Blog #115: Virginia Woolf and Sentimental Pilgrimages–Haworth and St. Ives

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Part of the pleasure in reading “Haworth, November, 1904” derives from thinking about what Virginia would have made of my recent pilgrimage to St. Ives. The trip was certainly sentimental and the young Virginia who wrote the essay might well have condemned some of my impulse. I’m not sure an older Virginia would have. After all she herself made several journey’s back to St Ives (off the top of my head, I can name visits in 1905, 1926 and 1936), and sentiment played a big part in her returning to the magic casements and forlorn faery lands of her childhood. An older Virginia would not have been so quick to set sentiment up as a stalking horse.

As it is, once she has denounced sentiment, the young Virginia goes on to give me licence for my recent trip. My curiosity is legitimized by the To the Lighthouse insights I gained from the St. Ives visit. Besides and beyond the lighthouse—even with LED lights, from a distance very little changed—there were “the little paths on the edge of the cliffs” and the rocks on the beach. I now feel as well as know why Mrs. Ramsay might be worried about one of the young people having an accident, and I now know how easily Paul and Minta could have found cover for their embrace. St. Ives did take me deeper into the novel.
Apart from its admonition about sentimentality, the Haworth essay is remarkable for the detail and the clarity of vision. Virginia sets great importance on objects and the ability of objects to connect us with the past as well as the present. She is always aware of the temporal aspect of objects and of their transience. Sentimental pilgrimages are to be condemned because they distract us from the intellectual accomplishments of great men (interesting that her first paragraph starts with the shrines of famous men and ends with Charlotte Bronte and her sisters). We should remember the work and not the person; we should remember Carlyle’s Frederick and not Carlyle.

The objects and personal relics found at the shrines of great men connect us with the person and not with the mind. As the young writing Virginia moves deeper into the essay, she maintains this distinction yet she allows her curiosity and empathy to draw her into a contemplation of and connection with the person. Charlotte’s shoes and muslin dress and Emily’s stool give her a thrill. Reading her descriptions, I think beyond her current moment of writing to the boots in Jacob’s room and to Mrs Ramsay’s wicker-armchair in Lighthouse. Places and objects can lead us back to the work again, and can deepen our intellectual understanding of the work. They can also deepen our emotional response to the work.

One last thought relating to my pilgrimage and to literary pilgrimages in general. The self-conscious pilgrim is always aware of time and the changes of time. My St. Ives is no more Virginia’s than modern day London is Sir Christopher Wren’s. The point of literary pilgrimages is to be sentimental and to allow the places and the objects to stir our imaginations. One of the things we love in great novels is the style, the sense of individuality and uniqueness in the writing. Whatever the content or the mood of the novel, one of the pleasures of novel reading is the sense of entering another mind and of perceiving part of the world as another mind might see it. Literary pilgrimages can sometimes take us deeper into that mind, especially when we see the same landscapes which the writer saw. We can confirm their visions and, in the case of Virginia at least, we can think our way back to the child or young adult, and we can imagine how that landscape seeped into her sensibility, transforming her and us.

Godrevy Lighthouse and "the green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses on them"

Godrevy Lighthouse and “the green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses on them”

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