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Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf: Hogarth & Independence

In 1917, Leonard and Virginia Woolf purchased a used printing press and set it up in the basement of their home. The couple had figured out what millions of bloggers would learn more than a century later—if you don't want a publisher controlling what you say, publish yourself. They named their imprint Hogarth Press, after Hogarth House, their suburban London home. Over the years the press grew from a simple basement operation to a well-respected publishing house with offices in London. They published the works of writers like Katharine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot, and Sigmund Freud. Perhaps most notably, they published Virginia Woolf. The press gave Woolf the freedom to write the fiction she wanted to write without enduring the judgment of mainstream publishers or editors.

Shortly after the Woolfs established Hogarth, an aunt of Virginia Woolf's died and left her niece an inheritance of £500 per year for life. At the time, this was a good chunk of money. Though Woolf had grown up in a comfortable household, having a personal income as an adult was enormously gratifying to her. Woolf reveled in the freedom of financial independence, knowing that it was a valuable tool that few other women possessed. Money was liberation. "No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds," Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own. "Food, house and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me."4

Woolf now had money of her own, a publisher of her own, and (unlike many female artists of the time) a supportive husband who encouraged her work. "I'm the only woman in England free to write what I like,"5 she wrote exuberantly in her diary in 1925. What she chose to write was a new kind of experimental fiction, one that focused on interior consciousness instead of external actions. Woolf believed that behind the superficial veneer of life was a constant flow of reality. Rather than find the perfect word or phrase to describe an image or action, she tried to capture "moments of being," the brief flashes in a person's life when the self disappeared and the collective unconscious came through. She believed that her fiction revealed "some order" about the world, and in writing she sought to illuminate "a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words."6 She tested her style in novels like Jacob's Room (1922) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925). The latter novel followed London socialite Clarissa Dalloway as she prepared for a party. Though the action of the book took place in a single day, the interior thoughts of the characters—like the thoughts of real people—leapt forward and backward across time and place. Woolf was able to represent how people think—not just what they do.

The results of her experimentation sometimes looked very different than anything previously recognized as fiction. A story called "Blue & Green," for example, was more of a prose poem meant to evoke the colors than a plot-driven narrative: "The feathers of parakeets—their harsh cries—sharp blades of palm trees—green, too; green needles glittering in the sun."7 Many critics were baffled by her work and found it unreadable. Even some of her friends worried that she had gone too far. "She does not tell a story or weave a plot—can she create character?" wondered E.M. Forster.8 Woolf, however, made clear that she was not interested in realism, in work that depicted the behaviors and actions of a character. She was interested in her characters' interior lives, and was willing to sacrifice traditional literary devices like setting, dialogue, and chronology to find the words that best represented that interior life. Readers eventually started to catch on—her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, which she and Leonard both regarded as her best work to date, outsold all her previous books. She used the money to replace the outhouse at their country home with a flush toilet.

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