I have a sixth sense for knowing when I am going to love something. The first time I saw the DVD cover of ‘American Beauty’, I knew it would become really important to me, and that I absolutely had to see it. When I saw a mysterious grey hardback with nothing on the cover but the word ‘Stoner’ in gold lettering, I knew I had to read that book. I felt the exact same ‘knowing’ when I picked up a copy of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’, several years ago. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get through this one. I’ve had the same frustration with Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, and at the time of writing I still haven’t read it, but when I do, I know it will be a momentous occasion, an orgasm of a literary experience.
One of the first things Virginia Woolf’s writing has taught me, is that there will come a time when you are ready. The second thing I learnt from her is that things, or at least your to-be-read pile, don’t always go the way you expect, and that deviating from expectation will be one of the most rewarding things of your life. And so, the first book of Woolf’s that I read was not Mrs Dalloway, but Orlando.
I came across Orlando first of all by searching for a light read just over a month or so earlier, which of course led me to Fried Green Tomatoes, and then from that I began searching for books about women, and books about sexuality. We read Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Dolls House’ in my A2 English class, and I read ‘The Help’, and I read ‘The Colour Purple’. These individual books formed a snow capped mountain in my head, and Orlando was the catalytic earthquake that set me off.
Perhaps the first real thing Woolf taught me was about the value of a struggle, because I found this book so hard to read, and a lot of reviews on Goodreads say the same thing. There was no way I was giving up though. I’ve been dying to read a Virginia Woolf since I was around 13, and now was the time. I think Orlando may have been harder than I used to find Mrs Dalloway, actually. This was because the chapters were pretty massive (the books isn’t huge, but my edition is around 250 pages of actual novel, over 300 with the annotations, and there are only 6 chapters) and in parts, it just seems to go on and on. I was shocked when I looked on my goodreads and realised that it had only taken me a couple of days to read, because it really felt like I had been at it for weeks. Then again, the book does span nearly 400 years, and the way Woolf writes is so beautiful, it’s what I imagine every ‘sexy’ yoghurt advert wants to convey to women when they show beautiful ladies in draped in fine fabrics, floating carelessly away on pink, feather down clouds. Of course, Woolf is slightly more convincing, and so much sexier.
So then I got the end, I thought ‘huh’, put it to one side, and went to sleep. But over the next couple of days… oh. my. god. It just hit me how incredible this book was. I genuinely feel like my whole life has been changed by this book. I feel so awakened by this novel. Truly, I am so grateful for this book, and I urge everyone to read it.
It was a life-changing read because it challenges gender norms, it challenges the role of women, it challenges the roles of men, it challenges the role of clothes. I felt especially enlightened on her presentation of clothes – ‘there is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking‘. This is something that I don’t think is really discussed in the main stream today, and here Virginia is, talking about it so beautifully, in 1928! I think her literature is truly revolutionary. Woolf has opened my eyes to so many different kinds of oppression that all of us face in 21st century life, and has invited me, in the most stealthy of ways, to rise up against it, so that before I knew it, Virginia had entered into the very core of my being and changed me, irrevocably. I would use the word insidious to describe this transfer of knowledge, if it wasn’t one of the most beautiful things to have happened to me.
I think that throughout my teenage years so far, I have been a little bit of a feminist, and I have been breeding anarchism, in my own ways, but I didn’t really know it. In my early teens, I rarely dressed like a girl would, and I tried to remove aspects of femininity from my life, even the colour pink, because I suppose I didn’t want that gender norm thrust upon me, and I saw that it didn’t suit me at all. I think, even without thinking about it, that I saw the effects of that sort of lifestyle on mothers of girls I knew, but instead of it awakening a sense of compassion, it bread a prejudice against women, because I didn’t want to be like that. Why did every other young girl think I was crazy for not wanting kids? Why had they dreamt of their ‘dream wedding’, and I had not? Perhaps thats another issue altogether, but I wish I had had Virginia around when I was younger, so that she could’ve helped me understand that what I saw as weak and stupid was not really their fault. Now I’m not mad just at women, I’m mad at everyone. I really can’t believe that we’ve let it go on this long.
Reading Orlando encouraged me to read more feminist literature, such as Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’, which was another astoundingly beautiful novel. I think many women (and men) struggle to see the relation between the feminist movement that existed in the early and mid 20th century, and the lives of women today, but read ‘The Awakening’, with the knowledge that Chopin received such biting criticism that she did not write another novel and pretty much gave up writing altogether, and try to reconsider that view. ‘The Awakening’ is tame when held up to the standards of media we consume today, but Chopin received criticism like ‘one more clever writer gone wrong‘ for writing a book about the liberation of women from the oppression of marriage. What does that say about the state of women? To me it spoke volumes about the legacy of the feminist cause, and Kate’s story troubled me so much, as an aspiring artist myself, I try to imagine for myself the crushing effect of such harsh criticism, for writing something that she believed in. Even though it affected her life in a negative way, I am so grateful that she wrote this book. I was born 100 years after it was published, and reading it 118 years after its publication, it felt so fresh. It’s an absolute must read.
I really don’t think I can do justice to the profound effect that Orlando has had on me. I suppose all I really can say now is that it is amazing. I am happy to report that I finished reading Mrs Dalloway a few hours before writing this, and that was also amazing, in so many different ways. I urge and implore every single person to read her novels. The work of Virginia Woolf is truly life changing.