|Jan/Feb 2009 Nonfiction|
Virginia,you had a stout chin. A good one, strong, chin of a man. I am thinking of that portrait by George Charles Beresford: 1902, and you were twenty and you gave your profile, that long swan neck, the isosceles nose, the doe eyes, a loose gathering of hair at the base of your head. I imagine you tying it back, pinning it up, as you sat down to your typewriter or notebook, whatever it was—your fingers ink-stained, in any case. You were forty-something when you said that, for women, it was a matter of a private room and some money. That art, in order to gestate, required security and comfort, the freedom to pursue an education, a deep alliance with truth.
Truth, you wrote, is only to be had by laying together many varieties of error. Truth through error—but what does that mean? I have been thinking of the idea, how truth is formed or discovered, whether we create it or whether it is already there for us to find. Can I think of it in terms of an analogy: different strata of error, imparting a geology of truth? Only by piecing together inconsistencies, the many varieties and subtle layers, by making leaps in judgment and inferring conclusions—this stone here is this way, but over here it is another way, so the difference between the two must mean this—can we puzzle out the whole history. Virginia, do we become geologists of sorts then? You in the British Museum's Reading Room, after the first war and before the second, with your socio-literary excavations, searching for the truth of women and fiction, taking the trowel, the light brush, the magnifying glass to Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, masculine insecurity, economic matters, Napoleon, the art of the novel and that library at your imaginary Oxbridge, which was closed to you on the basis of your sex. Remember how the Beadle barred your way? "Only fellows and scholars allowed here," he said. Wasn't that a kind of truth—a sharp, cruel stone—you found there?
I sit at my desk at work, an office at my university, as I write you. The elevator dings each time it arrives to deliver or take away some person. Just now, it opened, ding, with a group of people, students and professors perhaps, laughingly raucously, trying to find their way to the main floor. I am on the ninth. Outside, the sky is grey and heavy; it rains and rains. If you listen closely, I am sure you can hear how the wind blows, even from where you are. What truth am I searching for? Virginia, you wrote, Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts the better the fiction, and by that I am sure that you did not mean that fiction must go as everyday life does and detail each moment and make nothing whatsoever up, because it cannot—it has to transcend the mundane, even as it delves into it. A book cannot be conceived in the exactness of actual reality because it is, after all, performance, but a performance that, if done correctly and beautifully, bares the whole soul. I imagine how you sat at your own desk, in your room, with a late afternoon sun slanting through the windows, your pen racing swiftly across the page. You wrote of economic security—What a change in temper a fixed income can bring about—and what atmosphere is most conducive to the creative processes, how material considerations weigh heavily upon an artist's work. You contend that to write well the mind must not be muddied by poverty, strife, incessant monotony—After all, how can truth be wrought purely, with integrity, from such circumstances? It cannot; it is diverted from its intentions; it suffers.
The rain outside continues. A rush and hum of traffic from the streets below is audible. The ventilation fans, too. Afternoon has descended upon the office now—a great deal of people are out to lunch. I have begun to count down the hours to the end of the work day; each tap of the keyboard is another moment passed, each folder filed is almost the last. Virginia, remember you referred to the future of fiction as that very dismal subject? It is dismal. It has become a sanctuary for tropes, adherence to conventions. Literature that seeks neither to ask nor answer any questions ceases to be art; it more resembles mediocre rubbish. A novel written for entertainment value alone, with no thought of social impact, with no aim but to fill space on a shelf, to pass a little of our time, is no better than a juggler on the street—our minds are amused for a moment and then the spectacle passes from memory and we continue on exactly as before. A novel, a proper one, should excite the reader into new territories, layers of intellect and emotion. Now that I have read this novel, the reader thinks, I realize this and this and I have begun to think of other things I had not thought of previously, I begin to see things newly. To throw off that depth, that searching, in favor of vapidity is to ignore a part of the beauty of being human: our unending capacity for growth, our insatiable inquisitiveness. If truth is to be had, Virginia, I think it is only because we have spent so much time in pursuit of it—perhaps, after all, it is not in the layers of error, but at the core beneath them. Pick up your shovel, your sifting boxes. We will roll our sleeves up to the elbow, you and I, and prepare to dig, to study.
To the students of Newnham and Girton in 1928, you said, You are, in my opinion, disgracefully ignorant. I imagine that chin of yours was thrust forward then, like the prow of a ship cutting heady waters, firmly set on its course, as you continued: you have never made a discovery of any importance. You have never shaken an empire or led an army into battle. The plays of Shakespeare are not by you. I imagine how your eyes were alight with urgency—
Please! We have so much work to do! We have so far to go! In 1928, you hypothesized that the success of writing stemmed from a very simple thing: a room of one's own and 500 a year. You argued that literature, as art, unburdened by circumstance or gender, pure and high in thought—not to say that it approaches no gritty subjects, but that in doing so, it searches for something deeper—would be able to transcend its creator, attain a timeless vitality.
Virginia, today I am 22—my portrait, if it were had, would follow as such: a shorter neck than yours, a nose of more triangular audacity, nothing so much of the chin or jaw, but eyes perhaps as wide and earnest. My hair is never tied back and my fingers are mostly unstained. I use a notebook and a laptop. When I think of my art though, it is, as you did, with ardor and conviction and an eternal desire to know the truth of things, with my pith helmet attached firmly to my head, my belt of tools at my hip and ready. To do as you did, I need only a room of my own. And perhaps a little more than 500 a year.