Woolf, Virginia Entries

Jacob's Room


Except for Flush and The Voyage Out, which I have yet to read at all (!), Jacob's Room is one of Virginia Woolf's titles with which I'm least familiar: this is only my second time through. The first one came shortly after my initial, world-changing discovery of Woolf, and I remembered the novella as being quite minor, a bridge work between her "apprenticeship" novels and the full-blown genius of her mid-career work. I had fallen in love with Mrs. Dalloway's rare but brilliant flashes of true communion between two people—the reunion of Peter and Clarissa, for example, or the hat scene with Septimus and Rezia—and by contrast the isolation of souls presented in Jacob's Room was a disappointment. Re-reading now, though, over a decade later, I quickly revised that low assessment. While perhaps not quite as finely-toned as Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, perhaps a little wilder and less perfectly-controlled, Jacob's Room is its own project, different from that dyad of novels and stunning in its own right. This time through I was intoxicated as always by Woolf's language, and also intrigued by the questions this novella raises about the impossibility of knowing another person. Woolf delves into the ways in which the subjective reality of a human life compares to the evidence that life leaves behind—the high water-mark of physical and emotional detritus that remains after a human being has washed through the world.

What Woolf gives us here, after all, is Jacob's room—not Jacob himself. That's not absolutely true: we do catch glimpses of Jacob Flanders himself as he grows up; goes to University; gets a job; dies in the Great War. Direct contact doesn't happen very much, however. In the whole course of the novel, Jacob actually speaks only 29 times—and most of these are seemingly trivial remarks along the lines of "About this opera now..." or "Shall I hold your wool?" We get inside Jacob's head at even more infrequent intervals: he is said to have "thought," "wondered" or similar only 22 times, and most of these thoughts are similarly fleeting (though there are other passages in which his consciousness seems to be coloring the narration to some degree). It's as if the narrator, a roaming third-person voice who is far from omniscient—whose view of events is partial, and prone to infection by the perspective of any character she approaches—is struggling toward Jacob through a thick sea of information, washed this way and that when she encounters the thoughts of Jacob's friend, or the midnight walks of his neighbor, or the wicker chair in which he was sitting not two hours ago. On those few occasions when the she does manage to strive forward until she finds herself actually inside Jacob's mind, the feat lasts only a moment or two, and the thought she manages to extract gives the artful impression of chance—as might happen if one accessed another mind with no warning, at no time in particular. "A rude old lady, Jacob thought." Or again: "The dinner would never end, Jacob thought, and he did not wish it to." These thoughts fail to express any great depth of individuality or soulfulness, certainly.

The vast majority of the narration, then, focuses not on Jacob himself, but on his wake: rooms he has just left; artifacts he has used and abandoned; essays he is halfway through writing; and the thoughts and actions of people with whom, be it intimately or ever so slightly, he interacts. Much of Jacob's Room consists of details that Jacob himself would likely deem unimportant, toward which he is either unconscious or apathetic, such as the faded letter from his mother, sitting on the hall table:

Meanwhile, poor Betty Flanders's letter, having caught the second post, lay on the hall table—poor Betty Flanders writing her son's name, Jacob Alan Flanders, Esq., as mothers do, and the ink pale, profuse, suggesting how mothers down at Scarborough scribble over the fire with their feet on the fender, when tea's cleared away, and can never, never say, whatever it may be—probably this—Don't go with bad women, do be a good boy; wear your thick shirts; and come back, come back, come back to me.
     But she said nothing of the kind. "Do you remember old Miss Wargrave, who used to be so kind when you had the whooping cough?" she wrote; "she's dead at last, poor thing."

One of the things I so love about Woolf is her complex understanding of how truly roundabout human methods of communication can be—how most of the time, the words we actually say or write bear no resemblance to our actual meaning, as when Betty Flanders writes words describing the death of Miss Wargrave, but the meaning of her missive is the silent plea "come back, come back, come back to me." When you consider that the letter's recipient brings his own set of associations and preoccupations to bear, it's remarkable that humans manage to communicate anything at all—and this is what makes the flashes of successful communication in Mrs. Dalloway so glorious.

But it's also what gives Jacob's Room much of its pathos. How to sum up a human life? One can deduce a certain amount by examining a person's home, and the items they owned; by retracing the paths they walked and the places they visited; by eavesdropping on their conversation; by surveying the thoughts and feelings of the people who knew them. But in the end, it's impossible to enter into the being of another person. There is an emptiness at the center of Jacob's Room, which could only be occupied by the missing person: Jacob himself. And Jacob is gone forever, in a moment and a place which are themselves completely absent from the novella.

Although Woolf's brother Thoby Stephen died of typhoid rather than war wounds, he was undeniably the model for Jacob Flanders, and Jacob's Room performs a kind of mourning work for a lost sibling as well as for an entire generation of young men killed in the trenches of the Great War. And it occurs to me that Woolf's novella makes an interesting juxtaposition to a more recent work on a similar subject, Anne Carson's Nox. Both works deal with the loss of a young man, a brother, and both touch on the essential inability of one person truly to comprehend and make sense of another. Both too, in my opinion, verge on masterpieces.

It seems that a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow-creatures is utterly unknown. Either we are men, or we are women. Either we are cold, or we are sentimental. Either we are young, or growing old. In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows. And why, if this and much more than this is true, why are we yet surprised in the window corner by a sudden vision that the young man in the chair is of all things in the world the most real, the most solid, the best known to us—why indeed? For the moment after we know nothing about him.
     Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.

Notes on Disgust

In a move with which I have deep sympathy, one of the two mentions of disgust in Jacob's Room refers to moral disgust with a bowdlerizer:

Professor Bulteel, of Leeds, had issued an edition of Wycherley without stating that he had left out, disembowelled, or indicated only by asterisks, several indecent words and some indecent phrases. An outrage, Jacob said; a breach of faith; sheer prudery; token of a lewd mind and a disgusting nature.

Here the strength of Jacob's condemnatory adjectives demonstrates to the reader his intoxicated (on ideas, and possibly also alcohol) undergraduate enthusiasm and allegiance to the great and mediocre men of English letters. Here is a boy who cares enough about seventeenth-century English drama, or literature in general, that he is uses the rhetoric of disgust to express his feelings when someone monkeys with the text. Jacob also demonstrates in this passage the phenomenon whereby an overly fastidious person—a prude, or a censor—can actually elicit disgust in people observing his or her prudish or censorious behavior. The censor's tendency to perceive filth everywhere he looks (his own overactive disgust reaction) begins to suggest to the his acquaintances that the censor himself has a dirty mind, and is by extension generally dirty and disgusting. It's a similar mechanism to how people who perceive sexual subtext in everything they see often come to be regarded as perverts. (This is, by the way, a pitfall of choosing to write about disgust and something I hope doesn't happen to me!)

One of the only other hints of disgust comes later in the novella, when Jacob visits the prostitute Laurette:

Altogether a most reasonable conversation; a most respectable room; an intelligent girl. Only Madame herself seeing Jacob out had about her that leer, that lewdness, that quake of the surface (visible in the eyes chiefly), which threatens to spill the whole bag of ordure, with difficulty held together, over the pavement. In short, something was wrong.

The brothel's veneer of respectability, although largely convincing, is thus called into question by the faint tinge of something disgusting about its madame. William Ian Miller writes in The Anatomy of Disgust about the ways in which disgust polices the boundaries between fair and foul, but does so in contradictory ways that sometimes imply that what seems foul is really fair, and at other times hints that what seems fair is really foul. It seems to be the latter that's going on here: Jacob dimly perceives that the attractive façade conceals a "bag of ordure, with difficulty held together."


I re-read Jacob's Room as part of Frances's Art of the Novella Challenge. It's the second of six novellas from Melville House's Art of the Novella series that I hope to read over the course of August.

As for drinks pairings (perhaps the most unique portion of the Art of the Novella Challenge), I read this line and knew that Jacob's Room deserved something lovely:

...and without book before him intoned Latin, Virgil and Catullus, as if language were wine upon his lips.

So I decided to open this, which is one of three special bottles David got me for my 30th birthday. A remarkably full-bodied, black-fruit-and-leather Pinot noir from Oregon's own Dundee Hills (about an hour from our house). Delicious.


Cather and Marshall and Woolf, oh my!


I have a somewhat hodge-podge entry for you today, just wrapping up this and that before I head to France tomorrow afternoon. (Exciting!)



First of all, for those of you who haven't had enough of me writing about Virginia Woolf, please check out my guest post over at The Year of Feminist Classics blog. I cogitate a bit on Woolf's theory of the androgynous mind, and hopefully spur some discussion.



Secondly, I've been seeing a lot of Cather posts in my Google reader of late (including Litlove's excellent piece on Cather's use of frames), so I wanted to draw y'all's attention to this post over at my other blog, about a hike David and I took during a 30-hour trip last weekend to the Las Vegas area. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that the city of Las Vegas is not my favorite place, but we were there for a family wedding and decided to check out some Cather-esque landscapes while we were at it. Have a look-see! Highlights include big-horn sheep and cool rock formations.

And lastly, have any of you had the opportunity to see Israeli choreographer Barak Marshall's recent modern dance piece Monger? I saw it a few nights ago and am craving a conversation about it. Despite six years of season's ticket holding to Portland's White Bird Dance series I usually don't post about the modern dance I watch, for the same reason I generally don't write up audiobooks, films, and other cultural events: I would burn out too quickly if I tried to capture my WHOLE LIFE on a blog. But Marshall's work was so odd and thought-provoking, and there's a lot in it that offers itself to multiple interpretations. I'd be very curious to hear others' takes.

The piece has a strong narrative component (it's described in the program as a hybrid of dance and theater), and the story concerns a group of servants in the home of a fearsome and sinister mistress named "Mrs. Margaret"—or possibly "Mrs. Margrit." There's a kind of Upstairs/Downstairs-in-Israel vibe going on with it, but in addition there is some very sinister imagery involving a series of female servants who invoke the mistress's wrath, get taken away for a time, and are then transformed into babies and re-born back into servitude. It reminded me of a Shirley Jackson novel: creepy yet familiar, and leaving me unclear but intrigued as to the larger significance of the narrative depicted. You don't get any kind of sense of the technical impressiveness or narrative arc from the above video, but there is a segment with part of the creepy baby imagery.

There are also fascinating motifs involving language: the servants speak English to their mistress but communicate with each other by yelling in Hebrew, and the score incorporates vintage radio advertisements (in English) for Manischewitz and other brands of kosher foodstuffs. "Monger" evokes, of course, selling things, just like these advertisements were attempting to sell Jewish food to the non-Jewish (or assimilated Jewish?) world. Similarly, the male servants stage a kind of auction at one point of one of the female servants, and of course the servants as a whole are exchanging their lives and peace of mind for some kind of currency. Selling is very much associated with power and oppression in the piece, but my mom and I speculated on the way home about the allegorical references: is this a piece about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (if so, I can't find a very pro-Israel way to read it)? Or, given the 1930s costumes, is it an allegory of oppression of Jews by Germans/Christians? Or about suppression by the Israeli state of individual autonomy? Or the persecution of Israel by other (English-speaking?) nations? Or is the piece a more general exploration of power dynamics and free will?

I don't know. But I highly recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to see it. And after you do, come back here and comment because I want to discuss the thing!

Essay Mondays: Woolf


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

I know, I know: just when we all thought we were done with her after Woolf in Winter, here I am with one more entry about my old friend Virginia. I could blame the timing on Lopate and his oddly relevant pacing in The Art of the Personal Essay, but the truth is that I'm glad to have an opportunity to discuss Woolf, the essayist. Frances, Claire, Sarah and I originally intended to include some essays in our wintertime Woolf-a-thon, but the suggestions began coming too thick and fast (diary selections, letters, and Leonard Woolf's The Wise Virgins were also considered), and we realized that we needed to rein it in if we wanted to avoid burn-out. Which I think was the right decision, but. There's always a but.

Woolf's essays - the best ones, anyway - are among my favorite parts of her work. Next to Mrs. Dalloway, which has become for me something less like a "favorite novel" and more like a "sacred text," they may just take the prize spot. Still incorporating her delicious, fluid voice, they tend also to possess a clarity and directness of speech which is sometimes missing from the novels. So too, those who experienced Woolf's third-person fiction narrator as cold and removed might like the glimpse of Woolf-the-person the essays provide. Take "Street Haunting," the essay I'll be writing about today. In it, Woolf constructs a tribute to her love of meandering across London on an evening in Winter, pursuing in a leisurely manner some perfunctory goal—in this case, buying a lead pencil. Making use of the first-person plural, she invites the reader along on her ramble, beginning in "one's own room" before plunging into the city streets:

As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one's own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience. That bowl on the mantelpiece, for instance, was bought at Mantua on a windy day. We were leaving the shop when the sinister old woman plucked at our skirts and said she would find herself starving one of these days, but, "Take it!" she cried, and thrust the blue and white china bowl into our hands as if she never wanted to be reminded of her quixotic generosity. So, guiltily, but suspecting nevertheless how badly we had been fleeced, we carried it back to the little hotel where, in the middle of the night, the innkeeper quarreled so violently with his wife that we all leant out into the courtyard to look, and saw the vines laced about among the pillars and the stars white in the sky. The moment was stabilized, stamped like a coin indelibly among a million that slipped by imperceptibly. There, too, was the melancholy Englishman, who rose among the coffee cups and the little iron tables and revealed the secrets of his soul—as travellers do. All this—Italy, the windy morning, the vines laced about the pillars, the Englishman and the secrets of his soul—rise up in a cloud from the china bowl on the mantelpiece.

I'm realizing it will be difficult to avoid the horrendously long block-quotes while discussing this essay, because Woolf's style twists and turns so delightfully. This paragraph is a beautiful example: she begins with emerging from the door into the street, and then moves backwards to establish what it is she's leaving behind—her room, her possessions—which somehow hold within themselves the impressions of other times, other places, transporting us to the shops and hotels of Italy before we return to the room we were leaving as the paragraph began. What a master she was, that Virginia Woolf.

Lopate points out that "Street Haunting" belongs to a long tradition of flaneur and proto-flaneur rambling-the-city-streets essays; I wrote about an earlier piece in this vein by Richard Steele. Woolf's version, though, as a reader of Mrs. Dalloway might expect, melds the external events and sights of the streets with the walker's internal reality in a delicate and gorgeous way. The thing that most struck me on this read-through of the essay, so close to our discussions of Orlando, is Woolf's focus on how an object—familiar, unfamiliar—can spark a whole different self into being in the observer's imagination, and how the amalgam we call "Virginia" or "Emily" is really a composite containing all of these different past and imagined selves, as Orlando calls to her different incarnations toward the end of that novel. In one passage, the speaker happens upon an antique jewelry stall and picks up a strand of pearls. Instantly, it becomes for her "between two and three in the morning" in June, on a deserted street in Mayfair, where the gatherings of peers and ladies are winding down and "love-making is going on sibiliantly, seductively in the darker places of the room behind thick green curtains." And yet, she thinks,

[W]hat could be more absurd? It is, in fact, on the stroke of six; it is a winter's evening; we are walking to the Strand to buy a pencil. How, then, are we also on a balcony, wearing pearls in June? What could be more absurd? Yet it is nature's folly, not ours. When she set about her chief masterpiece, the making of man, she should have thought of one thing only. Instead, turning her head, looking over her shoulder, into each one of us she let creep instincts and desires which are utterly at variance with his main being, so that we are streaked, variegated, all of a mixture; the colours have run. Is the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? Circumstances compel unity; for convenience' sake a man must be a whole. The good citizen when he opens his door in the evening must be banker, golfer, husband, father; not a nomad wandering the desert, a mystic staring at the sky, a debauchee in the streets of San Francisco, a soldier heading a revolution, a pariah howling with skepticism and solitude. When he opens his door, he must run his fingers through his hair and put his umbrella in the stand like the rest.

This Woofian, Proustian idea of multiple selves, evoked suddenly and mysteriously by a thought or a sensation, is extremely compelling to me, and "Street Haunting" presents it in one of its most beautiful and direct forms. It's not alone, though, in being an excellent essay offering from Woolf: other favorites of mine include the famous "A Room of One's Own," "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," "Evening over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car," and much of her literary criticism.

Essay Mondays is taking next week off, because David and I will be hosting fifty of our closest friends and family this weekend at our Partnership Celebration! (I do have one more non-essay-related post I hope to write this week, but we'll see if that ends up happening.) The week after that, I'll be back with one piece by Ivan Turgenev, two by Lu Hsun, and one by Junichero Tanizaki.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

The Waves


The Waves is one of the only Woolf novels for which I feel more detached appreciation than visceral enjoyment. This experiment in abstract character study, tracing the inner lives of six friends from childhood to death through the use of extended inner monologues intercut with third-person descriptions of the sun rising and setting over an ocean vista, is certainly fascinating, but it doesn't set my heart soaring like Mrs. Dalloway, nor does it tickle me like Orlando. It's a dense, quiet read, a sort of book-length expansion of the "Time Passes" section in To the Lighthouse, which implies through its narrative technique that people, along with sun and sea, are part of the continual ebb and flow of the natural world, however much they may tell themselves otherwise.

And whereas my favorite Woolf books often celebrate the transcendent moments of communion between people—difficult, fleeting, imperfect as they often are—it always strikes me that The Waves dwells instead on the ways in which we are all separate, remote. For despite the author's chosen narrative method—long inner soliloquies that begin "'.....,' said Bernard," or "'.....,' said Rhoda"—the characters almost never reply or react to one another. They are "saying" these things in some semi- or sub-conscious level of their beings, a level to which none of their friends have access, and couldn't, perhaps, understand, even if they did. They are "saying" them into the void. A far cry, this, from the ease with which Clarissa and Peter move in and out of each others' thoughts in Mrs. Dalloway. With Bernard (the phrase-making extrovert), Susan (the solitary naturalist), Rhoda (the depressive fantasist), Neville (the intellectual purist), Louis (the snobbish mogul), and Jinny (the sensualist) we have six tracks of thought and sensation moving parallel, seeing at times the same events from different angles, observing the exteriors of the speaker's friends, but almost never coming into actual contact with one of the other trains of thought. Even the extroverted Bernard, who needs the company of other people in order to come fully into his own, is only using others in the service of his own self-realization; he's not actually connecting with the cores of their beings, and his story-telling is an attempt to impose order on the world around him, more than to empathize with others.

I wish then after this somnolence to sparkle, many-faceted under the light of my friends' faces. I have been traversing the sunless territory of non-identity. A strange land. I have heard in my moment of appeasement, in my moment of obliterating satisfaction, the sigh, as it goes in, comes out, of the tide that draws beyond this circle of bright light, this drumming of insensate fury. I have had one moment of enormous peace. This is perhaps happiness. Now I am drawn back by pricking sensations; by curiosity, greed (I am hungry) and the irresistible desire to be myself. I think of people to whom I could say things: Louis; Neville; Susan; Jinny and Rhoda. With them I am many-sided. They retrieve me from darkness. We shall meet tonight, thank Heaven. Thank Heaven, I need not be alone.

It's a lonely vision, I must say. Because despite Bernard's thanks to Heaven that he need not be alone, these characters are profoundly isolated from one another. And although I relate to its "We perished, each alone" ethos to some degree (I believe there are things we must all face alone), I miss the flashes of soul-deep connection that happen in other Woolf novels. Even those characters who crave solitude over company have a certain manic insecurity about their existences. Neville, the serial monogamist, lives in constant fear of abandonment by his lover du jour (openly portrayed as men, by the by). Louis must prove himself better than the Brits who may or may not be sneering at his Australian accent. Rhoda lives in terror and awe of the worlds conjured by her imagination. Only Susan, who finds a soulful connection with the natural world and in the process of childbearing and mothering, seems in any sense at peace to me.

I go then to the cupboard, and take the damp bags of rich sultanas; I lift the heavy flour on to the clean scrubbed kitchen table. I knead; I stretch; I pull, plunging my hands in the warm inwards of the dough. I let the cold water stream fanwise through my fingers. The fire roars; the flies buzz in a circle. All my currants and rices, the silver bags and the blue bags, are locked again in the cupboard. The meat is stood in the oven; the bread rises in a soft dome under the clean towel. I walk in the afternoon down to the river. All the world is breeding. The flies are going from grass to grass. The flowers are thick with pollen. The swans ride the stream in order. The clouds warm now, sun-spotted, sweep over the hills, leaving gold in the water, and gold on the necks of the swans.

This intrigues me, because, from what I know of her biography, Susan and Louis are probably the characters who overlap the least with Woolf's own experience. Susan lives the kind of traditional, pastoral life that her author, who lived amongst bohemians, never had children, and got intensely restless for London whenever her husband attempted to spirit her away to the countryside, did her best to escape. Perhaps, in Susan's contentment, Woolf is romanticizing the path not taken? Perhaps that romanticization is also behind the role of Percival, the bluff, popular, unintelligent Son of Britain who inspires the love of all six friends before sailing off to India in service of the Empire, and dying suddenly when thrown from his horse? Percival (named in the heroic tradition of Perceval/Parzival) is perceived by all four friends as a hero, and inspires disquieting imperialist dreams in them despite their simultaneous contempt for his lack of intelligence:

I see India [...] Over all broods a sense of the uselessness of human exertion. There are strange sour smells. An old man in a ditch continues to chew betel and to contemplate his navel. But now, behold, Percival advances; Percival rides a flea-bitten mare, and wears a sun-helmet. By applying the standards of the West, by using the violent language that is natural to him, the bullock-cart is righted in less than five minutes. The Oriental problem is solved. He rides on; the multitude cluster around him, regarding him as if he were—what indeed he is—a God.

Woolf does sometimes display the casual racism of her time, but I don't think she goes so far as endorsing Bernard in this little white-supremacist fantasy of his. I think she's portraying Percival as the morally questionable glue that holds the friends together, the traditional lunk whose presence lulls those benefiting by the British Empire into comfort and security. The characters make him into a conquering hero in their minds, but after his pointless death (as after the First World War, caused in part by imperialist in-fighting, destroyed Woolf's generation's confidence in pre-War institutions), they are cast adrift on their own reconnaissance. As Neville says, "without Percival there is no solidity. We are silhouettes, hollow phantoms moving mistily without a background."

Which goes a long way toward describing The Waves in general. Beautifully realized, eloquent as Woolf's prose is, it illuminates the psychology of an unmoored and anxious time, in which one set of standards had been proved false, and another set had yet to be found. And a time in which, nevertheless, people continued living much as before - either because they clung to the old dreams (Susan fantasizes about her own sons going to India) or because, as the pounding waves would seem to indicate, human ways of life are dictated by natural rhythms, leaving very little to individual choice. It's not that I necessarily disagree with this observation (although I don't go as far as Woolf with it), but that, unmitigated by moments of genuine human connection, it no longer feels true to my reality. Needless to say, were I recovering from a brutal World War only to witness the rise of Fascist and Communist totalitarianism across Europe, accompanied by a global economic meltdown, I might feel differently.


This is the final installment of Woolf in Winter, hosted by the lovely Claire of kiss a cloud. Be sure to stop by everyone else's posts for more takes on The Waves. And a big thanks to Claire and my other co-hosts Sarah and Frances, as well as to everyone who read along with us! It's been very special to me to share a reading of Woolf with such a large and varied group of people.



Forgive me, my Woolf in Winter friends: I must admit that I did not actually re-read Orlando with you over the course of the past two weeks. I am currently fighting hip-deep through the wilds of Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch; as delightful as I knew Woolf would be, I feared that if I once turned away from Cortázar he would blindside me with a cleverly-aimed exhalation from his ever-present Gauloise and I would be turned to stone. Or at least to a stylishly pretentious 1960s hipster. You can understand why I would want to avoid that risk at any cost. HOWEVER. Never fear, because the day I am no longer able to write about Orlando is the day you should all break into my house and cart me off to the old folks' home.

Woolf wrote this novel as a break from more serious endeavors, and as a kind of love-letter to or mock biography of her sometime-lover Vita Sackville-West, whose family, like Orlando's, could date their genteel pedigree back to the days of Shakespeare, and who, like Orlando, had a passionate attachment to her family home (which she, being female, could not inherit). One of my favorite, favorite things about this novel is the way in which it transformed a passing infatuation, waning even as Woolf worked on this manuscript, into a vibrant, funny creative project. The end result is a sort-of-novel that doesn't offer up easy answers to the problem of loving another person or that of making art, but which manages to be delightful and playfully satirical while also, this being Woolf, incorporating a good deal of depth, and playing on themes of artistic androgyny that she develops more seriously in A Room of One's Own. Were I to receive such a love letter? I would be putty in the sender's hands. (In fact, Orlando was pretty central to my courtship with my own partner, and a model for our own humble attempts at cooperative art projects.)

She was certainly feeling more herself. Her finger had not tingled once, or nothing to count, since that night on the moor. Yet, she could not deny that she had her doubts. She was married, true; but if one's husband was always sailing round Cape Horn, was it marriage? if one liked him, was it marriage? If one liked other people, was it marriage? And finally, if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage? She had her doubts.

One of the things that strikes me, thinking about Orlando on the heels of the Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse readalongs, is Woolf's relative patriotism in this novel. Throughout her works she is critical of the British Empire for its cost in human life abroad (Septimus Smith) and of English society in general for its repressiveness ("women can't write, women can't paint"; William Bradshaw's goddess of Conversion). And yet, as Peter Walsh notes, even in people who actively dislike Empire, "there were moments...of pride in England." While she continues to poke fun at the ridiculousness of Britishness in Orlando, Woolf's lighter tone and farcical approach allow her to portray her country more as one would the foibles of an exasperating yet beloved great-aunt, and less in a mood of white-hot rage or tragedy. The character Orlando, after all, is an embodiment of the "spirit of the age" in Britain, and Woolf can't be in enamored of Orlando without feeling some tenderness toward the country - even in its most Victorian stages.

Once there, she followed what had now become the most imperious need of her nature and wrapped herself as well as she could in a damask quilt which she snatched from her bed. She explained to the Widow Bartholomew (who had succeeded good old Grimsditch as housekeeper) that she felt chilly.

        "So do we all, m'lady," said the Widow, heaving a profound sigh. "The walls is sweating," she said, with a curious, lugubrious complacency, and sure enough, she had only to lay her hand on the oak panels for the fingerprints to be marked there. The ivy had grown so profusely that many windows were now sealed up. The kitchen was so dark that they could scarcely tell a kettle from a cullender. A poor black cat had been mistaken for coals and shovelled on the fire. Most of the maids were already wearing three or four red-flannel petticoats, though the month was August.

I love the fantastical and hilarious way in which Woolf has even Orlando's physical surroundings mirror the "spirit of the age" (whatever age s/he might be living through at the moment). In the Great Freeze of Elizabethan England we get carnivalesque scenes of apple-sellers completely frozen in the ice; the diplomatic seventeenth century brings tent-labyrinths with endless cups of strong coffee; the Romantic era sets the reader adrift in lightning storms and wind-wracked forests; the nineteenth century is ushered in with an monumental, over-decorated monstrosity and an oddly pervasive foggy chill. Orlando and the other characters are swept along irresistibly with the changing zeitgeist, and I laugh out loud every time I read the distressingly fast-forwarded transition from the freewheeling eighteenth century to the damp, dark nineteenth. All representations are caricatures, of course, but they're lovingly crafted and well-realized to a fault.

And then there's the brilliant character of Nick Greene, who spends eternity lamenting the fall of "modern literature" from its glory days--usually located a few centuries before his current diatribe, whenever that might happen to be. From a penniless Elizabethan playwright complaining of pains in his back, running down Shakespeare for a money-grubbing hack, and mocking Orlando's poetry in print in order to make a quick pound, he evolves into "the most influential critic of the Victorian age." Orlando, however, somehow prefers his earlier, less respectable incarnation, gossiping about poets and pressing Orlando for a pension, paid quarterly:

There was one knob about the third from the top which burnt like fire; another about the second from the bottom which was cold as ice. Sometimes he woke with a brain like lead; at others it was as if a thousand wax tapers were alight and people were throwing fireworks inside him. He could feel a rose leaf through his mattress, he said; and knew his way almost about London by the feel of the cobbles. Altogether he was a piece of machinery so finely made and so curiously put together (here he raised his hand as if unconsciously and indeed, it was of the finest shape imaginable) that it confounded him to think that he had only sold five hundred copies of his poem, but that of course was largely due to the conspiracy against him. All he could say, he concluded, banging his fist upon the table, was that the art of poetry was dead in England.

I must admit that the semi-personal nature of Orlando does lead to some flaws as well as delights. At times it feels in-jokey, too self-consciously clever, and the overwhelming Britishness of it can get to seem like a bit much for those who aren't, like me, firm Anglophiles. It also has that awkward trait in which white authors attempt to depict non-white people sympathetically and end up othering them in a somewhat cringe-worthy way (although, I do like the moment when the gypsy leader tells Orlando that he won't hold her father's Dukedom against her). Despite these drawbacks, though, this novel has a warm place in my heart, and I look forward to many re-reads, even if I must now plough on with Cortázar. Onward!

(If you loved the atmospheric lyricism of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, consider joining us for the final Woolf in Winter discussion. Claire will be hosting The Waves two weeks from now, on Friday, February 26.)

To the Lighthouse


Welcome to the second round of Woolf in Winter, hosted by yours truly! I'll be proactive about checking around at all the blogs that posted on Mrs. Dalloway two weeks ago, but if I've missed you please leave a comment below and I'll add your post as soon as I can. I can't wait to discuss To the Lighthouse with everyone! (Note: I will be at work this morning, and I abstain from the internet on Saturdays have moved my no-computer day to Sunday in order to keep arguing so pleasantly with y'all, so if your post doesn't get linked right away it's just because I'm away from the computer.)

Edit: It's been real, guys. I really am taking Sunday off the computer, but this discussion has been grand. Thanks to everyone who read (or is reading) along, stopped by and/or commented!


It's often said that To the Lighthouse is Virginia Woolf's "most autobiographical" book. Personally, I think aspects of Woolf's biography slip into all her works in interesting ways (Orlando is based on her lover Vita Sackville-West's family background; Mrs. Dalloway contains her most explicit depiction of mental illness). It's certainly true, though, that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are modeled on Woolf's own mother and father, celebrated beauty Julia Duckworth and famous National Biography writer Leslie Stephen, and that the Ramsay family's summer home on the Isle of Skye mirrors Talland House, where the Stephen family spent summers in the 1880s and 1890s. (As you can see from the link, modern-day Talland House has been converted into a suite of "luxury holiday apartments" and painted a somewhat blistering chartreuse.) Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's sister and fellow Bloomsbury Group member, wrote to her after first reading To the Lighthouse that

...in the first part of the book you have given a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead. You have made one feel the extraordinary beauty of her character, which must be the most difficult thing in the world to do. It was like meeting her again with oneself grown up and on equal terms and it seems to me the most astonishing feat of creation to have been able to see her in such a way. You have given father too I think as clearly but perhaps, I may be wrong, that isn't quite so difficult. There is more to catch hold of. Still it seems to me to be the only thing about him which ever gave a true idea.

And Woolf herself wrote to Vita:

I don't know if I'm like Mrs. Ramsay; as my mother died when I was 13 probably it is a child's view of her: but I have some sentimental delight in thinking that you like her. She has haunted me: but then so did that old wretch my father. Do you think it sentimental? Do you think it irreverent about him? I should like to know. I was more like him than her, I think; and therefore more critical: but he was an adorable man, and somehow, tremendous.

I like this second short letter fragment because it gets at much of the ambivalence in To the Lighthouse toward both senior Ramsays and everything they represent. In many ways the novel is an affectionate, sympathetic look back ("an adorable man, and somehow, tremendous"), but in other, perhaps more important ways, it's a definitive break with Woolf's parents' generation. Like Lily Briscoe, Woolf acknowledges the tremendous appeal, the tremendous charisma of women like her mother: Victorian beauties, Angels in Houses, models of self-abnegation, providing steadfast moral and emotional support for all the men and children in their lives - and at the same time, like Lily placing her salt-shaker on the tablecloth to remind herself to move her painted tree more to the middle, she gently refuses to take on that role herself.

Not only that, but she explores the way in which Victorian men used such women as crutches, and the way in which such women themselves were instrumental in coercing other girls and women to conform. Lily notes that Mrs. Ramsay holds women to a higher standard than she does men, that she "pitied men always as if they lacked something - women never, as if they had something." As such, she is forbearing with men even when they act like complete babies, but stern with her daughters and other women if they diverge from her idea of proper feminine behavior. Mrs. Ramsay, albeit with great charm, belittles the importance of Lily's painting, arguing that any woman who fails to marry is missing the best of life; Mr. Ramsay barely notices Lily enough to deprecate her art. (Woolf herself said that if it hadn't been for her father's death when she was a young woman, she would never have been able to write.)

Oh, but, Lily would say, there was her father; her home; even, had she dared say it, her painting. But all this seemed so little, so virginal, against the other. Yet, as the night wore on, and white lights parted the curtains, and even now and then some bird chirped in the garden, gathering a desperate courage she would urge her own exemption from the universal law; plead for it; she liked to be alone; she liked to be herself; she was not made for that; and so have to meet a serious stare from eyes of unparalleled depth, and confront Mrs. Ramsay's simple certainty (and she was child-like now) that her dear Lily, her little Brisk, was a fool.

Likewise, although Woolf does, in a way, admire and even enjoy men like her father - note that in her letter to Vita she identifies more strongly with Leslie than Julia - she is also harshly critical of a system that allows boys, men and husbands to remain emotionally infantile, blindly twisting any situation to put themselves at its center, and being supported by a group of women trained to safeguard their delicate egos at all cost. As Lily observes while Mrs. Ramsay coerces her into conciliating Charles Tansley, saving the dinner party when Tansley is being an ass, this kind of social structure makes naked sincerity between men and women well nigh impossible - it's unfair to both women (who never get the chance to assert themselves) and men (who never get the chance to do anything else). "What happens if one is not nice to that young man there?" Lily asks herself, and one can almost hear the tantalizing possibilities simmering behind her question, the unaccustomed freedom in demanding that both parties treat each other equally. But no, she must abandon the experiment to suit the charm of Mrs. Ramsay, and the tyranny of men like Mr. Ramsay. I think one reason Woolf could look back affectionately on her parents' generation is that she herself had achieved what Lily only finds later with William Bankes: she had a frank, multi-gendered, intellectually stimulating group of friends who respected each others' humanity and intelligence enough to delight in honest conversation. That's one reason.

And another reason is to be found in the darkness surrounding Mrs. Ramsay, a near-nihilism reminiscent of the grimmest portions of Mrs. Dalloway. For as much as her children and acolytes strain against her influence, strive for a different life that seems impossible; as much as she seems to Lily always to get her way in the end, Time Passes: even overweening personalities can be snuffed out quietly, in a sudden parenthesis, as if they hardly mattered at all. And even before Mrs. Ramsay is whisked from the land of the living, she herself feels uneasily the emptiness, almost a panic, at her own core:

And yet she had said to all these children, You shall go through it all. To eight people she had said relentlessly that (and the bill for the greenhouse would be fifty pounds). For that reason, knowing what was before them - love and ambition and being wretched alone in dreary places - she had often the feeling, Why must they grow up and lose it all? And then she said to herself, brandishing her sword at life, Nonsense. They will be perfectly happy. And here she was, she reflected, feeling life rather sinister again, making Minta marry Paul Rayley; because whatever she might feel about her own transaction, she had had experiences which need not happen to every one (she did not name them to herself); she was driven on, too quickly she knew, almost as if it were an escape for her too, to say that people must marry, people must have children.

As Lily notes, it's "almost impossible to dislike any one if one looked at them," and in looking so carefully at the inner workings of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf is able to critique her parents' generation while also making her peace with them. Their lives were what they were, beautiful and flawed, and she chose to live hers differently.

And although that would probably be the best ending for this little essay, I can't resist inserting a few notes on odd, disconnected things I love about this novel. This time around (this is my third read through), I was struck by Woolf's skill at evoking entire exchanges with just a single line. When Charles Tansley, walking with Mr. Ramsay on the terrace, is heard to pronounce "Brilliant but I think fundamentally flawed," the reader feels the entire conversation - Tansley's and Ramsay's absorption in ideas, their self-satisfied pomposity - present in those few words. (Woolf's entire introduction of Tansley is, I think, hilarious.) Likewise, when William Bankes protests the English habit of cutting the skins off vegetables, "'In which,' said Mr. Bankes, 'all the virtue of the vegetable is contained,'" one can hear the palpably mounting indignation on the part of Mr. Bankes and Mrs. Ramsay as they egg each other on about British cooking, and eventually bring the rest of the dinner guests to break down in laughter. There is not much dialogue in this book, but entire conversations are conjured into the imagination with a few deft strokes.

My other favorite effect, of course (I mentioned it with regard to Mrs. Dalloway) is Woolf's conflation of the interior and exterior worlds of her characters, so that one bleeds into and reflects the other. The characters' experiences of the world around them are inextricably tied to their emotions and inner workings, so that James sees his magazine pictures "fringed with joy" at the thought of going to the lighthouse, Lily marks her artistic breakthrough by placing the salt-cellar on the tablecloth, and Mr. Ramsay perceives the urns and hedges of the house as having "so often decorated processes of thought," and externalizes his inner conflict with a bombastic and almost confrontational recitation of Tennyson. Like the rest of this novel, it's beautifully done.

In case it's useful...I think it's fun to analyze Woolf's references to other texts, and maybe other people do, too. Here are a few links, if you're curious, and thanks to Julia for pointing me to "The Fisherman and His Wife":
  • "The Fisherman and His Wife" by the Brothers Grimm: the story that Mrs. Ramsay is reading to James as she poses for Lily's painting
  • "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: the poem Mr. Ramsay is reciting as he charges around the yard and almost runs into Lily and Mr. Bankes
  • "The Invitation" by Percy Bysshe Shelley: The source of a line Mrs. Ramsay remembers Mr. Ramsay shouting at "poor Miss Giddings"
  • "Luriana Lurilee" by Charles Elton: recited as the dinner party is breaking up
  • "Sonnet 98" by William Shakespeare: the poem that forms the denoument of the passage describing Mrs. Ramsay's reading process
  • "The Castaway" by William Cowper: which dominates the last section, "The Lighthouse."

Be sure to drop by others' posts! And please consider joining us for a discussion of Woolf's Orlando (at Nonsuch Book on February 12) and The Waves (at Kiss a Cloud on February 26).

Mrs. Dalloway


The first time I read Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's prose sprang upon me as an revelation, and also a profound recognition. Here, I felt (sophomorically perhaps), was someone portraying a truth about how I experience the world - about how "people" experience the world. It seemed amazing to me, back then, that nobody had written like this before, because in a way it was so common-sense. Woolf's interweaving of action and thought, for example: it's only reasonable to acknowledge that when a person walks down the street, thinking thoughts, her manner of walking, of glancing around, of holding herself, are all affected by the thoughts she is having, the way she feels about them, the memories that are present to her - and that, conversely, her interactions with those around her, and the things and people she observes in the here and now, set off other trains of thought within her, so that she may be suddenly distracted and diverted to a completely new mental tangent, or a subtle change in the light may just modify her train of thought ever so slightly, without her even realizing a change has taken place. That's only everyday life; I can't imagine that any modern person has failed to experience it.

But that a writer could so fully realize that experience in prose, that her very sentence structure would reflect this interwoven reality...well, my mind was blown. I was intoxicated by the depiction of how people simply walking down the street are all constantly re-inventing, re-imagining themselves, conceptualizing the person they are at the given moment, telling themselves the stories of their lives as they walk along - so Peter Walsh sees himself one moment as a failure and the next as a bold adventurer. I was captivated by Woolf's evocation of the liminal space between subjective and objective reality - how Septimus says, for example, "the sun became extraordinarily hot because the car had stopped outside Mulberry's shop window," which is logically false and yet completely true to the reality of subjective experience. We all experience as causality things that may "really" be only correlations, and yet that perceived cause and effect is vital enough to us, influencing us as we go through our days, so that it is true in some meaningful way, despite logic. So I stayed up all night in college, reading Mrs. Dalloway, absorbed in Mrs. Dalloway and all its inhabitants - Septimus and Rezia and Peter and Elizabeth, and even Lady Bruton and Richard and Miss Kilman, and Sally Seton with her five enormous sons, and Clarissa Dalloway, with her profound superficiality and her atheist's religion of human connection, and her perverse satisfaction in giving parties. I tried to write about all this, and failed miserably.

And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?
      An offering for the sake of an offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano. She muddled Armenians and Turks; loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense; and to this day, ask her what the Equator was, and she did not know.
      All the same, that one day should follow another, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that how unbelievable death was! - that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all, how, every instant . . .

I was overpowered by the tangible, physical presence of human connection - Clarissa and Peter's "queer power of communicating without words," and the conceit that "one's friends were attached to one's body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread," and the way in which a simple hat, laughed over by a husband and wife, can become a gem of everyday beauty in the midst of tragedy - and I had to go and read it again, immediately, out loud, with someone I love. So David and I read Mrs. Dalloway together, and that second reading more or less swept me along in my initial flush of infatuation. How there are anger and cynicism and hard truths - from the arrogant domination the medical profession shows Septimus, to Richard Dalloway's pathetic failure to tell his wife he loves her, to the pointless class-bound animosity between Mrs. Dalloway and Miss Kilman - and yet, unlike some Modernists, Woolf also portrays exquisite moments of true human connection. Never perfect, often fleeting, but, crucially present, nonetheless, which seems to me to make all the difference. I tried to write about this, too, and failed.

But there was nothing terrible about it, he assured himself, looking a second time, a third time at her face, her hands, for what was frightening or disgusting in her as she sat there in broad daylight, sewing? Mrs. Peters had a spiteful tongue. Mr. Peters was in Hull. Why then rage and prophesy? Why fly scourged and outcast? Why be made to tremble and sob by the clouds? Why seek truths and discover messages when Rezia sat sticking pins into the front of her dress, and Mr. Peters was in Hull? Miracles, revelations, agonies, loneliness, falling through the sea, down, down into the flames, all were burnt out, for he had a sense, as he watched Rezia trimming the straw hat for Mrs. Peters, of a coverlet of flowers.
      "It's too small for Mrs. Peters," said Septimus.
      For the first time for days he was speaking as he used to do! Of course it was - absurdly small, she said. But Mrs. Peters had chosen it.
      He took it out of her hands. He said it was an organ grinder's monkey's hat.
      How it rejoiced her that! Not for weeks had they laughed like this together, poking fun privately like married people. What she meant was that if Mrs. Filmer had come in, or Mrs. Peters or anybody they would not have understood what she and Septimus were laughing at.

My third and fourth readings, in second and third college courses, brought more nuance to my appreciation of the novel, and maybe smoothed it out a trifle. I learned little tidbits, interesting in themselves although not, in the final analysis, all that important. I learned about Woolf's struggles with mental illness, and her discomfort, so unlike Clarissa Dalloway, with managing servants. I read her phrase about dining with Lytton Strachey - "It is an exquisite symphony his nature when all the violins get playing" - and found that it described perfectly my own feeling about reading her books. I read and argued passionately with literary critics who made claims I disagreed with - that Woolf is glamorizing death, for example, when I still feel that Mrs. Dalloway is an argument for the beauty and vitality of life in all its imperfection. I wrote about this, although not very satisfactorily.

And now, after my fifth reading of Mrs. Dalloway, the novel has been transformed from a passionate new lover to an old, dear friend. I found, reading it through this time, that it was sometimes difficult even to experience the language as something external: it has become so familiar to me that my mind begins to race ahead, looking forward to favorite passages, anticipating lovely transitions. Peter says of Clarissa:

There was a mystery about it. You were given a sharp, acute, uncomfortable grain - the actual meeting; horribly painful as often as not; yet in absence, in the most unlikely places, it would flower out, open, shed its scent, let you touch, taste, look about you, get the whole feel of it and understanding; after years of lying lost. [...] She had influenced him more than any person he had ever known.

And this is how I feel about Mrs. Dalloway: it has influenced me more than any book I have ever known. Reading it again, after a passage of time, I find that so many moments from it have become absorbed into my brain and my way of life, and I carry them with me always, referring to them at odd, unexpected times. Miss Kilman's assertion that "when people are happy, they have a reserve"; Clarissa's exquisite theories about her spirit being held aloft, stretched wide like a mist over trees among all the people and places she has known; Septimus and Rezia's one last moment of communion with one another (the hat); the way that Peter and Clarissa can inadvertently summon the moonlit terrace at Bourton back into existence forty years later; even the simple image of Clarissa plunging like a knife into a busy London intersection - it is literally hard to imagine my life without these passages, they strike such a deep chord. Mrs. Dalloway is no longer, perhaps, the electrifying novelty it was during my college years, but it's now something more meaningful. My relationship with this book has become an integral part of who I am.

So, maybe it's gotten to the point where I can only really write about it like this - in a form closer to a personal essay than a book review. I haven't given any notion of plot or even intention, I realize. It's still unsatisfying; I'm sitting here tinkering with it when I should be in bed. It does though, at least, start to express what Woolf's novel has meant to me so far. However much more time I have, I'll have it with Mrs. Dalloway.


Thanks to Sarah for hosting this first installment of Woolf in Winter! Join us right here at Evening All Afternoon on January 29 for the second segment. It will feature Woolf's To the Lighthouse, about which I am likely to be more coherent.

And be sure to visit others' posts!

  • Our lovely host Sarah at what we have here is a failure to communicate
  • Amy at New Century Reading
  • Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed
  • Becca at Bookstack
  • Belleza at Dolce Belleza
  • Care at Care's Online Book Club
  • Christy at Lil Bit Brit Lit
  • Claire at Kiss a Cloud
  • Eva at A Striped Armchair
  • DS at Third-Storey Window
  • EL Fay at This Book and I Could Be Friends
  • Frances of Nonsuch Book
  • Jason at Moored at Sea
  • JoAnn at Lakeside Musings
  • Julia at A Number of Things
  • Karen at BookBath
  • Kaye at Kaye's Book Review Page
  • Kristine at BasBleuBookshelf
  • Lena at Save Ophelia
  • Lindsey at Sparks' Notes
  • Lu at Regular Rumination
  • Nicole at Bibliographing
  • Rebecca at Rebecca Reads
  • Richard at Caravana de recuerdos
  • Sandra at Fresh Ink Books
  • Simon at Savidge Reads
  • uncertainprinciples at anothercookiecrumbles
  • Victoria at Views from the Page and the Oven
  • Violet at Still Life with Books

Library Tuesdays: Mrs. Dalloway

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In the spirit of giving thanks for some of the best things in our lives, I decided to include my short review of:

Mrs. Dalloway
by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway is very special. I know that some people hate it, but I cannot comprehend that. To me it is the most beautiful, perfectly-realized novel in the English (or perhaps any) language, and reading it convinced me that art is worth making. The use of language; the subtle ways in which communication is difficult, effortless, impossible or transcendent for the different characters at different times; the ways that compromise is both heartbreaking and gorgeous; the anger and love; the gifts that people give one another without realizing it; the way that simple objects become fraught with real significance and everyday, domestic scenes become beautiful moments to treasure...the hat-making scene! The scene where Peter and Clarissa roam in and out of each others' thoughts! The way that everyone in London is interconnected! Elizabeth's ride on the bus! Clarissa's explanation of why she wants to give the party! Every sentence in this novel is gorgeous, the book as a whole is one of the most scathing-yet-kind, brutal-yet-beautiful true inventions I have ever come across.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography