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The thirty-five years late essay: On writing about Virginia Woolf’s The Waves

30 September 2022

Lara Nicholls, The Australian National University

This essay was written on Gadubanud Country in Lorne, Australia in January 2022.  Written as the author tackled a serious bout of procrastination while she was supposed to be writing her PhD thesis, it is about an incomplete first-year English essay on Modernism in 1986. We sabotage our own efforts ceaselessly.

It was The Waves (1931) that ruined me in the end. The year was 1986 and quite unexpectedly I had been offered a place at university to do an arts degree on the strength of solid, yet undeserved grades in English. Yes, I was passionate about literature; the secrets to life that it unlocked and the joy I felt upon reading delectable sentences as they bob and float throughout a narrative. But I did not work hard, I never considered myself university smart and I certainly did not plan to go to one. Instead, I had wanted to go to drama school and join the theatre. Curtly weighing up my options, I decided to take my second life choice, that of being a writer. Three years at university could only help that cause, surely.

I was to fall on many swords in my first year, one of which was Modernism. The core assessment for English 101 was an essay on Virginia Woolf’s poetic novel The Waves, or alternatively the less desirable option of James Joyce’s equally ‘difficult’ Ulysses. Having grown up on the beach immersed in every atom of its fluid, mutable essence, I chose Woolf. I had been born in a hospital overlooking one of the wildest oceans in the southern hemisphere and had stared out to sea all my life, but I could not read The Waves. For a seventeen-year-old girl Modernism was a wave of cement. The relevance of knowing waves first-hand turned out to be of little use to a student from a traditional girls’ grammar school suckled on standard narrative literary form.

The cover of the book was promising. It displayed a dashy post-impressionist image of John Singer Sargent’s painting of his niece sitting by a river. The light-filled strokes of paint, the loveliness of her dress, and her pensive elegance were benign and cajoling to the reader.  It was a trap. The text inside was obtuse and meandering. Modernism’s famous ‘stream of consciousness’ where seemingly random reflections comprise a loose narrative was testing my juvenile mind. Yet, all I had to do was write a thousand words on this slim volume, walk the essay up to the brown-brick building that housed the English department, and drop it into the little pad-locked box which sat on the shelf below the sliding window of the administration office. I gave up. I could not write the essay and I failed English.

Consequently, this modest 212-page book written in 1931 by a proto feminist author who simply used the metaphor of the ocean to reflect the rhythm of life has loomed large on my conscience. It hardened as an intractable proof of intellectual inadequacy since that delicate and messy year of transition from high school to university.

Thirty-five years later, compelled by a need to lay this demon to rest during the recent summer recess, I took my beach chair and pushed it into the soft wet sand. It is a calm day, and the waves gently wash onto the shore and pool around my feet, dragging tiny shells that tinkle back and forth with the tide. The sun beats down, its diamond drops dance and float on the surface. I am mesmerised by the beauty and the sounds all around me. Warm sun, cool wind, the shade of clouds as they pass overhead and that lulling constant hush and heave of the waves. I take out The Waves and I read…

The surface of the sea slowly became transparent and lay rippling and sparkling until the dark stripes were almost rubbed out.’[1] Woolf’s character Jinny speaks, ‘I burn, I shiver…out of this sun, into this shadow’.[2] I realise that The Waves is a sensory book in which Woolf coalesces her own granular memories of childhood days and nights on the beach at Cornwall and then later as an aunt to Vanessa Bell’s children at Studland Beach in Dorset, England. This she splices with acute life observations and sensations during an age which witnessed significant ruptures. Yet, she does not focus on grand epoch-defining events, but instead on her characters’ everyday moments. Those things which her friend Harold Nicolson called, ‘the unfinished and the unfinishable’.[3]

Woolf gives her six lead characters soliloquies on life spoken as a stream of consciousness. There are dinners, people leaving and marrying, children born, friends dying including an abrupt suicide, and countless dreams that go unrealised. The book is also about the act of writing seen through Bernard’s quest to find phrases and sentences that are true to our real experience of life, not superficial realism. That is the final structure of this ‘difficult’ book which Woolf devised to find a more truthful version of how it feels for life to unfold. She aimed to subvert the readable realist narrative form upon which I had been reared.

I now realise that Virginia has watched, observed, and internalised similar experiences to those felt by many of us during summers spent on different beaches. The years from childhood through to adolescence, onto marriages and divorces, babies born, careers started and stalled, suicides and deaths through misadventure; these all happen here and now to all of us. I think that is how memories stack up. Partially, incomplete and riven with ruptures. In memory, time is elongated, or it is compressed. Woolf leaves Bernard to sum it all up, ‘life had been imperfect, an unfinished phrase.’[4]

I finish the book, thirty-five years after I started it in a college room when my life lay before me in a sea of possibilities, before the mistakes set in and serendipities had resolved them. Now that I am an art historian at a university where I often mark essays, I tell my 17-year-old self to just write the thing. Sit down and find the elements in the text which you do understand, the passages you love to read, the coagulation of words in a sentence that draw breath as you read them. Then write.

Others before me did not understand the book and yet they managed to write something and have it published in newspapers. One morning on or about the 25th of October in 1931 Woolf woke up to a review in the New York Times by self-styled critic Louis Kronenberger. He glibly deemed that, ‘As prose it has very often a high distinction – it is clear, bright, burnished, at once marvelously (sic) accurate and subtly connotative.’[5] He then destroyed the work in a pompous conclusion stating that, ‘on an extensive scale she has written imagist poetry of the first order – a very far cry from the “biographic style”. But a very far cry, also, from greatness’. I imagine Virginia reading this and responding to her husband, Leonard over breakfast with a simple, ‘the man never did finish that degree at the University of Cincinnati’.

Another critic, Harold Nicolson, reviewed The Waves in the fall of 1931 for Action magazine. Married to Woolf’s dear friend Vita Sackville-West, he had thoroughly read the text and beseeched his readers to persevere: ‘It is important that this book should be read twice over. The book is difficult. Yet it is superb’.[6]

It is a new day and I pick up The Waves again, walk to the beach and settle into the chair, my feet bury into the sand and the water rushes and recedes all around me. The book melds into life, the words finally make sense. ‘The sun had risen to its full height. It was no longer half seen and guessed at, from hints and gleams…’.[7] I can now write my essay, but it will be never truly finished.

Image credit: Lara Nicholls, 2022


[1] Virginia Woolf, The Waves (London: Hogarth, 1931; repr., 2000), p. 3.

[2] Woolf, p. 6.

[3] Harold Nicolson, ‘Review’, Action, 8 October 1931, p. 8, reprinted in Majumdar, R., & McLaurin, A. (Eds.). (1975). Virginia Woolf: The Critical Heritage (1st ed.). Routledge, p. 266.

[4] Woolf, p. 204.

[5] Louis Kronenberger, ‘Poetic Brilliance in the New Novel by Mrs. Woolf “The Waves” Carries Experimental Technique in Fiction Almost to the Jumping-Off Place’ in The New York Times, 25 October 1931.

[6] Nicolson, 1931, p. 8. (rept. p. 266) 6.

[7] Woolf, p. 104.


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