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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sketching the Past

     While living in Talland House, Virginia Woolf refers to her mother as being “the very centre of that great Cathedral space which was childhood” (VRW 15). In phrasing it that way, she gives this portion of her life a religious relevancy. When she describes one memory, she uses the word “rapture” in three back-to-back sentences. I wonder if she doesn’t use this word with an intended double entendre. She seemingly appears to reminisce devotedly on the Talland House days in the time before her mother’s death. Perhaps that is why I preferred reading of her early life. She filled it with beautiful imagery that would become a thread sewed throughout the rest of her writings. She adored those years, but they weren’t without their own difficulties. In the early life at St. Ives, one can see the seeds of her eventual break with sanity; the fondling from Gerald, the shame of looking into the mirror, her lack of emotion at her mother’s death. She still sees her childhood as golden even though Gerald attacked her innocence. It is the imagery that grasps me in this portion of her memoir.

     In comparing it to what I read of Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf, a lot is left out in her memoir. Whereas Lee’s biography is organized in a topics mode, Woolf writes her memoir in a chronological order, but it is not in the this-happened-to-me-and-then-that-other-thing-happened-to-me mode. She relates feelings, sights, sounds, and impressions. She gives us color and emotions. Comparatively, I found Hermione Lee’s biography less compelling. One thinks she had a command from Joe Friday of long-ago “Dragnet” fame: “Just the facts, ma’am.” And she was a monster for detail. In Woolf’s memoir, you were encompassed in her beautiful imagery, so I tend more towards the feeling that it had more of a poetic quality.

     Off the top of my head, I see two themes that recur throughout her stories, garden/flowers and death. I read somewhere (I’ve read so much already that I’m forgetting what came from where) that the grave/death theme permeates Jacob’s Room, and from what I’ve read so far, I can see it. Reading “A Sketch of the Past” has enticed me to be on the lookout for these themes in her other writings.

     Just as I finished this, it hit me that the title leads one to think of her memoir as a piece of art that she is drawing for us to see not just read.

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