‘Literature is Common Ground’: On Reading Virginia Woolf
An interview with Stephanie Paulsell
Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, June 1926. NPG Ax142598 © National Portrait Gallery, London
By Sarah Fleming
Stephanie Paulsell is the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School and interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University. Her latest book, Religion Around Virginia Woolf, explores the religious milieu that surrounded Woolf throughout her life, from her evangelical heritage to the artistic communities she fostered. Approaching Woolf’s novels and essays as sacred text, Paulsell situates Woolf as a religious thinker—and writer—for our time. HDS student Sarah Fleming sat down with Paulsell to discuss religious reading practices, books as portable pilgrimages, and what reading Woolf can teach us today.
To start, how did you first come to Woolf?
Virginia Woolf was always somebody that I wanted to read and wanted to like. But I found her novels very difficult when I was young. My first winter break home from college, my mother gave me the first volume of her letters as a Christmas present. And I just got completely caught up in those letters. I can remember sitting on an old couch under the eaves of my parents’ house, wrapped in a blanket, reading these letters all throughout the break. It was just like reading a novel—there was this whole cast of characters that kept showing up again and again, and Woolf’s voice was so vivid.
What really came through in those letters was this sense of Virginia and her sister trying to make themselves into artists. Their mother had died, and their father was busy with his own work, so they got to spend their mornings doing what they wanted, which was painting for Vanessa and reading and writing for Virginia. The portrait that emerged from those letters of the two of them in each other’s company, apprenticing themselves to the things that they loved—that was really attractive to me. I wanted to follow that path.
After I’d read a couple of volumes of her letters and some of her diaries, I was able to go back to the novels and begin to understand how Woolf was writing so as to get me to read in a certain way, which was not just to gobble the book down but to read with attention and to really immerse myself in her language and her recurring images and let them work on me. When I did that, her work became revelatory to me.
What have you learned from letting Woolf reteach you how to read?
The first time I tried to read To the Lighthouse, I kept realizing I didn’t know whose head I was in. I’d be hearing one character’s thoughts, and, suddenly, I’d be hearing another character’s thoughts, and if I let my attention wander, then I really had no idea what was going on. And so I had to learn to bring more attention to the page.
Woolf also has these great scenes of reading within her novels that offer guidance on how to read. In To the Lighthouse, for instance, she contrasts the way that Mr. Ramsay reads—reading for the plot and manfully turning the pages—with the way Mrs. Ramsay reads, letting the text wash around inside of her as the words, the form, and the rhythm do their work on her.
Sometimes Woolf slows me down so that I really pay attention—so that I read not to find out what’s going to happen next, but to try to follow the “flight of the mind,”1 as she puts it, and to take pleasure in discovering what’s inside these characters and let that be enough. And sometimes she teaches me to give myself over to the text, whether I understand it or not, as Mrs. Ramsay does—to see the light and the beauty of it, as well as the way it connects to the world around me.
She’s so good at describing the interior lives of her characters. That was one of her great achievements, along with asserting that what’s going on inside us is as important as what’s going on around us. Reading Woolf makes me realize that everybody is full of secrets and things that I have no access to. There’s a reverence that reading her work creates—a reverence for what we can’t know about each other. Woolf teaches us to honor that, too, and believe it’s worthy of literature.
The way you describe that reverence is almost mystical. What resonances have you found in reading Woolf alongside Christian contemplatives? And how did Woolf herself read?
When I first went to graduate school, I wanted to write about Virginia Woolf. But then I began reading Christian mystical writers, especially women. I found that when I read Woolf, it helped me see how literary these medieval women writers were. I could more easily understand that they were making writerly choices—deliberate choices about words, about form—rather than just having the text pour out of them in some magical way. And then when I read the mystical writers, I could more clearly see the religious dimensions of what Woolf was doing.
Woolf draws on a long history of religious reading practices in her work. Some of them come out of her evangelical Christian inheritance, with its family devotions and reading circles. And then some of them go further back. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway takes a little bit of Shakespeare out of a book she sees in a shop window and carries it with her throughout the day to meditate on, the way a monk might do with a bit of scripture. Woolf’s work has echoes of these ancient religious reading practices that hardwire sacred texts into the body through repetition and meditation.
Reading and writing were really the foundational spiritual practices of Woolf’s life. She figured out very early on as a child that she could reorient her life through reading. And so, at times of great stress, she would take on these huge reading projects. When her half-sister, Stella, was sick, Woolf would say, “I’m reading Mr. Henry James to steady me.”2 And then when Stella died, she started reading a 12-volume history of England as a way to mourn. She definitely read as a kind of prescription for herself.
Toward the end of her life, when she was battling depression, she wrote in her diary that what she needed was “a good hard rather rocky book. . . . This is my prescription.”3 And in the notes that she left behind for her husband and her sister after her death, she told them she could no longer read or write. Feeling like she had lost those bedrock practices must have contributed to her despair, because that was an important part of how she navigated the world and how she navigated her emotional landscape—through reading.
And it was also how she navigated the political landscape. In A Room of One’s Own, she imagines Shakespeare’s sister as also a great artist, but one who lies buried, having never written a word because the way had not been prepared for her as it had been for her brother. And she says if Shakespeare’s sister is going to rise up and write, then women must prepare the way for her.
And so we’ve got to write. Women have got to write. And as women write, generation after generation, we prepare the way for Shakespeare’s sister to be able to find her voice and her pen and do her work. When Woolf describes this process, she writes, “I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals.”4 And she does have this sense of a common life that we’re all a part of, the ways that the small effects we have on one another really matter. That’s one of the things that I love about her—that sense of the common life, which is the real life, that doesn’t end at the boundaries of our own lifetimes, our own births and deaths.
So Woolf knew there was a lot at stake in how we read and how we write. But I also think that maybe she lost a little faith in those practices during the rise of fascism in the 1930s. Those were such discouraging years, and you can see it in her work—a worry that reading wasn’t getting us as far as she hoped it would. There’s a scene in one of her late novels where two people are reciting a poem together, and they seem on the verge of one of those revelatory moments of being Woolf is so interested in, and suddenly their conversation devolves into this anti-Semitic awfulness. She seems to be saying that reading together may not be enough. We’re going to need more than that if we are going to change.
In 1940, though, she wrote an essay called “The Leaning Tower,” where she tries to look beyond the war. Speaking to a worker’s association in Brighton, she tells them that the war is going to end, and there’s going to be life on the other side. She places her faith in the income tax and the public libraries, which she believed would open up access to literature to everyone. At the close of that essay, she writes: “Literature is no one’s private ground; literature is common ground. It is not cut up into nations; there are no wars there. Let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.”5 I think that’s a beautiful expression of the confidence she had in reading—the hope that, if everybody is just set loose among literature, free to trespass, we’ll find our way.
That common ground can become the basis for the common life—for new communities that can reenvision a way forward. How have communities of reading and writing shown up in your life? Have you ever had a Bloomsbury Group of your own?
I’ve had various permutations of a Bloomsbury Group. When I was a kid, my father was a college teacher in eastern North Carolina, and he used to take his students to the Abbey of Gethsemani to experience monasticism. He had visited there as a graduate student and met the monk, writer, and social activist Thomas Merton and had been very inspired by him. Back at the college, these students and my dad started a monks’ group, where they got together twice a week to chant the Divine Office and discuss a book, often one by Merton.
At that time I was very young, and I would walk from my school to my ballet lesson and then over to the monks’ group where I would sit in the back of the room. And I would listen to these students talking about books and about things that mattered. This was during the Vietnam War, and they were all hoping not to get drafted. A lot of them were resisting the war. And all of these things—prayer, the war, civil rights—they just seemed all bound up together. And I learned that through sitting in the back of the room and listening to them.
If I had to say what my first Bloomsbury Group was, it would be those students and my parents. I loved sitting among them as a child, with my little sister. Sometimes they would come to our house, and all of them would be talking about the things they cared about the most, together. I’m sure I would not be a professor if it weren’t for those gatherings—everyone talking at once, then falling silent, and laughing, and asking questions.
And then when I was in graduate school, I was surrounded by lots of brilliant people, some of whom are now my colleagues at HDS, including Kevin Madigan and Amy Hollywood. Amy and I were in the Women’s Caucus, and we would get together in each other’s apartments and cook dinner for each other and talk about books. And that’s where I learned a lot of literary theory—those women taught me how to read difficult texts. So that was another reading group that had a decisive influence on me that may have been akin to what Virginia Woolf had.
And now I’ve been trying to run my classes like reading groups! During COVID, I’m only teaching classes where we read one author at a time, like Virginia Woolf or Thomas Merton. Woolf really loved the feeling of befriending, and being befriended by, the author that she was reading. And I’m trying to create something like that process of befriending in my classes.
You’ve adapted your Woolf course to be more Woolfian! What are some of the changes you’ve made in reframing your classes as reading groups?
The biggest change I’ve made is integrating writing workshops into the course. I’m experimenting with the idea that if we try to do what she was trying to do, then we’ll understand it a little bit better—that if we can get a little closer to her project, we’ll understand what she’s trying to do. We’re trying to experiment with writing as a way of reading. And that’s very Woolfian, because for her, reading and writing were very fluid. And writing was definitely a way of reading.
When she began imagining To the Lighthouse, Woolf was living near a park called Tavistock Square, and she walked around and around and around and around and thought up To the Lighthouse, just made it up in her head while she was walking. She was wrestling with the question of how to write about history—how to write about war—without focusing on battles and politicians. She loved this kind of problem, and she wrote in her diary, “A new problem like that breaks fresh ground in one’s mind; prevents the regular ruts.”6 So with these workshops and exercises, we’re trying to break fresh ground in our minds while we’re all cooped up and not able to be together in the way we’re used to.
It’s almost like a pilgrimage!
Yes, I feel like reading a book can be a pilgrimage, and that’s one way to travel together. Vanessa Zoltan and I ran a Woolf pilgrimage in 2018 where we went to England, and we walked and hiked through her landscape and visited her house and her sister’s house and various important Woolf landmarks. But we also read To the Lighthouse together every day. We worked our way through the book over the course of the week, and that was its own kind of pilgrimage.
What the anthropologists say about pilgrimages is that pilgrimages subvert the hierarchies by which we structure our lives when we’re at home. When we’re on the road with other people, we might come into different kinds of relationships than we would at home, slotted into our usual social location. Vanessa and I went on pilgrimage with a group of strangers that we’d never met before, and that had never met us. And one of the things I learned through that pilgrimage was how a book can become a kind of portable sacred space around which a new community can form.
I’m still in touch with all those people. The only time we spent together was that one week in England, yet we’re knit together through our reading, our talking, our hiking, our jokes, and we have an ongoing conversation that’s built out of that book and out of the life of Virginia Woolf, because that’s what we share.
One really hard part of this time is not being able to move our bodies through the world in the way that we’re used to. But there’s something about having a shared book with a bunch of other people that does create a community. It gives you language, and it gives you something to love, or something not to love, or something to resist—it can gather you up. A book really can be a pilgrimage, whether you’re moving your body through the world or not. Even if you’re just sitting in your room, you definitely feel like you’ve been somewhere and broken fresh ground.
In laying out her Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila tells her nuns that they can make this interior journey whenever they want—“you can enter it and walk about in it at any time,” she writes, “without asking leave from your superiors.”7 It’s like what Virginia Woolf says about literature: it’s no one’s private ground, it’s common ground, and you can travel it—trespass upon it—whenever you’d like.
It’s as if any place, but also any moment, can become the occasion for a pilgrimage.
Exactly. There’s a great line in one of Woolf’s essays, “Poetry, Fiction, and the Future,” where she says every moment is the center and meeting place of an extraordinary number of perceptions that have not yet been expressed. What she’s trying to do is make more of life visible—even the hidden stuff that’s going on inside us, what she considered our spiritual lives. She was a bit scornful of so-called realistic literature because she said it wasn’t at all realistic. Nobody’s life has these nice, neat plot points and a climax and denouement. Nobody’s life unfolds like that. It’s much more chaotic. She was trying to write more realistically.
At first, though, reviewers often said that her characters didn’t seem real because she didn’t describe what they wore. She didn’t describe what she called “this appalling narrative business of getting on from lunch to dinner.”8 She was describing other things that go unnoticed and unexpressed, other moments not often touched by literature.
Woolf brings the sublime and the hidden pockets of strangeness into the mundane. Maybe for her, every moment can become a site of revelation that’s deserving of our attention and care.
Yes, all these moments deserve our attention. She distinguishes between these “moments of being,” which are supersaturated with presence and reality, where the real breaks through, with the “cotton wool” of the rest of our existence.9 But I feel, with Woolf, almost any moment could potentially be a moment of being if you bring to it the right attention and care.
Right, and it seems like there’s a natural synergy between your work on Woolf and your study of Simone Weil: if you bring the right quality of attention to any moment, it can become a moment of being, and if you bring the right quality of attention to any task before you, it can become a space of devotion. What are some of the parallels you’ve found between Woolf and some of the religious thinkers you teach, like Weil and Merton?
This semester I teach Woolf and Merton on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and when I’m in Woolf I find myself thinking about Merton, and when I’m in Merton I find myself thinking about Woolf. Maybe it’s because they’re both writers, and they’re both trying to find language for things that haven’t been described, or things that elude description. Despite all their differences, they do have similar kinds of preoccupations with the real—with using writing as a way to move toward some sort of access to what’s really real, or to open up a space to be able to pay attention to it.
There was something about this time period—early to mid-20th century—where a lot of people were thinking these thoughts. Part of it was the dehumanization that’s going on around them in these two world wars, and the attempt to imagine new forms of community that would be more life giving and more just. And undergirding all of that, I think, is what Simone Weil calls attention—to bring this kind of rigorous presence to other people’s experience and honor it.
I feel like devotion is a good word to use with Woolf, although she doesn’t use it much. But she does seem, to me, so devoted to what she’s doing—religiously so. And this she gets from her evangelical forebearers, who believed you should have a vocation and bend your life in that direction. And it should matter to more than just you, and it ought to contribute something to the world beyond your life. She doesn’t inherit the doctrinal religious beliefs surrounding that, but she certainly does inherit that conviction. She apprenticed herself to writing as a young person. In her autobiography, she writes about how she became a writer because she was susceptible to these moments of being which left her shattered. And she healed herself by putting the pieces back together through writing. As she grew older, that became her response to these often painful moments of the real breaking through into ordinary life—to find words for them. It was how she healed.
It sounds like she was so attuned to the healing power of writing in the face of trauma and loss and moments too painful to bear. What can Woolf teach us about the pastoral function of reading and writing in this moment of personal and collective grief?
I feel like Woolf has a lot to say to this moment. We just started reading Mrs. Dalloway in class, and that novel is about a society trying to repress its tremendous grief from the loss of tens of millions during the First World War. So you’ve got one character who’s trying to throw a party and create a space where people can enjoy themselves but also go deeper, below the surface. She sees it as kind of an offering. And you’ve got this shell-shocked veteran who is like the return of the repressed, running around London and seeing the dead behind every tree.
Woolf helps us think about how we’re going to respond to this time of grief and how we’re going to mourn what we’ve lost, individually and societally. She helps us ask: How do we pay attention with reverence to all the injustices that have been exposed through this pandemic? And whose lives are we paying attention to?
She envisions a society of outsiders that rethinks society from the ground up, from its basic institutions. And she sees universities as places not of specialization, but of combination, where people are looking for the combinations that are most fruitful for human life. And I love that vision of what we could do—rather than separating ourselves into our specializations, to come together to see how we can create something out of all our fragments. This is one way to understand religion—the creation and binding together of fragments, from religare, to bind together.
In her writing, Woolf wanted to make herself more available to reality and not just paper it over with exciting plots, but to cherish the life that we have and the opportunities we have to come together and cross the boundaries of our own individual lives. She was very clear that we don’t have access to each other’s interior life, but, at the same time, every so often, we do. Every once in a while those boundaries are crossed, and we ought to learn as much as we can from those moments and find language for them. I think she’s a good religious thinker for our time.
As we’re navigating various forms of fragmentation, then, maybe Woolf can show us how to view these fragments as possibilities for coming together anew. She can be a guide for us for those moments of overflowing boundaries, those transient revelations.
Yes, exactly. In To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe, the painter, thinks that maybe the great revelation she’s been waiting for isn’t ever going to come. Instead, she reflects, “there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. . . . Mrs. Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent—this was of the nature of a revelation.”10
So maybe the great revelation isn’t going to come. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe there will be matches struck in the dark that light the way—not the whole path, and not all at once, but enough to light our way. It will be intermittent, and it won’t last. It won’t illuminate everything for all time, but it’ll help us keep moving forward, hopefully. And maybe that’s all we need.
- Virginia Woolf, A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (Hogarth Press, 1990), 393.
- Ibid., 107.
- Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary (Hogarth Press, 1953), 350.
- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (Hogarth Press, 1929), 112.
- Virginia Woolf, “The Leaning Tower,” in The Moment and Other Essays (Hogarth Press, 1952), 125.
- Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, 81.
- Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, trans. E. Allison Peers (Image Books, 1961), 239.
- Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, 136.
- Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past,” in Moments of Being (Hogarth Press, 1972), 71.
- Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (Hogarth Press, 1927), 161.
Sarah Fleming, MDiv ’21, is an editorial assistant at the Bulletin and an interfaith chaplain. She studies synergies between religious reading practices and models of caregiving.