I spare you the twists and turns of my cogitations, for no conclusion was found on the road to Headingly, and I ask you to suppose that I soon found out my mistake about the turning and retraced my steps to Fernham.
--Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)
“the Bank was, by all accounts an exceedingly eccentric place…it wasn’t unusual to come across a clerk in the lavatory butchering the carcass of a sheep bought wholesale in the local market. The lavatories were also used for dogfights, which were so much a part of Bank culture that some of the rougher clerks kept fighting dogs chained in readiness at their desks” (65).
Miss Pym looked diffidently at the waiter. She had cut herself off from the omelette, so he shrugged his shoulders and brought her up a plate of macaroni from the servants’ lunch. This the bruised creature pitifully but with evidence of hunger bagan to eat; the traditional British struggle with macaroni brought her down sharply from tragedy to farce.
Here are two examples of scenes that misfire: There is a big wedding at the heart of the book. The bride and groom are ill-matched, the wedding is beyond expensive, and the groom has cold feet. As things begin to go wrong, there is an avalanche of the cupcake tower wedding cake. Slapstick is hard to write, but this should be a slapstick scene: full of frosting wrecking expensive shoes, tears, dogs getting sick, laughter, recriminations. To work, it needs to be big and hilarious. But the writer can’t forget that she also likes her characters, cares about them; I can sense her liking them, but we haven’t seen a nice moment from the bride in so many pages that I don’t like her anymore and am not sorry that “her day” is getting spoiled. Thus, the scene neither has enough action nor enough poignance to work.
It’s a Paris summer here at Fernham. I sit in this hot little rented house, staring out at the hazy St. Lawrence River, thinking and reading about Paris.
7. Henry James writing style is perfect for learning to diagram sentences (which I doubt anyone does any more). His sentences are very, very long. Likewise, his passages are very long. James can take two pages to say that two people look alike.
8. I have found at least one occasion in which James uses a word that doesn't exist in the English language, but looks like it should. In context, one can almost figure out what James was saying but who knows for sure.and this:
I am 58 years old. The protagonist in The Ambassadors is 55 years old. He and I are asking the same questions.
And The Millions informs me that Cynthia Ozick’s forthcoming novel, Foreign Bodies is a retelling of The Ambassadors. The Times describes it this way:
Cynthia Ozick will return to the subject of families in need of reconciliation in a new novel called “Foreign Bodies.” On Wednesday, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said it had acquired the book and planned to release it in winter 2011. In a statement, the publisher said the new work, set in postwar New York, Paris and California, “is the story of a divorced schoolteacher who tries to resolve her brother’s family dramas, leading to extraordinary and wholly unanticipated results.”
‘Oh no, I don’t touch the business.’
‘Only everything else?’
‘Well, yes—some things.’
‘As for instance--?’
Strether obligingly thought. ‘Well, the Review.’
‘The Review?—you have a Review?’
‘Certainly Woollett has a Review—which Mrs. Newsome, for the most part, magnificently pays for and which I, not at all magnificently, edit. My name’s on the cover,’ Strether pursued, ‘and I’m really rather disappointed and hurt that you seem never to have heard of it.’
She neglected for a moment this grievance. ‘And what kind of a Review is it?’
His serenity was now completely restored. ‘Well, it’s green.’
‘Do you mean in political colour as they say here—in thought?’
‘No; I mean the cover’s green—of the most lovely shade.’
He broke out as with a more helpful thought. “Don’t you know how I like Paris itself?”
The upshot was indeed to make our friend marvel. “Oh, if THAT’S all that’s the matter with you--!” It was HE who almost showed resentment.
Chad’s smile of a truth more than met it. “But isn’t that enough?”
Strether hesitated, but it came out. “Not enough for your mother!” Spoken, however, it sounded a trifle odd—the effect of which was that Chad broke into a laugh.
“Whitley, have you read Mike’s new book? It’s really too much! Do you know that those brokers actually wrote an $800K mortgage for a Mexican strawberry picker?”
“But Sterling, the one that was really over the top was the stripper who was flipping houses on the side!”
“The flipping stripper!”
“I liked the Chinese guy—the one who went to Babson—who thought he was making a killing--”
“Hilarious! That was a great scene—with the Brooklyn guy double-dipping his edamame. Hey, where is Babson again, anyway?”
“Isn’t it in Wellesley?”
“I dated a girl from Wellesley sophomore year. She got to be VP at AIG. Wonder what happened to her….”
A happily married woman acquires the habit of referring everything to, discussing everything with, her husband. Even the smallest things. Like bad coal, for instance. To be able to say, sitting across the hearth from him in the evening: ‘Isn’t this coal bad?’ and to hear him say, looking up from his book at the fire: ‘Awful. Sheer slate,’ is to have something comfortable made out of even bad coal.
A loved husband is the companion of companions, the supreme sharer, and a happy wife often sounds trivial when she is really sampling and enjoying their mutual and unique confidence. But in doing it, she largely loses her power of independent decision and action. She either brings her husband round to her way of thinking or goes over to his, and mostly she doesn’t know or care which it is. (210-11)
Once a month or so, my mom asks me “Have you read Someone at a Distance yet?”
Orwell’s relation to coal production remained abstract, whereas Woolf would see her own dinner cooked, her underwear scrubbed, and her chamber pot from the night before emptied and washed. Domestic work has always put the people doing the work and the ones benefiting from it in a deeply intimate and unequal relationship. Woolf needed to hire a woman in order to write. None of us, least of all a woman given to inward examination, wishes to think that the emotional conditions necessary for her to do the work she loves involve some form of oppression. These messy feelings of guilt and dependence may have been Woolf’s obstacle in depicting Nellie. Light’s book proves one thing that could not have been the problem: it wasn’t that Woolf didn’t love her enough.By contrast, I was quite disappointed with the conclusion of Claire Messud’s review in the Times. She writes "As readers, we must be grateful that Virginia had the good fortune to have help — she was so emotionally delicate that she would have written little without it."
Many years ago, I was at a conference in Oxford, feeling quite pleased with myself. My paper had gone well, I had made friends, I had spoken at Oxford! At the end of the day, I sat down next to a new acquaintance to await the last plenary talk. “Have you read Forever England?” My seatmate asked. I had not, but I was full of that anxious mix of adrenaline, confidence, and fear, so, to my regret I said “I heard it’s not very good.”