Chapter 2

2.1    The Genesis of The Waves

The Wavesis Virginia Woolf's magnum opus, the synthesis of her views on personality, unity in diversity, the nature of humanity, and much else besides, all presented in a vehicle quite unlike anything else in the English language. It is also a novel which cost her an enormous amount of time and energy, as can readily be seen by reading the pages of her diary where the slow but steady growth in her thoughts of the work that was to become The Waves is carefully chronicled.

As early as 1926 we see Woolf noting that she is haunted by "some semi-mystic very profound life of a woman which shall all be told on one occasion; and time shall be utterly obliterated" (23-11-26) 25 . The mystical element remained in her thoughts and was applied by her several times to the developing work: "the very serious, mystical poetic work which I want to come next" (14-3-27) 26 and "an abstract mystical eyeless book: a playpoem" (7-11-28) 27 . As with all her books, she wanted this to be a "completely new attempt" (22-9-28) 28 .

As the book developed further, the question of narrative consciousness became more central to the design:


"I shall have the two different currents - the moths flying along; the flower upright in the centre; a perpetual crumbling and renewing of the plant. In its leaves she might see things happen. But who is she? I am very anxious that she should have no name. I don't want a Lavinia or a Penelope: I want 'she'. But that becomes arty, Liberty greenery yallery somehow: symbolic in loose robes." (28-5-29) 29 .

Dissatisfied with the nameless woman, she wrote in her diary "who thinks it? And am I outside the thinker? One wants some device which is not a trick" (25-9-29) 30 . In an attempt to avoid the traditional concept of the narrator, she finally settled on a "series of dramatic soliloquies ... running homogeneously in and out, in the rhythm of the waves." (20-8-30) 31 . This desire to avoid the traditional is typical of Woolf, who was continually striving to push back the frontiers of literature.

The 'novel' (as it is labelled on the frontispiece) finally appeared in September, 1931. Despite its label, it betrays little of the traditional novel form. It would appear to be the most carefully considered of all her works, as is demonstrated vividly by the scheme of its construction entered in her diary:

"But my Waves account runs, I think, as follows:-

I began it, seriously, about September 10th 1929.

I finished the first version on April 10th 1930.

I began the second version on May 1st 1930.

I finished the second version on February 7th 1931.

I began to correct the second version on May 1st 1931, finished 22nd June 1931.

I began to correct the typescript on 25th June 1931.

Shall finish (I hope) 18th July 1931.

There remain only the proofs." (14-7-31) 32 .

These were finished on August 17th 1931, bringing the total length of the direct creative process to some two years, although, as we have seen, the idea had been in her thoughts for much longer. The reason for the length of this process she explains as lying in the fact that The Waves was unlike all her other books in this: "I begin to re-write it, or conceive it again with ardour, directly I have done. I begin to see what I had in my mind; and want to begin cutting out masses of irrelevance and clearing, sharpening and making the good phrases shine" (1-5-30) 33 . The holographs 34 of her manuscripts for drafts I and II also testify eloquently to her intense labor. Whole sections of the first draft of the work are not considered worthy of inclusion in the second as she searches for perfection, and there is scarcely a page in even the second, and final, draft without some amendment or other.

As well as her most considered work, it was also her most draining. On the day she finished the first draft she wrote: "it was the greatest stretch of mind I ever knew" (29-4-30) 35 . Towards the end of the second draft she writes: "never have I screwed my brain so tight over a book. The proof is that I am almost incapable of other reading or writing. I can only flop wide once the morning is over." (2-2-31) 36 . That she felt the effort was finally worth it is shown by her entry for the 7th of February 1931, the day on which she finished the second version: "Whether good or bad, it's done; and, as I certainly felt at the end, not merely finished, but rounded off, completed, the thing stated" 37 .


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