24 May 2007

Living literature

Anne Fernald (English professor, Woolf scholar, and fellow litblogger) is currently examining the textual edits that Woolf herself made to Mrs. Dalloway. The adventure begins at the Lilly Library...
The proofs came out of the vault magnificently wrapped, in a gold or bright orange slipcase--fabric covering hard boards--with a red spine. From this, the archivist extracted a folder of the same golden cardboard. Within that folder, a cream-colored box made of thin paper, like a file folder. Finally, within that, the proofs themselves.
She dives right in...and we soon learn that "minor differences" can mean a great deal.

Then she discovers something much more than a "minor" change:
In all of the proofs, there is only one page where Woolf crosses out a whole paragraph and substitutes a (significantly longer) typed page. That single instance is the paragraph in which Septimus kills himself. Seventeen lines in proofs have been crossed out and two typed pages have been added, making the paragraph now twenty-eight lines long. In addition to many small changes, the chief addition here comes toward the beginning of the paragraph, with the addition of Septimus scanning the room for possible means of suicide before deciding to throw himself out the window.

That, it seems to me, gives everyone a lot to think about. To know that, at the very last minute, Woolf was rethinking the book’s climax, giving it greater depth and a slower pace, is to know something about the centrality of Septimus to the novel.
At UCLA, Anne spends time with a personal set of proofs, hand-sewn and bound by Woolf. She continues her work, and amid the hours of detailed reading, something happens:
Then, suddenly, I see something I haven’t seen before--another instance in which her revision falls into a pattern. I hear a resonance and now have a phrase to check--is it an allusion to something?

Today it was birds. What about all the birds? I figured I could do something with the flowers in the books--roses and carnations, hyacinths and lilies--but, until today, I hadn’t thought about the symbolic weight of the birds. Swallows and nightingales I can do (going back to Ovid and the story of Procne and Philomel), but what about sparrows and thrushes?
I dearly love watching this textual drama unfold and hearing about the details of such a painstaking process. As a former proofreader, it isn't just that I enjoy reading about a one-time dream job, it's the ever-evolving process of discovery and the idea that even a novel as famous and studied as Mrs. Dalloway still contains a wealth of insight for those who care enough to look. Books like this are alive--speaking to us from across the years.

I love these glimpses into Virginia's writing process. Looking forward to hearing even more...!

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