If a book has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills, then my book without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying on my balcony on a lovely spring afternoon, reading To the Lighthouse (1927) for the first time and being struck by Woolf’s abundant use of water metaphors, by the flow of her sentences, and by the elegance of a writer who, as I later learned, took rhythm very seriously, and who somehow managed to never use “a word wrong for a page at a time” (Woolf, Diary 132). Yet, the effect of her writing was far from watery—her words were solid and precise, and they conveyed reality in a way that was utterly new to me. In other words, like so many before me, I fell head over heels in love with Virginia Woolf’s writing.
Once I was attuned to Woolf’s affinity for water, all my future readings of her works were somewhat biased—I saw water, water everywhere. More than ten years later, the product of an undergraduate’s crush evolved into a book, Modernist Waterscapes: Water, Imagination and Materiality in the Works of Virginia Woolf (Palgrave MacMillan, 2022). In my book, I claim that water is an element of great poetic force; that the various forms, movements, and properties of water inspired Woolf’s writing of reality, time, bodies, and sexuality; and that water became an apt medium for her to reflect on the possibilities and limitations of her art.
The corridor of time that lay between these first ideas and the finished book came with its own moments of darkness, which, in the greater scheme of things, are mere parentheses. Yet they made me appreciate more and more the importance Woolf attributed to impersonality, and to me her books came to signify exactly that. As personal and intimate as her writing feels (and in the process of writing the book and reading all the wonderful existent research I almost jealously came to realize that everyone has a “Virginia Woolf” of their own), it keeps its distance and thereby keeps its freedom—her words, too, certainly mean “different things to different people,” and they “hate anything that stamps them with one meaning” (Woolf, Essays 92).
Woolf’s poetics of water is one of the most powerful manifestations of the writer’s striving for impersonality, and as such, it offered a wonderful frame within which to explore a language that, like water, resists any attempt to fully capture or transfix it. Her writing is not egocentric, but rather, like Coleridge’s androgynous mind, it is “resonant and porous” (Woolf, A Room 89). As I argue in my book, Woolf was aware of how water has always shaped the human imagination, and her fiction is deeply infused with the literary past. Moreover, she knew how to listen to the voices of the world around her, and how to incorporate them in her writing. There is, of course, the metrical force of the sea, the often-observed importance of the rhythm of the waves; but there are also, more subtly, dripping taps, gurgling pipes, reflecting ponds, fertilizing fountains, falling drops, sudden rains, letter-staining tears, and even the flushes of toilets—all of which make for the material versatility and metaphorical richness of Woolf’s water writing.
Writing this book, I was often grateful for the stability of her art, and for the platform her words offer against the flux. “Sometimes indeed, when I pass a cottage with a light in the window where a child has been born, I could implore them not to squeeze the sponge over that new body,” Bernard remarks in The Waves (1931), remembering the shock of water against his skin when his nurse washed him as a child, as if it brought into existence the very contours of his body (Woolf, The Waves 184). How better to capture the vulnerability that comes with feeling things, with being made sensitive to the beauty and ugliness, the poetry and ordinariness around us, with being alive?
In my attempt to get hold of the “swirling waters” of Woolf’s art, I sometimes felt akin to Orlando trying in vain to “breast the flood” of the river on which his lover disappears toward the sea (Woolf, Orlando 45–45); but the attempt itself was incredibly joyful.
22 August 2022
Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf: 1925–1930. Vol. III. Edited by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie, Harcourt, 1980. Vol. 3 of The Diary of Virginia Woolf.
Woolf, Virginia. The Essays of Virginia Woolf: 1933–1941. Edited by Stuart N. Clarke, Hogarth Press, 2011. Vol. 6 of The Essays of Virginia Woolf.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. 1928. Edited by Brenda Lyons with an introduction and notes by Sandra M. Gilbert, London, Penguin, 2000.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. Edited with an introduction and notes by Michèle Barrett, London, Penguin, 2011.
Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. 1931. Edited with an introduction and notes by Kate Flint, London, Penguin, 1992.