Katharine Smyth:
Forgetting Virginia Woolf

To Understand My Own Work I Had to Move Away From Hers

By  Katharine Smyth

It wasn’t until my junior year of college, when I took a tutorial on her work at Oxford University, that Virginia Woolf managed to escape the prim ranks of Women Writers to which my high school teachers had consigned her and became instead the nexus of my reading life. My tutor, Shane, was a sharp, wry Beckett scholar who had taught me Ulysses earlier in the year; he refused to forgive Woolf’s snarky dismissal of Joyce—a “queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples,” she famously called him—but as I read my way through every one of her novels, my own admiration for her only intensified. By the time I finished To the Lighthouse in the fourth week, I was convinced that her work held an inimitable power to move and express me.

That spring my parents visited me in England, where we embarked on a short, Woolf-inspired road trip. Three months had passed since my father, free of cancer for the first time in nearly a decade, had undergone an operation to replace his bladder; at every stop, he wandered away from the car and lit a cigarette. We went first to Knole, the historic family estate of Vita Sackville-West that was the model for Orlando’s own ancestral residence, and next to Charleston, the country home of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s older sister.

We visited Berwick Church, where Grant and Bell had painted every inch of wall as they had their home, and finally Monk’s House, Leonard and Virginia’s own country home in nearby Rodmell. There was a shaded pool in front, slithering with silver fish and calling to mind Woolf’s preferred metaphor for consciousness, and, in the back, a bare and sunlit room in which she wrote. Her ashes had once been buried beneath an elm, but the tree had subsequently died, and in its place—off to one side and ensconced in purple columbine—was a bronze bust in her likeness. It was a warm, brilliant day, but coupled with my recollection of those places is the image of my father, his body bent as though he were walking into the wind, lighting a cigarette and drifting away from the houses toward the deep green of the woods or fields in the distance.

I returned to America the following year. Burned out by Oxford, I had decided against writing an honors thesis, but I felt guilty about it, and when I happened upon the critic James Wood’s essay on Woolf’s mysticism, I changed my mind. I fervently disagreed with Wood’s arguments, and yet the decision to respond was personal, not intellectual: Wood had reminded me how much I missed her, how much her work had come to feel like home.

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Within a few weeks, she had once again become the most tangible of muses. An old Cuban poster of my mother’s hung above my computer, advertising a 1967 production of Quién Le Teme a Virginia Woolf? (“Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” I would whisper to the stylized canine lurking at the poster’s edge, loving the question’s suitability and silliness: “Not me! Not me!”) A postcard reproduction of George Charles Beresford’s lovely 1902 portrait was wedged in my mirror frame; a friend had sent it to me long before it meant anything. “Here she is—,” he’d written, “young + fresh + far from suicide, gazing off to the left of your room.”

The film adaptation of The Hours had just come out, and critics everywhere were fixated on Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose, but in my mind Virginia remained as beautiful as she was in Beresford’s sepia-toned photograph: 20 years old, her dark hair gathered in a slack bun at the nape of her neck. A lumpy beanbag doll in her more matronly image sat on my windowsill, its cartoonish features a fruitless reminder in Shane’s absence that she was not to be taken too seriously. Finally, the Woolf books I obsessively collected—her novels, essays, short stories, and diaries, but also biographies, Bloomsbury memoirs, and any work of criticism I could cheaply find—were strewn in messy stacks about my floor.

If my room was cluttered with evidence of Woolf’s influence, however, it was nothing compared with my mind, which seemed now to house two of us. My thesis took its title from a diary entry of April 8th, 1925:

I am under the impression of the moment, which is the complex one of coming back home from the South of France to this wide dim peaceful privacy—London (so it seemed last night) which is shot with the accident I saw this morning—a woman crying oh, oh, oh, faintly, pinned against the railings with a motor car on top of her. All day I have heard that voice… A great sense of the brutality and wildness of the world remains with me—there was this woman in brown walking along the pavement—suddenly a red film car turns a somersault, lands on top of her, and one hears this oh, oh, oh.

“A great sense of the brutality and wildness of the world.” It was the description by which I characterized Mrs. Ramsay’s perception of life’s mercilessness; it was the violence I saw as surging beneath the surface of all Woolf’s writing. But I think it was also the position that had drawn me to her in the first place. Indeed, I see now that the passage above—notable less for its recognition of brutality than for its grasp of the way in which brutality can insert itself into the most ordinary of moments—was destined to resonate with a young woman in my place. I was happy, healthy, and privileged; I had close friends and a boyfriend whom I loved.

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Yet I was also the adoring daughter of a depressive alcoholic, one who had been sick for half my lifetime, and Woolf’s vision of existence as a peaceful plain shot through with cruelty felt uncannily familiar. And as I continued to pass deeper into her writing—absorbing her fears of death and war and failure; her thoughts on art and writing; the illness she experienced and her sheer love of life—it came to feel as if it were her great understanding of the world’s wildness that remained with me.

Such absorption helped my thesis materialize with unfamiliar effortlessness, but by the time I moved to New York City after college, hoping to build my own career as a writer, it had become debilitating. Rather like Woolf’s extreme response to Proust—“such is the astonishing vibration and saturation and intensification that he procures,” she wrote to her friend Roger Fry, “that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t write like that”—my intense familiarity with her voice now threatened to erase my own. Every time I sat down at the computer, it was Woolf’s language that went flitting through my mind; I caught myself typing the same phrases over and over—“Time flaps on the mast,” my fingers insisted, “she would buy the flowers herself”—as if my hands belonged to her.

When the Scandinavian sun didn’t set in a story of mine, and my characters failed to see themselves reflected in a pane of glass, I thought I’d created something original. But then I realized: these were simply Woolf’s characters in disguise, gathered around the dining table for Bœuf en Daube in the clear light of day. I gave a friend a piece to read soon after that. “Have you ever thought about taking a break from Woolf?” she asked gently.

Woolf’s vision of existence as a peaceful plain shot through with cruelty felt uncannily familiar.

Then again, whenever my style—or content or process—strayed too far from my idol’s own, I heard her censure. “Writing must be formal,” she whispered when she could feel my sentences grow lazy. Or when I verged on self-indulgence: “if one lets the mind run loose it becomes egotistical; personal, which I detest.” Or, “too much rewriting reveals a failure of imagination,” when I spent days editing a single paragraph. If her strict guidelines did not appear, I had my own. I resisted humor that did not echo her subtle wit; I rejected any words or phrases that were not beautiful. I felt uneasy with all references to contemporary culture, as though locating a piece of writing in time and space were somehow distasteful. (The airplanes and motors cars of Mrs. Dalloway were acceptable; cell phones and the Internet were not.) Every time I broke these rules of mine, of hers, a kind of guilt seeped in—it was as if I were betraying her, as if I didn’t actually want to create something that Woolf could not have created herself.

It was around this time that I first dipped into The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom’s argument about the nature of literary inspiration. “No one can bear to see his own inner struggle as being mere artifice,” Bloom writes, meaning that one would not write a poem if one believed creative desire to be simply a product of poetic influence and not the fervent imagination. As a result, he suggests, a misreading must occur, a reaction against the very poetry that affects the poet most and which he calls the clinamen, or poetic misprision:

Poetic Influence—when it involves two strong, authentic poets—always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence . . . is a history of anxiety and self-serving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.

To accept Bloom’s argument—and I think I do—is to accept that when the act of “creative correction” does not take place, neither does great poetry. But what happens if we have no wish to misread the very literature that influences us most? If we (when pressed) must admit that we see no real need for improvement upon the original? If we want nothing more than to have written the very words committed to the page by another almost a century before?

And so it was that, plagued by these questions, I resolved to pack up my posters and stash my Woolfiana in my parents’ basement. I embarked on a series of travel pieces set in far-flung places Woolf had never thought to visit, and immersed myself in the realist novels of writers such as Trollope and Tolstoy, writers whom I loved, but whose writing did not threaten to dissolve the boundaries between them and me. And when my father died of bladder cancer in his lungs and spine—he was 59 years old, the same age as Virginia when she died in 1941—I turned to my friends and family for support, immune to the clarity and solace I might have found within her pages. My favorite writer’s influence had been scrubbed away.

*

I began to write about my father almost immediately, compelled not only by the overwhelming contradictions of his character, but also by the insufficiency of my emotions as I faced his absence. Indeed, I had spent half my life believing that his death would devastate me, but I was soon forced to reckon with the bewildering fact that, as it turned out, my grief was as fickle as weather, sometimes fierce but most often mild and subdued. “What does it mean then, what can it all mean?” Lily Briscoe asks herself in To the Lighthouse as she returns, a decade after Mrs. Ramsay’s death, to the family’s home in the Hebrides; it was the same question that I asked myself again and again as I struggled with my father’s tale. And yet it took me nearly ten years’ worth of false starts (and the rejection of not one but two different manuscripts) to realize I might find my answer in the very muse I had abandoned. To the Lighthouse, that novel I had cherished so fully and then purposefully hidden away, shared an almost eerie number of parallels with the story that I sought to tell; I believed I had succeeded at disentangling myself from my greatest influence, and yet the themes that most compelled me—loss and homecoming; marriage, failure, and the boundaries of intimacy—had been her themes all along, no more divisible from my experience of the world than my visit to Monk’s House was from that image of my father walking into the wind.

Almost three years have passed since that epiphany, perhaps the only real one of my life; my book, which I started writing that very day, was published last month. But as thankful as I am to Woolf for helping me to better understand my father’s life and death, I am just as thankful for our reunion, for the much-needed correction that it offered. I used to suspect—secretly, of course—that I actually was Virginia Woolf. How else to explain the sense of déjà vu I felt upon first reading her diary, or my refusal to identify with the young disciples to whom she speaks in A Room of One’s Own? How else to understand my feelings of confusion and betrayal when I learned of new ways in which we differed; or the corollary, my relief when the details of our lives were thrown momentarily into alignment? I rejoiced when she showed weaknesses to which I could relate—how soothing, the discovery that her disdain for Joyce was partly rooted in her insecurity!—and even disparaged the idea she was a genius, convinced by our kinship that we must be not-geniuses together. (Returning to her magnificent oeuvre with an additional decade of experience has shown me the folly of that particular conceit.) And yet, far from crushing, I found it weirdly comforting to accept the great gulf that divides us after all.

The revelation that Virginia Woolf is towering and distinct has stripped me of the crippling anxiety she once aroused; even, I think, of the impulse to misread her. There may be some truth to that zany, callow conceit of mine, to the conviction that there exists some numinous, timeless connection between certain artists and certain selves that transcends reason altogether. But to recover Woolf’s work as a woman in her thirties, a woman who has lost her favorite parent and is now more interested in exploring that common experience than in accumulating evidence for an honors thesis or trying to measure up against its every word, has afforded a larger and more generous reading. This one provides a stay against the world’s confusion while also clearing space in it for my voice.

Katharine Smyth
Katharine Smyth
Katharine Smyth is a graduate of Brown University. She has worked for The Paris Review and taught at Columbia University, where she received her MFA in nonfiction. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her book All The Lives We Ever Lived is out from Crown.





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