Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
As we limp towards the end of this rotten year, we’re also getting to the end of HeavenAli’s wonderful #Woolfalong. I’ve dipped in when I can, and I was very keen to get at least one more Woolf title in before December finished. In the end, I chose her third novel “Jacob’s Room”, a book I haven’t read in 35 years, and so in many ways this was like coming to it anew – and what a wonderful experience it was.
JR is usually cited as the book where Woolf’s writing really took off and it’s not difficult to see why. Her previous novels, though they contained hints of what was to come, had been quite traditional. Here, Woolf threw away the rule book and began to weave stories in her own unique way. In simple terms, the book tells the story of a life, that of Jacob Flanders; we follow him from his childhood in Scarborough, playing on the beach with his widowed mother and siblings; through his school and university years; to his time travelling Europe on a small legacy and visiting Greece, which leads to his final, very understated fate.
But this is no straightforward telling, and Jacob himself, though the focal point of the story, is often a shadowy figure. We see him through the eyes of others – his mother, family friends, potential loves, actual lovers, colleagues – until the multifaceted viewpoint brings up as nuanced a portrait of someone else as we can have. Woolf seems to be saying that we can never really know another person, only some element of him, and that life itself is an unseizable force that a novelist can never capture. Certainly the elusive Jacob presents a different face to everyone around him, depending on his relationship with them, their own individual personalities and quirks; and Woolf uses these viewpoints to build up her portrait of her main character.
Nobody sees any one as he is, let alone an elderly lady sitting opposite a strange young man in a railway carriage, They see a whole – they see all sorts of things – they see themselves…
Writing about the plot of “Jacob’s Room” somehow seems irrelevant, because in many ways that doesn’t matter. It’s the story of a life, and a life cut short, and the book reads in places as an elegy for someone who was just passing through. The book was, of course, inspired by the life of Thoby Stephen, Woolf’s brother, who contracted typhoid while travelling through Greece, and died from it; so it’s hard not to read it without being constantly aware of that underlying tragedy.
But what remains with me most vividly from revisiting “Jacob’s Room” is the strong sense of place; the locations and settings are painted so evocatively that they seem more real than the characters. London, of course, was a particular love of Woolf’s and she writes about it like no other author; here, she conjures it in all its complexity, from lovely Lambs Conduit Street where Jacob has rooms, to the ABC cafes where a single woman can dine alone respectably. Similarly, the heat and scenery of Greece leaps off the page, and the coasts and seas of England are evoked brilliantly.
Jacob’s room had a round table and two low chairs. There were yellow flags in a jar on the mantelpiece; a photograph of his mother; cards from societies with little raised crescents, coats of arms, and initials; notes and pipes; on the table lay paper ruled with a red margin – an essay, no doubt – ‘Does History consist of the Biographies of Great men?’ There were books enough; very few French books, but then anyone who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, with extravagant enthusiasm. …. Listless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift. One fibre in the wicker armchair creaks, though no-one sits there.
And of course singing out is Woolf’s wonderful, luminous prose, capturing moments of being, emotions, and fragments of other lives which are contiguous to Jacob’s. The tropes she used so well in “Mrs. Dalloway”, such as ranging over places and people in a wonderful impressionistic sequence, are all here and beautifully executed. I always love the way she pins a character down in just a few sentences, and those running through the life of Jacob are memorable; from his doting mother, to Clara Durrant who loves him hopelessly through his friend Bonamy to Sandra Wentworth Williams, his married paramour, they all spring from the pages. I could go on and on about how wonderful Woolf’s writing is, but really you need to experience it; and interestingly I find myself thinking that this would be a very good book to begin to explore her work, as it’s short, beautiful and very readable.
It seems that a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow-creatures is utterly unknown. Either we are men, or we are women. Either we are cold, or we are sentimental. Either we are young, or growing old. In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.
This is not so much a review as a reaction to a book, I realise, but as so much has been written about Woolf I sometimes feel a little intimidated when sitting down to do a post about her. And what I can say is that I am never disappointed when I pick up something by Virginia Woolf; there is a reason she’s regarded as one of the 20th century’s best authors and that’s because she is. If you haven’t yet experienced her writing, do yourself a favour by trying one of her books – and “Jacob’s Room” is an excellent place to start!