A heroine bites a little dust

Some time ago, someone on Twitter mentioned the fact that Virginia Woolf had written a book called ‘Night and Day’ and asked whether anyone had read it. I’m a great fan of Virginia Woolf, whom I studied at college, I was impressed by her skill with language and her wonderful ability to get inside a characters head, a technique she invented, believing that telling her readers what her characters were doing and saying was only half the story and that it wasn’t complete unless she let them know what they were thinking too. She called it, ‘the stream of consciousness’. Nowadays it is used by virtually every writer alive and is called ‘points of view’ or ‘pov’ for short.

It was a terrible and revealing disappointment to me to discover that this book was actually rather badly written. The imagery often felt strained and contrived. In the first chapter she says ‘The air in the drawing room was thickened by blue grains of mist.’ Which seemed a good image to me, but by the last chapter she was writing that ‘The light lay in soft golden grains upon the deep obscurity of the hushed and sleeping household.’ And that seemed over the top. It wasn’t what I expected of her. And the characters, although very clearly drawn, were extremely unsympathetic, being self-centered, idle and, it seemed to me, so firmly rooted in their own class that they were thoroughly out of touch with ‘lesser’ fellow human beings for whom they had no concern at all.

Halfway through I began to wonder when she had written it, and checked. It was in 1919 and it was her second novel written when she was 37. Almost a beginner’s piece.

So if you’re a beginner in this trade, take heart. Even a great like Virginia Woolf didn’t get it quite right in her earlier books. They were published of course because her husband had set up a printing press to ensure that they were. I wonder how these early books would have got on if they’d been submitted to one of our present day agents or one of our rich and powerful publishers. I had to go back to ‘To the Lighthouse’ to comfort myself that I hadn’t made a mistake in my estimate of her talent all those years ago and I hadn’t. The work was every bit as good as I remembered it.

So my heroine only bit a little bit of dust and I can still say respec’ to her.


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