By the time Virginia Woolf came to write The Waves, her seventh novel, she was at the height of her creative powers, riding on the success of a period of intense work that had given birth to Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928) and A Room of One’s Own (1929). In 1927, two years before starting The Waves Woolf had written to her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell: ‘I think we are now at the same point: both mistresses of our medium as never before.’ The artistic confidence that accompanied her newfound fame and fortune can be seen in the creative daring and inventiveness she brought to the novel that would be published in 1931 as The Waves.
Originally titled The Moths, The Waves was inspired by a letter from Vanessa written in 1927 from the south of France about moths, in particular a giant moth that had banged heavily against the window of their farmhouse. ‘My maternal instinct,’ Vanessa wrote, ‘which you deplore so much, wouldn’t let me leave it’; so, on behalf of her bug-loving children, Vanessa and her companions after many attempts finally managed to kill and set the monstrous moth. Virginia wrote back that Vanessa’s moth story had so intrigued her that she could think of nothing else for hours afterwards and planned to write a story about it.
Woolf transformed Vanessa’s moth tale beyond recognition, constructing from it an extraordinary and poignant novel in six voices with prose interludes—a prose poem of great beauty. The Waves is Woolf’s most ingenious attempt to solve the creative problems she had set herself: of conveying in words the flow of experience and identity and the passing of time; of writing the spiritual stuff of existence rather than its material trappings. The novel is composed of the voices—’dramatic soliloquies’ as Woolf called them—of six characters from their earliest childhood observations of the dawning day through to the complex utterances of their middle age. The seventh, silent character, Percival, ‘remote from us all in a pagan universe’, is the one around whom revolve the lives of the six other characters: Bernard, Susan, Louis, Rhonda, Neville and Jinny.
The seven sections, spoken in the six characters’ gradually maturing voices, are intercut with fragments in italics that mark out the phases of the sun as it moves across the sky in the course of a day, the first recording the dawn: ‘The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it.’
While writing the novel, Woolf referred to it as autobiography—and yet she worked hard to take it beyond the personal to express the collective flow of life, to write prose as compact, intensely wrought and rhythmic as poetry. ‘I am writing the Waves to a rhythm not to a plot,’ she said. The result is a novel composed of sentences of exquisite beauty, the accumulated effect of which is mesmerising: ‘I will take my anguish and lay it upon the roots under the beech trees.’; ‘But when we sit together, close,’ said Bernard, ‘we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist.’
Like Jung, Woolf thought the joining of the internal masculine and feminine was essential for artistic creativity: ‘It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilised and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine.’ With its three male and three female voices, The Waves articulates Woolf’s hypothesis. It’s an opera based on her inner creative workings, a symphony of her own various inner male and female voices, and those of her family and friends—her sister Vanessa shaped Susan; T.S. Eliot informed Louis; her beloved brother Thoby, who died tragically young, inspired Percival—as they merge and separate, ebb and flow, are part of Woolf and yet are not her.
The Waves was published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at their Hogarth Press in 1931 to critical acclaim and commercial success. Leonard considered The Waves the best of Woolf’s books, her masterpiece. Woolf herself was surprised by the response of reviewers and the public: ‘How odd this is—so far most of the low-brow reviewers (whose sense I respect) find the Waves perfectly simple; and it is selling beyond all my other books! Now why?’
Woolf was born in London in 1882, the daughter of renowned writer and editor Leslie Stephen, and his second wife Julia Stephen. Julia had three children from her first marriage, Leslie had one, and together they had four more children, so their Kensington house was busy, crowded and intimate. Woolf was educated at home by her father, who was struck by his youngest daughter’s dazzling intellect and verbal brilliance. ‘The greatest disaster that could happen’ occurred when Woolf was 13: in 1895 her mother died and soon after Woolf had her first breakdown. Following their father’s death in 1904 (which provoked Woolf’s second breakdown), the Stephen siblings, now young men and women, moved together from their dark childhood home across London to unfashionable Bloomsbury, where they found unprecedented freedom in a spacious, light-filled, sparsely furnished terrace. Here writers and artists gathered, including Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey, and the notorious Bloomsbury Group evolved. And here Woolf began to write in earnest, devoting herself to journalism from 1904 to 1909 before beginning her first novel.
An exhibition organised by Roger Fry in 1910—’Manet and the Post-Impressionists’—brought the bold-stroked paintings of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne to London en masse for the first time. The exhibition shook the foundations of the London art world and Woolf later wrote: ‘On or about December 1910, human character changed.’ In her view the change required a radical new approach to novel writing. Three years after her arrival in Bloomsbury, at the age of 26, Woolf had written: ‘I shall re-form the novel and capture multitudes of things at present fugitive, enclose the whole and shape infinite strange shapes.’ With the critical support and encouragement of Vanessa’s husband, Clive Bell, Woolf’s first novel, Melymbrosia, was published in 1915 as The Voyage Out. In 1912 Virginia married Leonard Woolf and two years later they established the Hogarth Press, which succeeded beyond their greatest expectations, publishing T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, economist John Maynard Keynes and the first English translation of Freud. Dividing her time between the press and her own writing, London and her house in Sussex, Woolf continued to work hard to realise her ambition to reform the novel, producing a novel every three or four years until after The Waves.
After completing her last novel Between the Acts, in 1941, fearing the loss of her creative powers like Bernard in The Waves (‘When I cannot see words curling like rings of smoke round me I am in darkness—I am nothing’), Woolf drowned herself. Leonard, devastated, decided to bury Virginia’s ashes under one of the two elms that grew side by side by the pond in their garden at Monk’s House, Rodmell, which Virginia had named Leonard and Virginia. The memorial on the tree is engraved with the quotation: ‘Death is the enemy. Against you I will fling myself unvanquished and unyielding. O Death!’—spoken by Bernard, his last lines in The Waves.