Serendipity: “Drowned Untimely”

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

I am currently reading (among other things) Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. In particular, I was drawn to the essay entitled “Street Haunting,” which contains a sustained reverie about Woolf’s walking the streets of London on a winter evening in search of a lead pencil. Following are a couple of paragraph’s about her visit to a second-hand bookstore, with its prophetic phrase about a poet “drowned untimely,” as the author was herself when, depressed by the onset of the Second World War, she filled her pockets with heavy stones and committed suicide by walking into the River Ouse near her home:

But here, none too soon, are the second-hand bookshops. Here we find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being; here we balance ourselves after the splendours and miseries of the streets. The very sight of the bookseller’s wife with her foot on the fender, sitting beside a good coal fire, screened from the door, is sobering and cheerful. She is never reading, or only the newspaper; her talk, when it leaves bookselling, which it does so gladly, is about hats; she likes a hat to be practical, she says, as well as pretty. 0 no, they don’t live at the shop; they live in Brixton; she must have a bit of green to look at. In summer a jar of flowers grown in her own garden is stood on the top of some dusty pile to enliven the shop. Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world. There is always a hope, as we reach down some grayish-white book from an upper shelf, directed by its air of shabbiness and desertion, of meeting here with a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it (the book was published at his own expense); was infinitely prosy, busy, and matter-of-fact, and so let flow in without his knowing it the very scent of hollyhocks and the hay together with such a portrait of himself as gives him forever a seat in the warm corner of the mind’s inglenook. One may buy him for eighteen pence now. He is marked three and sixpence, but the bookseller’s wife, seeing how shabby the covers are and how long the book has stood there since it was bought at some sale of a gentleman’s library in Suffolk, will let it go at that.

Thus, glancing round the bookshop, we make other such sudden capricious friendships with the unknown and the vanished whose only record is, for example, this little book of poems, so fairly printed, so finely engraved, too, with a portrait of the author. For he was a poet and drowned untimely, and his verse, mild as it is and formal and sententious, sends forth still a frail fluty sound like that of a piano organ played in some back street resignedly by an old Italian organ-grinder in a corduroy jacket. There are travellers, too, row upon row of them, still testifying, indomitable spinsters that they were, to the discomforts that they endured and the sunsets they admired in Greece when Queen Victoria was a girl. A tour in Cornwall with a visit to the tin mines was thought worthy of voluminous record. People went slowly up the Rhine and did portraits of each other in Indian ink, sitting reading on deck beside a coil of rope; they measured the pyramids; were lost to civilization for years; converted negroes in pestilential swamps. This packing up and going off, exploring deserts and catching fevers, settling in India for a lifetime, penetrating even to China and then returning to lead a parochial life at Edmonton, tumbles and tosses upon the dusty floor like an uneasy sea, so restless the English are, with the waves at their very door. The waters of travel and adventure seem to break upon little islands of serious effort and lifelong industry stood in jagged column upon the floor. In these piles of puce-bound volumes with gilt monograms on the back, thoughtful clergymen expound the gospels; scholars are to be heard with their hammers and their chisels chipping clear the ancient texts of Euripides and Aeschylus. Thinking, annotating, expounding goes on at a prodigious rate all around us and over everything, like a punctual, everlasting tide, washes the ancient sea of fiction. Innumerable volumes tell how Arthur loved Laura and they were separated and they were unhappy and then they met and they were happy ever after, as was the way when Victoria ruled these islands.

Serendipity: Who’s Afraid Like Virginia Woolf?

British Author Virginia Woolf

British Author Virginia Woolf

The following is the beginning of a book review by Linda Colley of Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815. The review is entitled “Facing Napoleon’s Own EU” and can be found in the November 5, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books.

Throughout 1940, Virginia Woolf struggled with the terrors and mysteries of war. Neither of the Woolfs knew that their names were on the “black list” of Britons set to be arrested—and presumably killed—in the event of a successful Nazi invasion, but since [husband] Leonard was Jewish, the couple prepared for the worst. They hoarded gasoline in their garage so as to be able to kill themselves by inhaling carbon monoxide, and took the further precaution of of acquiring a deadly dose of morphine from a friend. But none of this protected them from hearing Hitler’s voice over the radio, or the noise of German bombers flying over their London house at night, rattling its windowpanes.

“Here they are again,” wrote Virginia in a famous essay published five months before her suicide. “It is a queer experience lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet which may at any moment sting you to death.” Earlier, she had written about how different all this was from British experience of the Napoleonic Wars. Both Jane Austen and Walter Scott lived through these conflicts, she noted, yet neither had mentioned it in their novels. This, she thought, demonstrated “that their model, their vision of human life, was not disturbed or agitated or changed by war. Nor were they themselves…. War were then remote:; wars were carried on by soldiers and sailors, not by private people.”

Unfortunately, Woolf was particularly prey to depression. Her house in London was destroyed by bombing, and her most recent book (a biography of her friend Roger Fry) was not well received. On March 28, 1941, she loaded her pockets with heavy stones and walked into the River Ouse, drowning herself. Her body was not found until weeks later. In her last note to her husband, she wrote:

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

So when you hear about ISIS and Donald Trump’s latest outrage, remember that it is still possible to survive, and even prevail. I look at Virginia Woolf’s face and cannot help falling in love with it.