Virginia Woolf – Jacob’s Room

Published in 1922, ‘Jacob’s Room’ (JR) is Virginia Woolf’s third novel. Her first two novels had a more conventional form, but JR is a modernist novel. According to a quote from Woolf’s diary, mentioned in the introduction, JR is the work in which she ‘found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice’. ‘Jacob’s Room’ is the story of Jacob Flanders. The novel begins when he is a small boy and we follow him on his journey toward adulthood. Jacob is described mainly via the impressions he makes on others, especially women.

As with everything I have read by Virginia Woolf so far, the writing is truly amazing. There are many sentences and sections that I would like to frame and hang on my wall. Just so that I could read them again, and again. VW’s writing has a unique quality, that I find hard to put into words. An example of what I loved is the following section

It must not be thought, though, that they ousted the flowers of nature. Roses, lilies, carnations, in particular, looked over the rims of vases and surveyed the bright lives and swift dooms of their artificial relations. Mr Stuart Ormond made this very observation; and charming it was thought; and Kitty Craster married him on the strength of it six months later.

The fact that this is a modernist novel makes the reading experience very different for me. Somehow the stream of loosely connected events that together form the story creates a distance between the characters and the reader. This means that I was not really emotionally involved in this novel. This might put off some readers. But I am not sure that VW intended for the reader to feel for Jacob or any of the other characters, her aim surely was different. Maybe this was meant to be aesthetically pleasing, maybe she wanted the reader to appreciate it more like a viewer would examine a painting. It is clear that I need to find out more about VW as a writer.

The modernist flow does enable VW to do some neat things with her characters. I particularly loved this section where Jacob and his friend Bonamy are brought close together in thought, even though Jacob is at that moment travelling in Greece and Bonamy is in London

‘But the Daily Mail isn’t to be trusted,’ Jacob said to himself, looking about for something else to read. And he sighed again, being indeed so profoundly gloomy that gloom must have been lodged in him to cloud him at any moment, which was odd in a man who enjoyed things so, was not much given to analysis, but was horribly romantic, of course, Bonamy thought, in his rooms in Lincoln’s Inn.
‘He will fall in love,’ thought Bonamy. ‘Some Greek woman with a straight nose.’

I read the Penguin Classics of ‘Jacob’s Room’ with an introduction by Sue Roe. I cannot compare it to other editions, but I can recommend this edition. I found the notes to be really helpful in catching some of the finer distinctions. I read the novel first and then the introduction and I found the introduction really helped me to understand the intentions of the novel better.

Overall, this was a very rewarding reading experience, but I would say this required more effort than a more conventional novel. I had to work hard to follow the flow of this work. I invested some time in understanding the introduction. In the end I am happy that I made the effort and I foresee more Virginia Woolf in my future.

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