Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Sketch of the Past’

From it all I gathered one obstinate and enduring conception. That nothing is to be so much dreaded as egotism. Nothing so cruelly hurts the person himself; nothing so wounds those who are forced into contact with it.—Virginia Woolf, writing about her relationship with her father in “A Sketch of the Past

Having posted so much lately on scenic narrative, I do penance by featuring Virginia Woolf, a most reflective writer. Toward her I feel a kinship, which for some time struck me as odd. Then I realized that, in her deep art, her delicate nature, and her spiritual sensibility, she had replaced my boyhood idol Ernest Hemingway. What bookends to have as literary heroes! He, killed by his egotism and his rage, she killed by her sensitivity and her pain.

I admire his courage and his artistry as a young writer; I lament the shameful boor he became. I write that feeling like a son striking against his father, because when I was a lonely and pained adolescent his stoic myth gave me hope and his stories artistic delight. As a teen I read everything I could by and about him, and first saw the link between outlook and art. As an adult I feel that his efforts to grow as an artist, and perhaps to deepen his tragic view of life, were doomed by the prison of image he’d constructed.

Barely having dipped into Woolf to the same extent, I nonetheless find the depth of her artistry breathtaking, and am in awe of the resonant hints of spirituality I find in her work, especially in her concept of “moments of being” that she discusses in “A Sketch of the Past,” collected in Moments of Being. Ever since I read that long, unfinished essay I’ve been thinking about it—how dominated she was by her father, how she lost her mother so young, how she was molested and bullied by her cretinous stepbrothers, how her account still feels modern. In it Woolf makes her famous statement that although she reads many memoirs, most are failures because they are mere narratives of events and “leave out the person to whom things happened.”

Here she is on her parents’ dysfunction:

Every afternoon we ‘went for a walk’. Later these walks became a penance. Father must have one of us go out with him, Mother insisted. Too much obsessed with his health, with his pleasures, she was too willing, as I think now, to sacrifice us to him. It was thus that she left us the legacy of his dependence, which after her death became so harsh an imposition. It would have [been] better for our relationship if she had left him to fend for himself. But for many years she made a fetish of his health; and so—leaving the effect on us out of the reckoning—she wore herself out and died at forty-nine; while he lived on, and found it very difficult, so healthy was he, to die of cancer at the age of seventy-two. But, though I slip in, still venting an old grievance, that parenthesis, St. Ives gave us all that same ‘pure delight’ which is before my eyes at this very moment. The lemon-colored leaves on the elm tree; the apples in the orchard; the murmur and rustle of the leaves makes me pause here, and think how many other than human forces are always at work on us. While I write this the light glows; an apple becomes a vivid green; I respond all through me; but how? Then a little owl chatters under my window. Again, I respond.

Here she writes on the early blows of losing her mother and then a sister to death:

My mother’s death had been a latent sorrow—at thirteen one could not master it, envisage it, deal with it. But Stella’s death two years later fell on a different substance; a mind . . . extraordinarily unprotected, unformed, unshielded, apprehensive, receptive, anticipatory. That must always hold good of minds and bodies at fifteen. But beneath the surface of this particular mind and body lay sunk the other death. Even if I were not fully conscious of what my mother’s death meant, I had for two years been unconsciously absorbing it through Stella’s silent grief; through my father’s demonstrative grief; again through all the things that changed and stopped; the ending of society; of gaiety; of the giving up of St. Ives; the black clothes; the suppressions; the locked door of her bedroom. All this had toned my mind and made it apprehensive; made it I suppose unnaturally responsive to Stella’s happiness, and the promise it held for her and for us of escape from that gloom; when once more unbelievably—incredibly—as if one had been violently cheated of some promise; more than that, brutally told not to be such a fool as to hope for things; I remember saying to myself after she died: ‘But this is impossible; things aren’t, can’t be, like this—the blow, the second blow of death, stuck on me; tremulous, filmy eyed as I was, with my wings still creased, sitting there on the edge of my broken chrysalis.

On how she gained insight into foreign pleasures and strangers:

Once, after we had hung about, tacking, and hauling in gunard after gunard, dab after dab, father said to me: ‘Next time if you are going to fish I shan’t come; I don’t like to see fish caught but you can go if you like.’ It was a perfect lesson. It was not a rebuke; not forbidding; simply a statement of his own feeling, about which I could think and decide for myself. Though my passion for the thrill and the tug had been perhaps the most acute I then knew, his words slowly extinguished it; leaving no grudge, I ceased to wish to catch fish. But from the memory of my own passion I am still able to construct an idea of the sporting passion. It is one of those invaluable seeds, from which, since it is impossible to have every experience fully, one can grow something that represents other people’s experiences. Often one has to make do with seeds; the germs of what might have been, had one’s life been different. I pigeonhole ‘fishing’ thus with other momentary glimpses; like those rapid glances, for example, that I cast into basements when I walk in London streets.

On how fiction and memoir feed upon and devour memories:

Further, just as I rubbed out a good deal of the force of my mother’s memory by writing about her in To the Lighthouse, so I rubbed out much of [my father’s] memory there too. Yet he obsessed me for years. Until I wrote it out, I would find my lips moving; I would be arguing with him; raging against him; saying to myself all that I never said to him; how deep they drove themselves into me, the things it was impossible to say aloud. They are still some of them sayable; when [Woolf’s sister] Nessa for instance revives the memory of Wednesday and its weekly [bank account] books, I still feel come over me that old frustrated fury.

But in me, though not in her, rage alternated with love. . . . ‘You must think me,’ he said to me after one of these rages—I think the word he used was ‘foolish’. I was silent. I did not think him foolish. I thought him brutal. . . .

Woolf died by her own hand before she made of this memoir a literary work equal to her fiction. It feels like a draft still searching for its structure, and ends abruptly. But what a memoir, and the very model for those who believe memoir must, as they say, “interrogate memory.” “A Sketch of the Past” is better for my money than another classic memoir, the gorgeously written Speak, Memory, since, lamentably, I find Vladimir Nabokov’s cold-fish persona in it repulsive. Woolf, in contrast to the guys, seemingly stands naked before her readers, a wounded creature working to understand her life, and life itself, with true courage and great artistry.

Next: Woolf’s concept of “moments of being” from “A Sketch of the Past.”

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10 Comments

Filed under emotion, memoir, NOTED, religion & spirituality

10 responses to “Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Sketch of the Past’

  1. John Wylie

    A wonderful portrait of Woolf, Richard, and I like the contrast with Nabokov.

  2. I loved this post more than I can say. Simply beautiful. You describe Woolf so well and the quotations are wonderful. However, I think you could be a little more gentle with Hemingway and Nabokov. I think Hemingway may have been unwell and his short stories alone have made me very happy. Nabokov’s style means that one has to forgive him anything in my humble opinion- but on the other hand you use them very well to flag up something about Woolf. Her illness did make her to do odd things sometimes- apparently she once saluted at a Hitler rally- but when it comes to the way she wrote you have highlighted her wonderful talent. Woolf once criticised Mr Birrell’s literary criticism for treating books as if they might turn in to people- perhaps when we read memoir we should pretend it is fiction and do the same thing as she would have done- concentrate on originality/style/beauty etc. Many thanks and Merry Christmas, John.

  3. Richard, John certainly speaks for me when he says I love this post more than I can say. I loved your voice opening up the piece, speaking of penance (which Woolf speaks of too) and giving us your personal reflections on Woolf and Hemingway–“typically” thoughtful, intelligent, honest and interesting. Reading the wonderful selections you chose, I felt deeper myself (for a moment at least, if not a moment of being!). Woolf is so beautiful and brilliant in her mind and writing. It’s as if some of her voice and sensibility rubs off on me when I read her in Moments of Being, making me experience my own life more fully, richly, reflectively. How wonderfully she captures her reaction to the deaths of her mother and sister when she was just thirteen and fifteen. Her feelings and image of herself after Stella’s death as just having emerged from her chrysalis, “tremulous, filmy eyed as I was, with my wings still creased,” is heartrending! I loved too how she speaks of being able to construct an idea of a sporting passion from her fishing incident, and how one can grow from such a seed something that represents other people’s experience. One feels in reading her that desire (and ability) to understand and encompass others and experience itself. Finally, what a perfect image you chose in the photograph — the still river with the geese, bringing to mind how she waded into a river with stones in her pockets. All in all, such a fine and thoughtful post, Richard. I feel well fed by it!

  4. Richard, this is perhaps my favorite post of yours so far. I appreciate your words about Hemingway and can imagine you with a pencil, writing and erasing and writing again, until the man in you won out over the boy. The passage you included from Woolf about the non-rebuke rebuke she received from her father right at the end of her fishing experience while her blood was still up, was searing. I cringed reading it, remembering immediately a time when my younger brother, upon viewing several tall glass vases full of sea shells in my home, shook his head and murmured something about the greediness of people taking so many shells from the beach. Even though the shells in question were fragments that had to be turned just so in order to look complete in the glass, I never again picked up a shell on any beach.

  5. A beautiful post, Richard.

  6. Richard Moore

    I think one could make the case that Ernest punished himself, and others, as much as he did out of inner demons of self doubt and self loathing, as much as (if not more than) egotism. I feel that would be more fair assessment. Like you, I put EH on a pedestal early in my life, then cycled up and down through periods of adoration and contempt. I have written a piece about it–“Ernest and Me.”

    I have settled on the rather banal conclusion that on the surface at least he lived a magic life, but was also a tragic figure–and maybe most important for literature, a great writer,

  7. Others have said, better than I could, what I felt reading this post. Thanks, Richard. I will be thinking about your way of contrasting the deaths of Hemingway and Woolf for a long time.And I had the very same thought about the photo that Paulette described above.

    • Thanks, Shirley. I am glad to know so many are reading or have read Woolf. She was a discovery I more or less made on my own, kind of like Rilke was, and those are very special.

  8. Somehow I missed this post the first time around. I just finished A Sketch of the Past, then turned around and reread it. I agree. Loved it.