Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Beneath The River Ous

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to have purchased a first-edition copy of Virginia Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out. It need not be said that I am a fan of Virginia Woolf and an avid collector of her works. Holding the book in my hands right now, feeling its frayed spine, flipping ever so gently through its aging pages and taking in its musty smell I am slowly slipping back in time to the events of this very day sixty-eight years ago, when one of our greatest literary minds chose to drown itself in the cold waters of the River Ous.

Virginia Woolf, daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, wife of Leonard Woolf, passionate friend of Vita-Sackville-West, avid feminist, one of the most influential writers of the modernist movement and founder of the Hogarth Press, would not allow her madness to swallow her whole. After penning two letters, one to her idolizing husband Leonard and the other to her beloved sister Vanessa she walked out of her house, filled her pockets with stones and gave herself to the waters. Virginia Woolf’s limp, lifeless body was to be found eighteen days later by a group of children.

Virginia Woolf had an overzealous habit of jotting down every detail of her day; she insisted that every woman should write about her day for there is a treasure in every movement. She believed that every part of the day need not be wasted or forgotten and she was right. Owing to this almost obsessive habit, Virginia left behind a life-time worth of diary entries that were later compiled into five volumes which now serve as out gateway to her life, love and madness.
This wealth of detail led to the analysis and over-analysis of every aspect of Virginia’s life. Critics devoured Woolf’s diaries and personal letters hoping to make rhyme and reason of everything she did, everything she said and every word she penned. They dissected every part of her life from her mental state to her eating habits. If Virginia Woolf were alive today the critics would be her paparazzi and every detail of her life would be published in tabloids and posted on websites.

To the literary world Virginia Woolf’s life and loves have come to over-shadow her work. She was a devoted writer who lived her entire life for the craft. She was an artist forever seeking perfection. She dwelled on every sentence, in the confinement of her room among tons of scrapped papers; she recited each one out loud. One of which is the opening sentence in her novel Mrs. Dalloway: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”. A single sentence such as this one may have taken days from her life, years from her sanity and brought her ever so closer to the River Ous.

Everything that is to be said about Virginia Woolf has been said. Many have criticized her personality and neglected her work, many poured over her work and neglected her person, inspirations and passion. Nevertheless, all of them agreed on one thing, that Virginia Woolf had an undeniable effect on the literary world and an uncompromising hold on every person who has read any of her works. She has laid the foundation for the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique that many have failed to emulate. Although she is categorized as a feminist (what that word means nowadays I have no idea) she believed in ‘fortifying’ the difference between men and women and in blurring the lines that separate them, for only then will each come into his own.

Virginia was convinced that the mind should be androgynous in order to be able to write freely and passionately. Her ultimate aim in life was to express the necessity for female writers to find a sentence, just a single sentence that describes them, and not succumb to borrowing the male sentence that they have been exposed to since the creation of the word. Virginia searched for this very sentence all her life, who knows maybe she found it on this day sixty-eight years ago beneath the icy waters of the River Ous.


This piece was published in The Gulf Today newspaper on March 28, 2009. On Virginia Woolf's 68th death anniversary.

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