Orlando & the frivolous necessity of making the home

I’m not actually writing about Orlando for my Woolf paper on the plastic arts and narratology, but I do keep coming back to this moment in the novel:

Never had the house looked more noble and humane.

Why, then, had he wished to raise himself above them? For it seemed vain and arrogant in the extreme to try to better that anonymous work of creation; the labours of those vanished hands. Better was it to go unknown and leave behind you an arch, a potting shed, a wall where peaches ripen, than to burn like a meteor and leave no dust. For after all, he said, kindling as he looked at the great house on the greensward below, the unknown lords and ladies who lived there never forgot to set aside something for those who come after; for the roof that will leak; for the tree that will fall. There was always a warm corner for the old shepherd in the kitchen; always food for the hungry; always their goblets were polished, though they lay sick, and their windows were lit though they lay dying. Lords though they were, they were content to go down into obscurity with the molecatcher and the stone-mason. Obscure noblemen, forgotten builders–thus he apostrophized them with a warmth that entirely gainsaid such critics as called him cold, indifferent, slothful (the truth being that a quality often lies just on the other side of the wall from where we seek it)–thus he apostrophized his house and race in terms of the most moving eloquence; but when it came to the peroration–and what is eloquence that lacks a peroration?–he fumbled. He would have liked to have ended with a flourish to the effect that he would follow in their footsteps and add another stone to their building. Since, however, the building already covered nine acres, to add even a single stone seemed superfluous. Could one mention furniture in a peroration? Could one speak of chairs and tables and mats to lie beside people’s beds? For whatever the peroration wanted, that was what the house stood in need of.

— Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Can one mention furniture indeed.

This is also not at all what I discussed with my undergrads this week when I taught a session on the novel; we spent the majority of the time instead on tone in the opening of the novel, close reading images and trying to draw links between it and Woolf’s other works.  But furniture, furnishing, the making of a home, is on my mind quite a bit lately, just as it was on Orlando’s at a certain point in the early days of his adult life.

Virginia Woolf’s brown stocking

I’m currently in the research stages of a paper on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and the narratological metaphors of painting and knitting.  I have a long way to go before arriving at a solid argument, but the idea was inspired by a conviction that Mrs. Ramsey’s knitting is more important than previous critics have believed.

Sometimes, a stocking is not just a stocking.

Woolf herself was surrounded by both painters and textile designers: under Roger Fry, several members of the Bloomsbury group created housewares for the Omega Workshops, including Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell.

Part of my developing argument deals with the material process of creating applied arts objects, like a piece of knitting (which means the endless hours I’ve spend working on my knitted legwarmers are actually research!).

Like Mrs. Ramsey I’m susceptible to the crushing sadness of knowing there’s not enough time to finish a project:

“You won’t finish that stocking tonight,” he said, pointing to her stocking. That was what she wanted — the asperity in his voice reproving her. If he says it’s wrong to be pessimistic probably it is wrong, she thought; the marriage will turn out all right.

“No,” she said, flattening the stocking out upon her knee, “I shan’t finish it.”

And what then? For she felt that he was still looking at her, but that his look had changed. He wanted something — wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. He could say things — she never could. So naturally it was always he that said the things, and then for some reason he would mind this suddenly, and would reproach her. A heartless woman he called her; she never told him that she loved him. But it was not so — it was not so. It was only that she never could say what she felt. Was there no crumb on his coat? Nothing she could do for him? Getting up, she stood at the window with the reddish-brown stocking in her hands, partly to turn away from him, partly because she remembered how beautiful it often is — the sea at night. But she knew that he had turned his head as she turned; he was watching her. She knew that he was thinking, You are more beautiful than ever. And she felt herself very beautiful. Will you not tell me just for once that you love me? He was thinking that, for he was roused, what with Minta and his book, and its being the end of the day and their having quarrelled about going to the Lighthouse. But she could not do it; she could not say it. Then, knowing that he was watching her, instead of saying anything she turned, holding her stocking, and looked at him. And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it. And smiling she looked out of the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing on earth can equal this happiness)—

Woolf’s writing characteristically involves the celebration of the everyday, the small domestic details of a woman’s life, and the importance of women’s acts of creation.  But I didn’t realize, until I searched for images for this article, that Woolf was herself a knitter.  According to this short article, Woolf crediting knitting with an immense therapeutic effect after a breakdown.  “Knitting is the saving of life,” she wrote to Leonard.

Vanessa Bell painted Woolf knitting in about 1911, at the same time she was preparing the draft of her first novel, The Voyage Out.  The painting is quintessential Vanessa, who, following Roger Fry, prized form over content.  She thought a painter could leave the faces blank with no detriment to the subject.

I’m fascinated by Woolf’s left hand (the lower one), how it blurs slightly.  I wish I had been able to see this painting in person when I visited London, as that hand just begs to be analyzed in closer detail.  Are the smudges purposeful?  Could they represent some small bit of movement in an otherwise still and static image?

I also have to wonder if any of Woolf’s knitting survives in an archive somewhere.  What kinds of things did she make?  Did she herself practice the process of making Mrs. Ramsey’s reddish-brown stocking?

To the Lighthouse is available as a free ebook from the University of Adelaide Library.  It’s worth reading for a lot more than just the knitting scenes, too.