On this day in 1922 Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room was published. This was the first full-length book published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press, with a Post-Impressionistic cover designed by sister Vanessa. Having her own publishing house — this is literal, as the Woolfs began with a small handpress in their dining room — meant the freedom to experiment. Shortly before starting the book, Virginia said she was after “a new form for a new novel … no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen; all crepuscular, but the heart, the passion, the humour, everything as bright as fire in the mist.” When she was done, Woolf felt sure of her direction, though not of her achievement: one diary entry expresses confidence “that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice”; another says, “Either I am a great writer or a nincompoop.” In a letter that Christmas she reaffirms that her fragmentary, impressionistic, questioning style is right for her, and the times:
The human soul, it seems to me, orientates itself afresh every now and then. It is doing so now. No one can see it whole, therefore. The best of us catch a glimpse of a nose, a shoulder, something turning away, always in movement. Still, it seems better to me to catch this glimpse, than to sit down with Hugh Walpole, Wells, etc. etc. and make large oil paintings of fabulous fleshy monsters complete from toe to toe.
“Virginia Woolf helps. Her novels make mine possible…”
—from the journals of Sylvia Plath, born on this day in 1932
The journal entry is dated July 20, 1957, a time when Plath was reading Jacob’s Room and The Waves, and struggling to find a shape and voice for her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. An earlier journal entry, from February 25, 1956 — she is at Cambridge now, nine months married — shows Plath looking to Woolf for more than fictional technique:
And just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf which I bought with a battery of her novels Saturday with Ted. And she works off her depression over rejections from Harper’s (no less!—and I can hardly believe that the Big Ones get rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen. And cooks haddock & sausage. Bless her. I feel my life linked to her, somehow. I love her…. But her suicide, I felt I was reduplicating in that black summer of 1953 [her first suicide attempt]. Only I couldn’t drown. I suppose I’ll always be overvulnerable, slightly paranoid. But I’m also so damn healthy & resilient. And apple-pie happy.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.