Virginia Woolf really knows how start an essay. Take for instance the opening sentences of her review in the Times Literary Supplement of a biography of some largely unknown schlub named Thomas Hood and a book of poems by the very same Hood:
At the time that Keats and Lamb were writing there flourished – so thick that even men like these showed little higher than the rest – a whole forest of strenuous and lusty human beings, journalists, artists, or people simply who happened to live then and rear their children. What profuse clamour, what multitudinous swarms of life a wise biographer can call up for us from fields long since shorn and flat if he will take for his subject one of these mortals it is really bewildering for a moment to consider.
Now that’s what I call killing it.
Andrew McNeillie, the editor of her collected essays,1 kind of knows how to end an essay. He’s the one behind the copious footnotes supplementing each of Woolf’s essays, which sometimes provide invaluable information about what the hell Woolf is talking about but which mostly give the birth and death dates of every single person Woolf mentions, just in case you need to know when George Borrow, author of Lavengro (1851), The Romany Rye (1857), Wild Wales (1862), and other books, died, which was in 1881, a year that is the same whether you write it forwards or backwards!2
Another thing the footnotes do is assiduously locate the source of every quote Virginia Woolf uses, a noble endeavor given her often lackluster citation practices – she never cites the page number, her direct quotes often change the punctuation or phrasing a bit and fail to indicate elisions or reorderings, and sometimes she doesn’t even cite the work she is quoting. It seems like McNeillie and his wife, who gets a shoutout in the acknowledgements, read through a bunch of stuff to track down these quotes, which must have taken a while because most of Woolf’s essays are book reviews and she therefore cites tons of books. Thus the reading they did for the sake of filling out those footnotes must have been a significant undertaking.
It’s a challenge that did not always meet with success. Footnote 11 to Woolf’s review of Letters of James Boswell to the Rev. W. J. Temple. With an introduction by Thomas Seccombe (1908), which provides the source for one of Woolf’s quotes, regretfully notes about another quote that “the source of the preceding phrase ‘hopes of future greatness’ has eluded discovery.”3 A series of similar laments in the footnotes to Woolf’s review of The First Duke and Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1910) caught my eye.4 Here are the relevant footnotes, or parts thereof:
1. […] VW also appears also to have used another source, which remains untraced. […]
19. The source of this quotation has not been discovered.
21. This reference remains undiscovered.
23. This quotation remains unidentified.
29. The source of this quotation has resisted discovery.
One thing that tickles me, which is present in footnote 29 and in the previously cited footnote to Woolf’s review of the Boswell book, is the way McNeillie credits these undiscovered sources with some sort of intelligence – they have “eluded” and “resisted” discovery, presumably with impressive aplomb, given McNeillie’s successes tracking down most of the other sources. We can almost picture the books in question scurrying away as McNeillie approaches them in the library, spear-gun at the ready. Just as he fires, they dart into the shadows, and his harpoon goes through a volume of Dickens, or a librarian. McNeillie, hope in his heart, sets up traps each night and checks them each morning, but is disappointed to find they are always either empty or clogged with more goddamn Thoreau again.
The other interesting feature of these footnotes is how McNeillie resists repeating words and phrases. I’m relieved for his sake that Woolf did not use even more untraceable quotes in the essay, because it looks like McNeillie was running low on ways to rephrase “I can’t find the quote.” Would the next footnote have been something like “efforts to ascertain the provenance of this phrase have heretofore proven fruitless?” What is the point at which McNeillie would have let the well run dry and resigned himself to repeating a lamentation he had already used? The English language is infinitely variable. Maybe he would have gone to his grave coming up with other ways of phrasing his defeat.
The desire to refrain from repetition at any cost, up to and including ridiculousness, is strong in many people, especially in undergraduates, I’ve found. Perhaps at some point in high school they are taught not to repeat words. I think I recall getting advice like that at some point. I’ve largely given up on it. Either in high school or college – I can’t remember which – I consciously decided that I would repeat words as often as I wanted to, and as I started to write lots of philosophy essays, which require clarity at the expense of pretty much everything else, I found myself repeating words constantly. I would willfully repeat words, daring the reader to find anything wrong with it. Use a word seven times in six sentences? No problem. I’ve simply beaten my inner ear into submission with respect to this point. I don’t let repetition sound strange to me when the repetition aids clarity. I give the same advice to my students. I tell them they can repeat a word as often as they want.
The Germans do not seem to be afraid to repeat a word when it is the right one. They repeat it several times, if they choose. That is wise. But in English, when we have used a word a couple of times in a paragraph, we imagine we are growing tautological, and so we are weak enough to exchange it for some other word which only approximates exactness, to escape what we wrongly fancy is a greater blemish. Repetition may be bad, but surely inexactness is worse.
Along these lines, I don’t think I invite repetition any more than my students who are allergic to it invite repetition. If we describe the anti-repetition view as “don’t repeat a word if you could easily avoid it,” I still agree with that view as much as any of my students do. The only difference is that my threshold for what it takes to easily avoid repetition has gone way up, because to me, it’s not “easy” to avoid repeating a word if a sufficient replacement for the word must be just as good or better. As Twain points out, there are just too many times when a synonym is going to hurt more than it is going to help, and this is even more true when it comes to academic writing.
In these blog posts, I think I have avoided repeating words very much at all. I think this is because I am not writing about confusing things that require clarity, and also because I have accustomed myself to repetition so much in my philosophical writing that it is nice to, for once, return to my roots and write as if words are like the tiles with letters on them that Indiana Jones steps on when he’s trying to get to the Holy Grail. The tiles that don’t spell ‘Jehova’ collapse when stepped on.6 And it seems like a lot of my students think that words get struck out from the dictionary the first time they are used. That approach must be behind McNeillie’s efforts to constantly rephrase his footnotes. When it’s that blatant, though, I think it’s worth giving up the practice and embracing the repetition. To do otherwise is to give in to the false idea that repetition is always bad, and that’s an idea worth fighting against, because it just makes people turn to the thesaurus, which is a habit about as good for writing as heroin is for life satisfaction.7
One final footnote intrigues me. In a 1920 book review, Woolf discusses the National Gallery and to the National Portrait Gallery. She relates one particularly puzzling incident. Hoping to find a portrait of John Stuart Mill’s wife, Woolf decided that this was something “that, no doubt, the National Portrait Gallery could supply… But the National Portrait Gallery, interrogated, wished to be satisfied that the inquirer was dependent upon a soldier; pensions they provided, not portraits; and thus set adrift in Trafalgar Square once more the student might reflect upon the paramount importance of faces.”8 This is accompanied by another McNeillie footnote, which reads:
The National Portrait Gallery, re-interrogated, have been unable to shed any light on the matter of soldiers and pensions.
This is a rare bit of personality in the footnotes, with the editor here aping Woolf’s “interrogate” locution for the smallest amount of humor detectable by human beings, but the most interesting thing to me is the mystery of it all. The editor’s stumped, and I’m stumped, but presumably Woolf’s contemporary readers weren’t stumped, since this meant something to them. It reminds me a bit of more Woolf. In her essay “A Room of One’s Own,” Woolf tells a story in which a fictional woman much like herself comes to the library of the prestigious “Oxbridge” college.9 She approaches the door, and then says that “I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.”
I can imagine a future, far further from us than the 95 years which separate today and Woolf’s puzzling remark about the National Portrait Gallery, in which people who read of Woolf’s alter ego being turned away at the library are as puzzled by this as we are puzzled by the Gallery incident. “Why,” they might think, “does the library require women to be accompanied by a Fellow or a letter? That is just as arbitrary as barring left handed people who arrive without a dog or blue eyed people who lack swimming trunks.” I don’t think Woolf was turned away from the Gallery because of some kind of prejudice that is now so ridiculous that it doesn’t even occur to us to imagine that people once discriminated on the basis of it, but something was going on there that was commonly understood and which is now a complete mystery to us. What could it have been?
- The Essays of Virginia Woolf, six volumes from The Hogarth Press, although McNeillie only edited the first four volumes,I think. [↑]
- I’m most of the way through volume III of the essays, and up to this point almost everything consists of book reviews that Woolf wrote for the Times Literary Supplement, which is great if you want to know what she thought about a bunch of books nobody cares about anymore, plus a few books that have remained relevant. There are a few essays that aren’t reviews, though. One of them, “An Andalusian Inn” in volume I, recounts a visit to Spain with as much humor as anything Mark Twain ever wrote about traveling. It’s such a great essay and also so tough to find that I am tempted to retype it and disseminate it, but I’m worried that the people who own the copyright to Woolf’s work would track me down, fill my pockets with rocks, and push me into a lake, so for now I can only recommend that you find the book in a library and track down at least that essay. [↑]
- This is in volume I, page 254. [↑]
- Volume I, pages 349-51. [↑]
- In which he remarks, among other things: “Some German words are so long that they have a perspective.” [↑]
- Which makes no sense, because whoever built those titles would probably not have been using ‘Jehova’ as the name of God, but whatever. [↑]
- i.e. not very good, although, to be fair, I’ve never tried heroin. [↑]
- Volume III, page 164. [↑]
- Oxbridge, of course, is a thinly veiled reference to Eastern Michigan Universty. Go Eagles! It’s a little disappointing that a university whose initials spell “emu” went with eagles as the mascot, though. [↑]