Hearing Woolf

January 28, 2010

This ritual pilgrimage to the British Library is made several times a year, to hear Virginia Woolf. (It’s an easy enough journey there, along sacred bus routes, well worth it to receive the indulgences which are granted to those of us who seek literary benison.) Her delivery is, as always, faultless – though her voice comes from another country, posh beyond all King’s English, received pronounciation, BBC of the ’thirties. The accent is dated to a past which seems more distant than her writing, but the words are fresh as ever.

The talk Woolf gives is Craftsmanship, from a series of lectures called ‘Words fail me’; it’s a riff on English words and their use, history, magic. Even an excerpt gives some inkling of the variations played on the theme, the value of each note. Words live in the mind, not the dictionary (although you can catch them and sort them); they are utterly living. This is the incantatory moment where she takes flight; the words go out and about, on the streets, in company together, words belong to each other, it is their friendships and alliances which make them – sometimes – immortal. Here she approaches the heart of the mystery.

In the dim room, crammed with precious manuscripts, strangers stand tethered by headphones to their listening-posts, hearing the dead speak, seem to address the fellow-citizens of this library world directly. In the lit cabinets – bright pools or sun-shafts in this dark wood – are Shakespeare’s shopping-lists treasured for his pen-touch, the neat texts of Jane Austen no longer hidden from visitors, Aphra Benn’s scandalous scripts or a Bronte notebook, wild weather-stained. Here sometimes is the great carpet-patterned gospel, the scroll inscribed ‘A Keepsake from the Cloud Gallery’, the brush-holder which declares ‘The Pen before Everything’, or the great charter which the English think is nearly a constitution. Also, there is the battered antarctic journal over which I wept as a child, when its final entry For God’s sake look after our people seemed consistent with the ethos of the mahogany manuscript cases, the hush of the round reading-room.

When Woolf’s voice ceases, on ‘multitudinous seas incarnadine’ as an example of the perfect company of words, it’s hard not to recall her distaste for such self-publicity. As she walked home her ‘premonitory shivers and disgusts’ gradually gave way to the feeling of relief that ‘very few people had listened: the world much as usual’. She made a note not to repeat the folly of broadcasting, as she called it, and she never did. Yet she knew that as she read her piece to that anonymous audience of wireless-listeners, she spoke with ‘ease and emotion’, or fluency and enthusiasm, indeed passion. (It does not seem to have occurred to her to address anyone who was actually listening with anything less than a true statement of her private faith.)

Vita Sackville-West, who had recruited her, was an inveterate flasher of ideas on the air, though not so openly revealing of her creed. In fact, she was so persistent a broadcaster that she can still be heard on the radio quite regularly, listening to the nightingale with Ethel Smythe or recognising herself as Orlando. (I’ve even, by the wonders of BBC time-travel, had the pleasure of inhabiting the same programme with her, this century.) Perhaps Woolf deprecated this robust taste for self-exposure, which could only ever be partially truthful and sometimes became actually misleading. Doubtless she considered the unpleasant paradox that her own statements of belief could be construed as vulgar publicity.

Yet, when she had this opportunity to address an unusual audience, Woolf didn’t protect herself with any bland compromise, so her words hold good to another unseen audience. (A few more minutes of the talk can be heard these days on a British Library CD.) She reminds us that words are highly democratic, the ‘wildest freest most irresponsible of all things… irreclaimable vagabonds’ who make alliances with all kinds of foreigners and – full of echoes, memories and associations as they are – don’t like being pinned down to ‘useful’ meanings, for the passing of exams or the making of money. ‘They hate making money.’ What words like, she assures us, are people who think before they use them, and most importantly feel before they use them – in other words, people like her, impassioned and intoxicated by the possibilities of ‘our dear mother English’.

And so, for a’ that, an a’ that – like a grudged photograph allowed unwillingly which is the only extant likeness, snatched snap now treasured image – there her strange voice sounds. We can only be grateful for this one lapse on her part into sound. The survival of relics, after all, often suggests some discomfort on the part of the holy donor. A patron saint is usually chosen for some personal identification with the pilgrim; so this stolen ikon may protect us now, poor writers of the 21st century, as we try to differentiate between those tasks which contribute to the realities of working or thinking, and the demands of mere publicity.

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