I was 16 and working my way through the ‘English Cannon.’ I hadn’t read nearly enough female novelists, and so when I saw Virginia Woolf on the library shelf – I scooped up two of her books. Later, I stared with confusion at the first page of To the Lighthouse, disappointed. I had to read the first sentence twice before I understood what it was saying.
And that after I’d made a 40 minute trek from my small Windsor, Ontario suburb to the big library in Windsor’s downtown core to find this book. I had even paid $5 for parking – a princely sum for a high school student.
I was having doubts.
Woolf’s sentences were different than anything else. I read them clumsily and wondered if they were beyond me – written for more cultured or advanced readers.
But I wasn’t going to give up on the first page. I persisted.
Thank god I did – for that is how the greatest love affair of my life started. As an aspiring writer and feminist who loved books more than boys, I didn’t really fit in my world. No one in my immediate family had ever graduated college and the only person in my life who read was my step-mom whose bookshelves were colonized by Dean Koontz and Stephen King.
Literature was something I had to discover haphazardly. Choosing to read Woolf in the library that day changed my life. Her style of writing was different from anything that I had read before. I identified with Lily Briscoe, the female artist in To the Lighthouse, who struggled trying to complete her masterpiece in the face of the world’s indifference and Mrs. Ramsey’s urgings to get married. I marvelled at Woolf’s ability to get beneath the surface of the typical novelistic scene and get to the heart of what the characters were thinking and feeling. I loved the playful and tragic way the Time Passes section dramatized the war and the changes time brings.
I was hooked.
When friends or acquaintances asked me what I was doing on Friday nights for a few weeks after that, I told them, “I have a date with Virginia.”
I actually uttered those words.
I read Mrs. Dalloway directly after that and then Orlando, The Waves, and A Room of One’s Own. Mrs. Dalloway showed me the energy a writer could distill into a single moment. Orlando demonstrated the beauty of a well-turned phrase and the joy of playing with conventions. The Waves taught me the tragic poetry and repetitions of life. A Room of One’s Own was a call to arms – it woke me up as a feminist and made me commit to a writing life.
Woolf was a woman who forged her own path. She experimented. She tried things that she wasn’t sure she would be able to pull off. And she did so as a woman.
All of Virginia’s novels opened up my world a little wider. They showed me that there is great beauty in being courageous as an artist, that taking chances is necessary, and that listening to your own artistic voice is what matters. Virginia Woolf gave me the courage to be a writer who is willing to take chances. She gave me the strength to experiment.
But, perhaps most of all, she taught me that women writers can be badasses.
I could be one, too.
A.H. Reaume is a 32 year old writer who swears too much, reads too much, and spends too much time dancing around her apartment. While her neighbors might be annoyed by the noise, she’s too committed to mastering the steps of the Lindy Hop and the Charleston and perfecting her burlesque routine to care. She’s currently completing her first novel – a book about a reclusive female novelist who is dying and trying to figure out what to do with her last unfinished book.
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