Edged with Mist: The Waves by Virginia Woolf

I hope that the literary community will forgive me for not getting to Virginia Woolf and this book sooner.  I have always focused my reading on 19th century female British authors—Austen, Bronte, Gaskell, Eliot, etc.  But this year I have discovered Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson, both of whom have given me a new appreciation for 20th century female British authors.  I realize I have a lot of catching up to do.

The Waves describes, in the most beautiful and poetic prose, the ebb and flow of the lives of six people, both as individuals and as members of their group, who attended boarding school together.  When they graduate from school they remain friends and even through middle age they maintain contact with one another.  Written in 1931, it is considered one of Woolf’s most experimental and difficult novels.  I have seen it described as a “stream-of-consciousness” narrative, but to me it read more like a prose poem and Woolf herself described it as “playpoem.”  The beginning of the book is the most difficult as the six characters are young and described their experiences attending a boarding school.  Their identities are tangled with one another and not yet distinct enough to grasp fully.  Woolf is very interested in identity and how we view ourselves through others, especially during the formative years.  We see this in a conversation between the young Susan and Bernard:

‘I love,’ said Susan, ‘and I hate.  I desire one thing only.  My eyes are hard.  Jinny’s eyes break into a thousand lights.  Rhonda’s are like those pale flowers to which moths come in the evening.  Yours grow full and brim and never break.  But I am already set on my pursuit.  I see insects in the grass.  Though my mother still knits white socks for me and hems pinafores and I am a child, I love and I hate.’

‘But when we sit together, close,’ said Bernard, ‘we melt into each other with phrases.  We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory.’

In just this short passage Woolf gives us so many vivid images to contemplate.  What struck me immediately was the “I love and I hate” which is a reference to Catullus Poem #85.*  Although Catullus is referring to the tumultuous relationship with his lover in this poem, the mix of emotions is very appropriate for Woolf’s characters.  They are trying to figure out their own, individual places in the world but still feel like they “melt” into each other and are “edged with mist.”

As they age and grow their individual temperaments slowly surface; Bernard is a storyteller, Louis is a business man who is self-conscious of his Australian origins, Jinny enjoys parties and has many lovers and admirers, Susan is a mother who enjoys her home in the country, Rhonda is constantly anxious and enjoys her solitude.  There is a seventh character who never speaks himself, we only hear about him through the others.  Percival is the “hero” of the group—everyone likes him and is devastated when he dies on a trip in India.  But even as their own, distinct personalities emerge, they are still drawn back to their identity as part of a group.  The seven friends get together in order to see Percival off on his trip to India and Louis comments:

‘It is Percival, said Louis, ‘sitting silent as he sate among the tickling grass when the breeze parted the clouds and they formed again, who makes us aware that these attempts to say, “I am this, I am that,” which we make, coming together, like separated parts of one body and soul, are false.  Something has been left out from fear.  Something has been altered, from vanity.  We have tried to accentuate differences.  From the desire to be separate we have laid stress upon our faults, and what is particular to us.  But there is a chain whirling round, round, in a steel-blue circle beneath.’

There are so many beautiful passages in this book and I must point out, in particular, the nine introductions to each section that Woolf writes describing the sun and its effect on the sea as it rises and sets in the sky.  The book is worth reading just for these gorgeous passages:

The sun, risen, no longer couched on a green mattress darting a fitful glance through watery jewels, bared its face and looked straight over the waves.  They fell with a regular thud.  They fell with the concussion of horses’ hooves on the turf.  Their spray rose like the tossing of lances and assegais over the riders’ heads.  They swept the beach with steel blue and diamond-tipped water.  They drew in and out with the energy, the muscularity of an engine which sweeps its force in and out again.

I’m curious to hear about readers’ favorite Woolf books. I was thinking about reading To the Lighthouse next.  Any other suggestions are most welcomed.

*For the extra curious, here is the Latin for Catullus Poem #85 and my translation:

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and I love.  Perhaps you might ask why I do this.
I do not know, but I feel it and I am tortured.

20 Comments

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20 responses to “Edged with Mist: The Waves by Virginia Woolf

  1. You certainly don’t need to seek forgiveness for literary omissions. We all have so many. Anyone claiming to be well-read these days can be considered a poseur of the highest order.

    I’ve been reading Woolf for a long time, and still read her work with awe. The Waves is so elegant and poetic, yet such an energetic attack on the oppressive culture of the time. That active political engagement is also what I love about Woolf, far from the passive depressive.

    To the Lighthouse is a delight, as is Jacob’s Room and Mrs Dalloway, but then there are the diaries, essays, letters. I’ve thought more about Woolf and that relationship between writing, life, culture, and war, which dominates Woolf’s life, that I have of any other writer.

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    • Thank you for your very kind words. I could make quite of list of literary omissions. I am quite late to the Woolf party!

      I hadn’t thought about the diaries. I have a large collection of her letters that has been sitting on my shelf for years that I had forgotten about. Thanks so much for the suggestions.

      I would add to your list of writing, life, etc. that of identity. I thought a lot of that topic while reading The Waves.

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  2. You are tempting me to reread The Waves which I last read years ago. My favorite Virginia Woolf writings are To the Lighthouse, Between the Acts and The Common Reader essay collections, although the diaries and letters are also very rewarding. I’m also quite fond of Leonard Woolf’s autobiographies.

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  3. Lovely post Melissa. Woolf is just the most wonderful writer and I do agree with your assessment of her work as prose poetry – I feel there’s nothing else like it.

    My first Woolf, many decades ago, was “Mrs. Dalloway”, which I’ve revisited and still loved and I always feel it’s the perfect introduction. But everything she wrote is worth reading.

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  4. Wow, you’re brave to tackle The Waves. I don’t feel that I’m up to it, but your review is helpful. My favorite Woolf is Mrs. Dalloway, which I appreciated far more at fifty than I did at twenty. Also liked To the Lighthouse. Some day I see myself reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf, which some say rivals Richard Ellman’s bio of Joyce as the best ever written. (In Lighthouse, Woolf draws heavily from her own life, especially the mother and father.)

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  5. Thanks for this review 🙂 And for that bit from Catullus, which is quite amazing (is that the whole poem?).

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  6. Forgiven! I’ve read most of Woolf’s novels but so long ago that the only one I’ve reviewed on my blog is Orlando, and much as I love Woolf there are unlikely to be more because there are so many other books to read.
    But I do enjoy reading other people’s thoughts about memorable books that I read long ago, so thank you!

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    • There are just too many books to get to them all, let alone do rereads! Thanks so much for your comments. I feel sheepish that it has taken so long for me to get to Woolf and everyone has been very kind with their comments.

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  7. Ah, yes, I picked up that Catullus reference at the time. I think of myself as a reader of 20th century women and a Bloomssbury fan and yet it was only when my friend Ali did her Woolfalong challenge last year that I read a few of them for the first time, including this one. I did love it, although it was hard working it out sometimes. My review is here, if you’re interested: https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2016/12/26/book-review-the-waves/ I really enjoyed Between the Acts and The Years, as well. And Mrs Dalloway, of course, and then the short stories in Mrs Dalloway’s Party …

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  8. The Waves is a challenging book if you try to think about it as a traditional narrative, but approaching it as a prose poem does make it easier to deal with. And it is a gorgeous book. If you haven’t read it, To The Lighthouse is definitely worth the read. I read all of Woolf’s books a couple of years ago and To The Lighthouse was definitely the standout for me, such an insightful, gentle and yet powerful book. Jacob’s Room is also pretty amazing and holds within it, I think, the seeds of the format of The Waves. Lovely review, Melissa.

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  9. I haven’t read The Waves either – it was to be next on my list after Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse but I just haven’t got to it yet. Spurred on by your review!

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  10. I haven’t read any Woolf although I did buy a lot several decades ago, and recently picked up Jacob’s Room. I think that’s where I will start and, otherwise, The Waves is the book I keep thinking I’d like best. Oddly, I read a great deal about Woolf in the years when I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was questioning sexuality and gender. At the time though, I was looking for something in her writing that was not there.

    Never too late. 🙂

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