Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Just a Note in Haste

Back in the day when we wrote letters to each other (with a pen or a typewriter or, in that odd transition time, writing on a computer, printing out the letter, and sending it through the mail), I remember more than one correspondent signing off with “in haste” above his signature. Virginia Woolf, reviewing some newly-found letters of Horace Walpole (1717-1797), whose correspondence would eventually fill 48 volumes in the Yale edition, says that he often used some variation of “in a violent hurry” at the beginning or end of his letters. A whole bookful of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s letters exchanged with the Duchess of Devonshire was titled by its editor In Tearing Haste, because of the ubiquity of that phrase in Leigh Fermor’s letters—though from their length and the care with which he composed them, you would not have thought him in a hurry.
            No one writing an email or a text these days bothers to put down that she is in a hurry. When messages fly from writer to receiver at the speed of light (“twelve million miles a minute and that’s the fastest speed there is” according to Eric Idle and Clint Black), saying she’s in a hurry is superfluous. The medium is the message about speed here. Yet she still underlines her haste by skipping capitalization and punctuation, while abbreviating to the point of indecipherability. but u no im just :) 2 hear from her

Sunday, July 22, 2018


            In Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson muses how odd it would be if a shattered mirror or a window that broke while someone was examining her reflection were suddenly to heal itself and become whole again, in the way a still pool into which I might gaze at my own reflection, disturbed by a pebble dropped into it, would soon reconstitute its reflective surface. The workings of physical reflection are odd, regardless of the reflecting surface. Hang up a mirror just big enough that your reflection in it fills it from top to bottom. Walk away, and then turn after a few paces to look at your reflection again. The image still fills the mirror; it is no smaller because of the distance, nor will it cease to fill the mirror if you move another ten feet, or a hundred. If you return to the mirror and measure the image of your face in it, you will find that image is just half the size of the face it reflects. All of this is completely, if not satisfactorily, explained by the laws of optics. So, too, is the odd fact that mirrors reverse left and right, but always leave top and bottom alone.
            Consider figurative reflection, and specifically self-reflection. Is your image of yourself in your mind’s eye diminished to half? Mine is not. David Foster Wallace famously pointed out that in perception or reflection, we can’t help being centered in the view and the whole field is ours, is us.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Signs of Woolf's Early Feminism

            Early in her writing career, when she was reviewing books for the Times Literary Supplement, Cornhill Magazine, and the Anglo-Catholic newspaper the Guardian, Woolf chose to review books about strong and smart women, and perhaps especially if they are somewhat obscured by their positions—she has a long piece on “The Sister of Frederic the Great,” and “The American Woman” is another example. Charlotte Bury, lady-in-waiting to George IV’s Queen Caroline, interests her as a woman of taste and brains who is forced to make a living by serving a woman who, at her worst, made Bury feel she was humoring a madwoman. Sometimes the woman may not be especially smart or resourceful, but merely boxed in by circumstance: Woolf chose to review a book about Louise de La Vallière, for example, at some length. “The Journal of Lady Elizabeth Holland” is another subject of interest—Lady Holland divorced or was divorced by Sir Godfrey Webster and married Lord Holland. She was another remarkable woman who made the best of circumstances, courageously. The memorable moment here is Lady Holland at one of her evening gatherings rapping her fan and telling Macaulay “we’ve had enough of this; move on to something else.” She reviews the love letters of Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh and a biography of Elizabeth Carter, one of the “Bas Bleu” society, a prodigy of learning who loved to “sleep soundly and loved exercise.” Carter published a translation of Epictetus in 1758, which made her money and introduced her to the Blues. Woolf clearly is impressed with Carter’s command of Greek and thinks it’s a determining feature in being taken seriously as an intellectual. In her “Impressions” of her father she says she read some Greek with him, and she comes back to this topic later in her essay on not knowing Greek. But she did know Greek.
Most notably, Woolf reviewed the letters of Queen Elizabeth written before her accession to the throne.  Elizabeth was a scholar of languages, with great native intelligence but also someone who trained herself, during times of imprisonment and great personal danger, to exercise the strictest of self-control and to say exactly what she meant, even when that was not always the whole truth or perhaps even near it. 

At this time Woolf was working on her first novel, with the working title Melymbrosia; it was eventually published as The Voyage Out in 1915.