 1920. Other members include Vanessa and Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, Adrian Stephen, Saxon Sydney-Turner, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, and Desmond and Molly MacCarthy. It's unlikely she would have read faithfully from these essays. Finally, 'Sketches of the Past', which were essentially a sort of draft for what could have been her memoirs, was written between 1939 and 1940.

My favourite of these five essays is the final part, 'Sketches of the Past' from which the title Moments of Being derives. She began writing on Tuesday the 18th April 1939, a time where she was preoccupied writing Roger Fry (published in 1940) and, from 1st September 1939, the beginning of the Second World War (Neville Chamberlain was to declare war on 3rd September 1939), to around November 1940 (she died four months later in March 1941). In it, she writes again of her early life: her difficult relationship with her father, particularly after her mother's death, her mother, her sisters, her first memories, her thoughts on Victorian family life, family holidays, her relationships with her half-brothers George and Gerald (so far similar themes from the previous sections of the book), and, wonderfully, her thoughts on the nature of writing biographies and memoirs:
Often when I have been writing one of my so-called novels I have been baffled by this same problem; that is, how to describe what I call in my private short-hand - "non-being". Every day includes much more non-being than being. Yesterday for example, Tuesday the 18th April, was [as] it happened a good day; above the average in "being". It was fine; I enjoyed writing about Roger; I walked over Mount Misery and along the river; and save that the tide was out, the country, which I notice very closely always, was coloured and shaded as I like - there were the willows, I remember, all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue. I also read Chaucer with pleasure; and began a book - the memoirs of Madame de la Fayette - which interested me. These separate moments of being were however embedded in many more moments of non-being. I have already forgotten what Leonard and I talked about at lunch; and at tea; although it was a good day the goodness was embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool. This is always so. A great part of every day is not lived consciously. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; writing orders to Mabel; washing; cooking dinner; book-binding. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger. I had a slight temperature last week; almost the whole day was non-being. The real novelist can somehow convey both sorts of being. I think Jane Austen can; and Trollope; perhaps Thackerary and Dickens and Tolstoy. I have never been able to do both. I tried - in Night and Day; and in The Years. But I will leave the literary side alone for the moment.
I love this. For this is why I read, and why I read Woolf.

Manuscript of 'A Sketch from the Past'.
These Sketches, whilst dwelling on similar "events" or "moments of being" (from which the title derives, and note that this is not the title given by Woolf herself: these memoirs are incomplete and were not intended for publication), differ in perspective. This is Woof 32 years older than the Reminiscences: she has written already about her troubled childhood not only in The Memoir Club Contributions but most notably To the Lighthouse. She has read Freud. She has (of course) matured, and has grown more accepting, and has more insight: the slight shift on perspective of her mother Julia is quite telling. From this aspect alone we learn a lot about Virginia Woolf.

There are so many biographies of Virginia Woolf, but to learn about her in her words we must depend upon the diaries (there are at least five volumes), a plethora of letters (many, many volumes), and this: Moments of Being, a short (less than 200 pages) collection of autobiographical writings. For the Woolf fan it will naturally be essential reading, but I dare say this would also be a good introduction for those who are unfamiliar with her, and for those who enjoy reading about and studying the Victorian age. From one who has lived through the later years of Queen Victoria we learn so much, and there are some beautiful details perhaps not yet realised. And it's Woolf: carefully considered and beautifully written, however much it may be a "draft". I love this book, and I wish she had have moved beyond 1910 and written about the whole of her life. Sadly her suicide in 1941 prevented this. Nevertheless, this book is an essential read.


  1. Woolf is truly correct about the "non-being" aspect of people's lives.

    I have not read anything about Woolf, and I struggled through Mrs. Dalloway. But I am really fascinated about her, and I think I would be interested in reading about her or more books by her.

    Have you ever read The Hours or watched the movie? It was the movie that caused me to have some compassion for her life and to relate to her, but I do not know how accurately her life is portrayed.

    1. I loved the idea of the "non-being" - been thinking about it a lot since I've read it.

      Mrs Dalloway isn't the easiest, but it's one of my favourites. If you're interested in reading more, then I'd say (and this is off the top of my head, so don't take this as a rule) - there's different sides / aspects to her.

      1) The pre-experiemental/ pre-modern, pre-1922: The Voyage Out and Night and Day. These are more traditionally novel-like (there's a sloppy sentence! But as I say, top of my head!).

      2) The modernist, post-1922, starting with Jacob's Room (1922). The you've got Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, The Years, and Between the Acts - I don't want to comment on the last two: I wasn't keen on them and didn't feel that I *got* them. But the first three - they get a bit more experimental / modernist with each novel. The Waves, I personally think, is not for an introduction to Woolf. I dare say To the Lighthouse is a good intro out of these.

      3) The biographies: Flush, Orlando, and Roger Fry. Orlando is so wonderful, I really do recommend that one. And Flush is great fun - it's the biography of Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel. Both are great intros to Woolf, but I'd always recommend Orlando over Flush. And Roger Fry I've not read.

      4) The non-fiction. A Room of One's Own and The Common Reader, which is great - full of essays on reading, and on various authors (eg Jane Austen, George Eliot). I don't think people who aren't too familiar with the classics would be that into it, but it's ideal for you. :)

      Anyway, I got a bit carried away there, I know you didn't ask for all of that! :) But it may be vaguely useful to anyone looking to read Woolf.

      I have watched The Hours and I loved it! It's not desperately accurate, but I think outlining the inaccuracies is a bit pedantic - the spirit of the film is great. I must watch that again - I'm going to look out for a DVD (only got the video, and the video player's broken, and besides the only videos in this house are The Hours and Only Fools and Horses!).

  2. I'm like Ruth - I'm very curious about VW but haven't done anything about it except watch & read The Hours (& read A Room of One's Own - but I was wearing my feminist hat not my VW hat when reading that)...and several of your posts.

    I love the quote you included - LOTS of food for thought.....thanks.

    1. Glad you liked that quote, I think it's a good one :) But Woolf *is* full of good ones.... :D

  3. This sounds fascinating and, as a Woolf fan, it's on my list to read! I'm currently reading a biography of Virginia Woolf (written by Hermione Lee - have you read it?) but I would definitely be interested in learning about her life from her own perspective. I love the quote you've included in this post.


    1. Hermione Lee is one of the ones I haven't read, but I do intend to soon. It's such a tome, I was a bit intimidated. I'm looking forward to it now I have a bit more knowledge under my belt :)

  4. I didn't know this book, so thank you for letting me discover it :)
    I particularly enjoyed the text from "Sketches from the past" - the non-being concept sounds just so true to me. I've only read "The Waves" but I'd surely love to read all her other major works, at least!


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