A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is both predictable and unpredictable.  First, with any of her works she is not a writer that is easily deciphered or labelled, and conversely, one never knows when reading her works, precisely what one is going to discover.  In the short story, A Haunted House, Woolf delivers a narrative that is only 10 paragraphs long, yet manages not only to convey a story, but make it perplexingly obscure and delightfully poetic.

The story begins, “Whatever hour you woke, there was a door shutting.”  A rather conventional beginning for a ghost story, but Woolf soon begins to weave other nebulous possibilities into its framework.  Two old ghosts appear to be moving through this house, searching for something.  Hundreds of years ago, the woman had died and the husband had left the house only to return to it later.  A young couple sleeps while they hunt always for the treasure that appears either to be lost or just out of their grasp. The ghosts visit the narrator and her husband sleeping in their room and appear to find the treasure in their quiet repose, in their love, and all is “Safe, Safe, Safe.” ……..

The Haunted House
source ArtUK

Most analyses of this short story categorize it as juxtaposition between the dead and living couple, the dead couples’ loss of the “treasure” and their apparent finding of it again in the living couple, as the reader finally realizes the theme of love threaded throughout the story.  Well, yes, I’m certain that’s an accurate analysis, but I had another less discernible thought flit through my mind while I was reading:  some of the descriptions and tone reminded me of an author’s search for words or meaning to imbue their writing with a sense of life.  The ghostly couple could have represented the writer and the rooms of the house compartments in the mind.  Here’s an example:

“….. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.”

The allusions to reading, pencil, margin, and book, and the references to the house being empty and the doors open and the search, reminded me of a writer struggling to find the precise words to bring his/her story to vivid life, to make something living from something dead.  Am I crazy?  Perhaps, but with Woolf, the very act of writing always seems to be a part of the writing itself, so closely incorporated that it is difficult to separate the two.  In any case, it was an interesting story, as only Woolf could make a story a page long.  The complete text of the story can be found HERE.

Next week, I’ve drawn a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart.  I remember reading this one in elementary school and being quite scared by it.  We’ll see how effective it remains from an adult reading.

Week 8 – Deal Me In Challenge – Nine of Clubs

Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton

“Begin here.”

Introducing Journal of a Solitude, another out-of-order book for my WEM Biographies Project.  I’m finding the remaining biographies heavy on U.S. content, and being a Canadian I wasn’t at all familiar with May Sarton.  Born in Belgium, when German troops invaded the country, Sarton’s family fled to England, then to Boston, Massachusetts.  As a writer, she wrote a number of novels, poems and memoirs, mostly a commentary on her life and experiences on aging, friendship, depression, lesbianism, doubt, failure, the simple pleasures of life, and other personal musings.

Published in 1973, Journal of a Solitude is a response to her novel Plant Dreaming Deep.  Sarton stated that in the latter novel, people felt that in her they had found an intimate friend, but with Journal, she attempted to shatter that image and produce a reality of herself that was stark and intense, yet honest.  Sarton’s initial description holds a sincere, startling, simple candor:

“I am an ornery character, often hard to get along with.  The things I cannot stand, that make me flare up like a cat making a fat tail, are pretentiousness, smugness, the coarse grain that often show itself in turn of phrase.  I hate vulgarity, coarseness of soul.  I hate small talk with a passionate hatred.  Why?  I suppose because any meeting with another human being is collision for me now.  It is always expensive, and I will not waste my time.  It is never a waste of time to be outdoors, and never a waste of time to lie down and rest even for a couple of hours.  It is then that images float up and then that I plan my work.  But it is a waste of time to see people who have only a social surface to show.  I will make every effort to find out the real person, but if I can’t, then I am upset and cross.  Time wasted is poison.”


“…. I am an impossible creature, set apart by a temperament I have never learned to use as it could be used, thrown off by a word, a glance, a rainy day, or one drink too many.  My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there.  I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.  I write too many letters and too few poems.  It may be outwardly silent here but in the back of my mind is a clamor of human voices, too many needs, hopes, fears ….”


The Common, Nelson, New Hampshire, 1914
source Wikipedia

Sarton’s journal covers one year and gives the reader a warm, intimate view into her life in rural Nelson, New Hampshire.  As she paints her life with words, her thoughts go deep, exposing the beauty around her but also the turmoil inside her:

“I think of these pages as a way of doing that.  For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision.  I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation.  But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self.  I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose —- to find out what I think, to know where I stand.  I am unable to become what I see.  I feel like an inadequate machine, a machine that breaks down at crucial moments, grinds to a dreadful halt, ‘won’t go,’ or, even worse, explodes in some innocent person’s face.”

In spite of her success as a writer, depression haunted Sarton; it was a companion that she could not seem to shake and she admits to thoughts of suicide:

“Cracking open the inner world again, writing even a couple of pages, threw me back into depression, not made easier by the weather, two gloomy days of darkness and rain.  I was attacked by a storm of tears, those tears that appear to be related to frustration, to buried anger, and come upon me without warning ………”

Yet, in spite of the adversity of her regular despondency, Sarton managed to decorate her life and the pages of her book with stories of the death of a friend, her bird, the battles with the neighbourhood racoons and her intense love of gardening.  The tales resonated with insight, as Sarton was always examining life.  Even the letter of a twelve-year-old girl, produced a philosophical rumination:

“In the mail a letter from a twelve-year-old child, enclosing poems, her mother having psuhed her to ask my opinion.  This child does really look at things, and I can write something helpful, I think.  But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or a craft.  Instant success is the order of the day; ‘I want it now!’  I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines.  Machines do thing very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start at first try.  So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value.”

While Sarton lived in solitude, she at times travelled for speaking engagements and in each place she received something to ponder, whether it was the struggle of women, the advent of materialism, or the sometimes suffocating pressure that life laid upon her in the form of human contact. The journal skips along from day to day, emotion to emotion, task to task, her reflections personal, yet one senses a soul reaching out for something just beyond its grasp.  I’ve read numerous works on religious contemplative living, and each has been rich with a vibrancy that is quite startling contrasted with the starkness of their existence.  Sarton’s journal reverses this observation; her existence is filled with what she craves — writing, gardening, solitude —- yet, her inner soul lacks peace.


While Journal of a Solitude was a mildly enjoyable book for me, I can’t say that I’m going to rush out and read another by Sarton.  Even though, there was intimacy in her words, I never really grew to know her, perhaps because she didn’t seem to know herself.  The searching quality of the work brought a type of disquiet, and while I had empathy for her struggles, there was a melody of despair that hovered around her and echoed long after the book was done.  Life was an unconquerable bête noire for Sarton, ever present and often discouraging.  Which was all rather sad.

In this book, there is an enlightening reference to Virginia Woolf, of whom Sarton was familiar, perhaps illustrating the unusual temperaments of authors such as herself:

“When I was young and knew Virginia Woolf slightly, I learned something that startled me — that a person may be ultrasensitive and not warm.  She was intensely curious and plied one with questions, teasing, charming questions that made the young person glow at being even for a moment the object of her attention.  But I did feel at times as though I were ‘a specimen American young poet’ to be absorbed and filed away in the novelist’s store of vicarious experience.  Then one had also the daring sense that anything could be said, the sense of freedom that was surely one of the keys to the Bloomsbury ethos, a shared secret amusement at human folly or pretensions.  She was immensely kind to have seen me for at least one tea, as she did for some years whenever I was in England, but in all that time I never felt warmth, and this was startling.”

Why are so many artists tortured souls?  Is it because of the solitude they need to hone their skills, and the lack of human contact diminishes their souls?  With their art, are they sharing of themselves, giving of themselves and therefore becoming less?  The act of creation should be life-giving to both the giver and receiver, yet in many cases, why does one seem to benefit and the other is hindered?  Or have I asked the unanswerable question?  Sarton didn’t know the answer and I believe this question was one of many that haunted her through her long yet productive life.


The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

“As the streets that lead from the Strand to the Embankment are very narrow, it is better not to walk down them arm-in-arm.”

O at Behold the Stars is a Virginia Woolf aficionado and when she suggested a read-along of Woolf’s, The Voyage Out, I was immediately on board (excuse the pun!).  I’d loved To The Lighthouse, but Mrs. Dalloway had left me in a rather uncertain and confused stupor, while Orlando somehow didn’t resonate with me at all, so I wondered how I would react to this novel.  It could have gone either way.

The Voyage of Life Childhood (1842)
Thomas Cole
source Wikipedia

“The voyage had begun, and had begun happily with a soft blue sky, and a calm sea.  The sense of untapped resources, things to say as yet unsaid, made the hours significant, so that in future years the entire journey perhaps would be represented by this one scene, with the sound of sirens hooting in the river the night before, somehow mixing in.”

The Voyage of Life: Youth (1842)
Thomas Cole
source Wikipedia

In The Voyage Out, we meet a myriad of characters, but the main focus is on Rachel Vinrace, a young sheltered English girl who departs on a voyage with her uncle and aunt to South America.  The only accomplishment in life that she has mastered is playing the piano, which she does with artistic efficiency.  During the voyage and at their destination she encounters a number of characters, from Mr. and Mrs. Dalloway (do they sound familiar?  Yes, these are the characters from Woolf’s later novel, Mrs. Dalloway) on the ship, to Hirst and Hewet, two young men who capture her interest and stimulate her introspection, as well as various other male and female characters.  Through this cast Woolf conducts an examination, from the microscopic world of human nature, giving the reader an insightful tapestry of the faults and dreams of the various personalities, to the macroscopic world of Edwardian England with all its characteristics of pleasure, luxury and hope. Just as the era brought a change in social structure, we can see changes in Rachel, as she is rather abruptly pulled from her sheltered, unadventurous world and introduced into active society and more pointedly, the admiration of men.  Still, the alterations in Rachel’s character from her experiences, happen in a rather muted and introspective manner and one must wonder at the end, if any true changes occurred at all.

The Voyage of Life: Manhood (1842)
Thomas Cole
source Wikipedia

The sense of isolation seeps and oozes out of the pages of the novel and its characters appear immersed in it, as if in a fog.  The voyage itself isolates the characters from the society with which they are familiar, the country they visit being new and exotic, yet the book also indicates an emotional detachment from each other and even oneself.

“…… To feel anything strongly was to create an abyss between oneself and others who feel strongly perhaps but differently ….”

“….. What solitary icebergs we are, Miss Vinrace!  How little we can communicate! ….”

“….. A feeling of emptiness and melancholy came over them; they knew in their hearts that it was over, and that they had parted forever, and the knowledge filled them with far greater depression than the length of their acquaintance seemed to justify.  Even as the boat pulled away they could feel other sights and sounds beginning to take the place of the Dalloways, and the feeling was so unpleasant that they tried to resists it.  For so, too, would they be forgotten ….”

” …… She became a ship passing in the night — an emblem of the loneliness of human life, an occasion for queer confidences and sudden appeals for sympathy…..”

“Although they had talked so freely they were all uncomfortably conscious that they really knew nothing about each other.” 

A sense of beginnings and endings also permeate the pages, and while Woolf’s delightful prose and descriptions can bring a lightness to the situations, there is an uncomfortable sense of the unknown that hovers just outside of our sight.  It is life, life in an essence that Woolf is a master at capturing.

The Voyage of Life: Old Age (1842)
Thomas Cole
source Wikipedia

The word that jumps out at me when I think of this novel is capricious.  Woolf stream-of-consciousness style of writing allow ideas and images to float in and out of the narrative, weaving a tapestry of a story, and like a tapestry, the picture is not always crystal clear.  As the character of Rachel does not settle comfortably into her society and her surroundings, neither does this novel sit comfortably with a recognizable label or description.  It exemplifies the Woolf I’m beginning to know, and while I’m not yet at ease with her writing, I can certainly say that I’m getting used to it and am developing an enthusiastic appreciation.

Other Reviews:

The Voyage Out Read-Along

In a spur-of-the-moment decision, Jason at Literature Frenzy,  Ruth at A Great Book Study, and I decided to join O at Behold the Stars to read Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out beginning on March 26th, which marks the 100th Anniversary of its publication.  The Voyage Out is Woolf’s first novel and includes the character Mrs. Dalloway from her later novel of the same name. It’s going to be a fun time had by all, if anyone else would care to join us.  To sign up, please visit Behold the Stars.

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

“He — for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fasion of the time did something to disguise it — was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.”

My experience with Woolf’s writing is limited yet expanding.  I loved reading To The Lighthouse for its somewhat dream-like qualities and was rather pleasantly lulled by its stream-of-consciousness style.  Mrs. Dalloway I enjoyed, but I didn’t connect with it as much as I’d hoped and was left in a somewhat puzzled frame of mind at the end.  After reading Orlando, I was left with this same feeling.  What exactly did I just read and who was this Orlando?

Orlando is a young man born in the reign of Elizabeth I, and the novel follows him through his youth, as he has an affair with a Russian princess, cares for his ancestral estate, travels on diplomatic missions, etc.  The theme of writing is also explored, in his rejection by a famous poet and various other allusions. Finally he falls into a trace and, lo, awakes a woman.  This transformation does not seem  to surprise him, and she carries on her life as if nothing remise has occurred, yet upon returning to England she finds her estate embroiled in financial turmoil.  While remaining a woman, she fashionably switches between genders, eventually marries a sea captain, wins the lawsuit with regard to her property and that’s about it.  Woolf herself acts as an historical biographer and with her comic and satirical descriptions of certain people, I wasn’t sure if she was parodying herself as narrator, or taking a poke at a particular figure of her time and society.

Honestly I don’t have much to say about the book.  Twentieth century literature always does this to me.  I expect to be “informed and amused,” as books attempted to do historically (see my Gulliver’s Travels post for some extra information on writers’ intent) and end up somewhat disappointed when I’m only amused.  While I enjoyed the book, it would probably get only 3.5 stars from me.  In spite of my resolution to love it, 20th century literature always falls short.  Certainly the stream of consciousness writing is an interesting experiment, the disjointed prose perhaps a comment on the human psyche and the other artistic experiments are worth examining, but I’m always left with an empty feeling at the end.  What was the author really trying to say?  What did I learn?  What could I take away from the book that would change me in some fundamental way?

Yet, it turns out Woolf herself perhaps was not as satisfied with Orlando as she’d hoped.  Woolf wrote in her diary:

“I have written this book quicker than any; and it is all a joke; and yet gay and quick reading, I think; a writer’s holiday.”

“……… begun ….. as a joke: and now rather too long for my liking.  It may fall between stools; being too long for a joke, and too frivolous for a serious book.”

“Orlando taught me how to write a direct sentence; taught me continuity and narrative and how to keep the realities at bay.  But I purposely avoided, of course, any other difficulty.  I never got down to my depths and made shapes square up, as I did in the Lighthouse …… I want fun.  I want fantasy.”

And yes, Woolf wasn’t meaning this book to be serious at all:

“My notion is that there are offices to be discharged by talent for the relief of genius: meaning that one has the play side; the gift when it is mere gift, unapplied gift; and the gift when it is serious, going to business.  And one relieves the other.”

And so Orlando was a playful, frivolous fantasy that enraptures the reader, as Woolf captures your imagination with her wonderfully vibrant prose and light-hearted fanciful tone.  And I can enjoy it on that level.  Yet it is still only a wonderfully decorative cake, and I feel like I’ve missed the main meal.

O at Behold the Stars has an excellent review of Orlando, and with her comprehensive knowledge of Woolf, will be able to give you much more insight into the book than I have.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

After reading Woolf’s To The Lighthouse I was excited to dive into Mrs. Dalloway.  Following the lead of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Woolf used the same writing style, and, in a loose imitation of Joyce, chronicles a day in the life of a prestigious middle-aged woman in London. Woolf critiqued Joyce’s Ulysses, calling it “illiterate” and “under-bred,” finding the graphic sexual fantasies and the foul language base, and saying it reeked of a “queasy under-graduate scratching his pimples.”  Was Mrs. Dalloway Woolf’s attempt to get this style of writing right?

Using her signature “stream-of-consciousness” style, Woolf chronicles one day in the life of Mrs. Richard Dalloway, the wife of a respectable, wealthy gentleman.  Set in post-World War I London, on this particular day she is preparing for a party she will host that evening, an unusual party whose guests will span the ages of her life, past and present.  As she performs her tasks, her mind wanders back through days gone by, unearthing ghosts of earlier loves, regrets, irritations, ever-present worries and satisfaction.  The reader is also privy to the thoughts of many of her friends who will be present at this party, as they perform their daily business.

As a secondary plot, we meet Septimus Warren Smith, a surviving soldier of the war, yet a hollow shell of a man, his mind barely touching reality.  In spite of the persistent yet useless intervention of his wife and doctors, he gradually is sucked into a whirlpool of despair, seemingly of his own making, and suffers a very poignant and pathetic fate.  Or does he?

Julia Stephen
Virginia Woolf’s mother
source Wikipedia
Virginia Woolf, Age 20
source Wikipedia

I’m going to go out on a limb here and offer a very unusual interpretation of at least one theme in the novel.  Woolf’s treatment of Septimus, in contrast with Mrs. Dalloway and her social peers, was very intriguing.  If we examine the thoughts of Mrs. Dalloway and her friends and acquaintances, they touch upon parties, flower-shows, scholarships, the family business, Bartlett pears, gossip and cricket.  In comparison, Septimus’ musings revolve around human nature, the truth, Evans (his friend who was killed in the war), aloneness, meaning, and the beauty of words.  Septimus is presented on the surface as a character who is emotionally unbalanced, while Mrs. Dalloway’s circle is the respected rational group.  Has Woolf turned appearance on its head?  Is the perceived deranged person really the one who is sane, and are the ones who appear “normal” actually the group who is not?  It’s an irony that’s inescapable.

For Septimus, the only liberation from a world turned upside-down was death.  Is his escape from a materialistic world concerned with trivialities an heroic act?  Woolf makes it appear so:

“…… Death was defiance.  Death was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone.  There was an embrace in death.”

Ironically, sixteen years after the writing of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf followed Septimus into the murky fog of depression and, placing stones in the pockets of her overcoat, walked into the River Ouse near her home, drowning herself, a sad fate for one of the most respected female literary writers of the time.

Virginia Woolf – Romanian Stamp
Source Wikipedia

I just loved Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and I really wanted to like Mrs. Dalloway.  There are certain aspects I do like about it, such as the character of Septimus Warren Smith, the relentless passage of time, the allusions to various literary works of different eras, the exploration of the lingering impact of the first World War and the diminishing influence of the British empire.   The prose is lovely, light and lyrical, each sentence a candy you can pop into your mouth and taste a burst of spring.  Yet I found the story meandering and disjointed.  In To The Lighthouse, the stream-of consciousness  flowed towards one main character, Mrs. Ramsey, wrapping her in a warm glow, even while each character retained their own lively identity.  In Mrs. Dalloway, the streams flow out from Mrs. Dalloway and a host of other characters, at times to alight on each other, but many times to float out into the atmosphere, leaving the reader confused or adrift.  The lack of cohesiveness was like an irritating burr in my britches and no matter how much I tried, it was hard to ignore.  Yet, in spite of the persistent irritation, I will probably re-read this book sometime in the future.  Woolf’s books are like a deceptively packed suitcase where you’re never quite certain if you have even removed half of what is contained.