Reading guide

Where to start with Virginia Woolf

These beautiful Vintage Classic editions of Virginia Woolf’s greatest works will have you wanting to dive into the stories but where do you begin reading this famous member of the Bloomsbury Group? Enthusiastic Woolf fan, Eric Karl Anderson of LonesomeReader, gives his thoughts on how to start and why you’ll want to keep reading the work of this brilliant author.

 


It was on a particularly lonesome and directionless day that I wandered into my local library and first came upon Virginia Woolf’s novels. Since I was aware she was revered as one of the greatest English writers of the early twentieth century, I felt somewhat intimidated picking up her books but once I started reading I became enraptured by her sumptuous prose and heartfelt writing on ordinary life. Somehow daily details are elevated into moments of startling significance in her fiction. Her writing has that rare ability to literally reshape how you see the world around you. I don’t feel like I read her books so much as live through them.

In recent decades, Virginia Woolf has also become such a cult figure that her life is as much a subject of fascination as her writing. As a central figure of the influential Bloomsbury Group, she was embroiled in their complicated and, at the time, scandalous affairs. Their fascinating lives, beset by tragedy, have been turned into films and television dramas. Woolf has become a revered figurehead whose life and thoughts have helped shaped modern ideas about feminism, sexuality and mental health. Yet, it’s in her artfully crafted books that we most feel her indomitable spirit and continue to hear the voice of Virginia herself. Each time I read these imaginative books I find something so fresh and new it’s like the purple ink from her pen has only just dried.

 

Mrs Dalloway

Although this novel was produced roughly mid-career, it represents the epitome of Virginia’s distinct style and marks the perfect point at which to enter her writing. The plot of the story is deceptively simple. Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party and the novel follows her preparations throughout the day culminating in the event itself. Twinned with her tale is the story of WWI veteran Septimus who suffers from hallucinations and haunting memories. The details of this day expand voluminously to encompass their whole lives and celebrate the importance of our moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings.

To the Lighthouse

Virginia’s mother died when she was only thirteen years old. This novel is perhaps the author’s most personal as it memorialises her in the vibrant and boisterous character Mrs Ramsay, who tends to her family and guests while at their summer home. Woolf has an extraordinary way of showing how experience is filtered through an individual’s perception at a particular time, through their stream of consciousness. This style works beautifully to create a story so emotionally moving you’ll feel the true poignancy of all that’s lost in the inevitable onward march of time. 

 

Orlando

For something a little bit different from Woolf’s original style, you’ll be awed by the dazzling breadth of Woolf’s imagination, demonstrated in this slender and very funny novel. Here a life bursts through the boundaries of mortal limits with its title character traversing centuries and changing gender. Orlando experiences life as nobleman at the court of Elizabeth I, a diplomat in Constantinople and survives into the twentieth century to become a celebrated poet. The character is brilliantly portrayed by Tilda Swinton in the film adaptation of this novel, but the book itself must be read to experience the true exuberance of its astounding story. 

The Waves

Virginia is at the height of her writing powers in The Waves. You’ll notice how it crystallises the subjects and style displayed in the four previous novels. Here we see recorded the lives of six characters as they grow from childhood to old age; poetic language captures each of their sensory experiences of the world. Each section begins with a description of the sun as it moves across the sky and thus frames their lives in a single day. It may feel strange to read at first, but savour it slowly and its wisdom will seep in. Without a doubt, this is my favourite novel ever written. It’s a book to be kept all your life and read at intervals as you’ll differently identify with its six distinct protagonists as they age and change alongside you.

A Room of One’s Own

Now that you’ve appreciated the artfulness of Virginia’s novels, you’ll find it thrilling to read this extended essay which still remains a nuanced and triumphant feminist statement. She writes so creatively and movingly about the social and economic factors which prevent women from achieving their full creative potential. As an example, she imagines a fictional character Judith as a sister to Shakespeare who possesses all his talent but is inhibited by society’s expectations for women. It’s particularly poignant reading her thoughts about the marginalisation of female writers and realising the bravery required for her to write and publish her other revelatory works of fiction.  

 

The Years

In The Years, we appreciate how the scenes Woolf writes about encapsulate both the minutely small and the grand, sweeping elements of life simultaneously. She uses a less poetic writing style in this novel that charts the lives of a genteel family over a period of fifty years, but only through particular moments in particular years. Details of the changing seasons and weather colour the mood of each chapter. Interestingly, during Virginia’s lifetime this was her bestselling book but its popularity has diminished over time. However, it’s a compelling panoramic look at the way personality changes with the shifting sands of history.

 

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