On Wednesday 26th July 1922 Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary,
“ On Sunday L. read through Jacob’s Room. He thinks it may be my best work. He calls it a work of genius; he thinks it unlike any other novel………(Virginia Woolf continues in an excited and exhilarated tone) …There’s no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin to say something in my own voice; and that interests me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise.”
In her own mind she knows she has found her real voice. She is able to say what she really wants to say and it doesn’t matter what others think now. That must have been a very powerful moment of realisation for her. Her previous novels, The Voyage Out, and, Night and Day, although they explored theories of love, life and the world they were formal in their structure and logical progression. Jacob’s Room was and is, as Leonard Woolf put it, “a strange novel.” It is a biography but certainly not written in the traditional linear, chronological way. It explores reality by looking at it in different ways, the way Braque and Picasso explored reality with cubism. It is layered with different ways of seeing and experience. In Jacob’s room we explore with Virginia Woolf what it means to be known by others through, memory, our absence, our presence, our continually meeting and interacting with new people in an outwardly formal and conventional way but simultaneously with what is going on subconsciously. What effect do we have on people we see fleetingly on a train or walking down the street? They are there one moment and then gone, never to be encountered again. She also explores what resonances a person might have at one moment in time in different places in the world to different people who know him.
Jacobs room was first published in 1922 by The Hogarth press. The press was named after the house, Hogarth House which Virginia and Leonard bought in Richmond upon Thames.
Hogarth House ,Richmond upon Thames.
Philosophers who study ontology generally agree that reality is something that has existed, does exist or will exist. Virginia Woolf certainly describes Jacob in these terms when he is in a scene where his actions are being described,when he is talking or being talked to. But he also appears as a memory, a look of recall in someone’s face, a word or phrase he might have used said by somebody else.
At the start of the novel Jacob exists in two worlds. He has separated from his mother on the beach in Cornwall where they are holidaying with his brother Archer. He exists in his mother’s mind and anguished thoughts His mother is becoming more frantic searching for him. She imagines all sorts of dreadful things for him. Archer shouts his name,
“ Ja-cob! Ja-cob!,” Archer shouted.
At that moment Jacob is engrossed in the wonder of exploration. He has climbed to the top of a black rock which has a small pool of sea water trapped in a hollow at its summit. He is exploring the natural world encompassed within the pool, seaweed, crabs, tiny fish, mussels, jelly fish. He is totally focused and enamoured by this world. And yet his mother is anguished and becoming distraught in her world. Jacob himself becomes aware he is lost and begins to panic too. He observes a very large couple stretched out on the sand sunbathing but he can see they are only there waiting, merely, because the pubs are shut. A sense of disorientation is created. Eventually he is discovered and all settles back to a sort of peace. Two or more things going on simultaneously which do not at first seem to be connected is the way the novel is written. There is a randomness in what is an exercise in gathering clues about Jacob. The heat causes the world to shimmer and melt like a candle in front of the characters eyes. Each scene is a mixture of random thoughts and observations which all appear to have connections. We have the task of trying to hold all these things together and to try and make sense of it all.
Mrs Flanders is thinking of Scarborough and her home and usual everyday life and the visits of Captain Barfoot. She is, however, in Mrs Pearce’s lodging house in Cornwall. There is an equal importance given to these two existences, the one actual and the one in her memory. Scarborough is much more than a memory , her life there seems to be existing with as much potency as her actual presence in Cornwall.
In the middle part of the novel Jacob is an undergraduate at, Cambridge. He lodges with three other undergraduates at Mr and Mrs Plummer’s house. There is a wonderful moment full of tension where they all wait for Jacob to arrive for the Sunday lunch of roast mutton. Jacob is late and the Plummer’s are fidgety and uncomfortable at the fact he has not arrived on time. Edwardian etiquette is under strain. He arrives and apologises for getting the time wrong. In his absence we learn things about Jacob’s character, through the effect he has on the emotions and feelings of others. Throughout the novel we probably learn more about Jacob when he is not there than when he is there.
Towards the end of the novel he visits Greece and is staying at a hotel in Athens. The crumbling yet stark and vivid world of Ancient Greece becomes a metaphor for the British Empire which is on the verge of crumbling and disintegration. Jacob meets Sandra Wentworth Williams and her husband. From the first moment her husband knows that Jacob and his wife will have an affair and in his Edwardian thinking of moral duality he is pleased.
Back in London, we see Jacob from a distance again. Timmy Durrant in his small office in the Admiralty looks out of his office window and wonders what a crowd on the corner of the street, have knowledge of. They seem to be murmuring things.Suspicion and the need for knowledge disturb him. Knowledge is power. Timmy Durrant is concerned that the crowd know something he doesn’t. At that very moment Jacob Flanders, unaware of the crowd, their knowledge and what Timmy Durrant is up to, rises from a chair in Hyde Park. Apparently unconnected occurrences come together and we are left wondering their significance.
Finally, Bonamy, Jacobs good friend, and his mother,Betty Flanders, search through Jacob’s room, letters strewn everywhere, with messages of news and gossip from others telling him things he might want to know and things he might be interested in or just words to merely communicate. Bonamy looks out of the window and sees buses and people, hears engines and voices and at last we know Jacob is dead because Betty Flanders turns to Bonamy and asks,
”What am I to do with these Mr Bonamy?”She held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.
Her son has given the ultimate sacrifice of his life in the battlefields of northern France. She knows of others too,”Morty lost,” and “Seabrook dead.” It’s quite a commonplace thing. Mrs Flanders is just one mother amongst many.
And finally we have discovered as much as we are going to discover about Jacob Flanders and probably as much as anybody can find out about another human being.
This biography, full of people, meetings, absences, thoughts, memories, imaginings, feelings, the subconscious, sounds, sights, worries, joys,, pleasures and observations; the world surrounding a single character , gives us a sense of Jacob Flanders.
Publishers have struggled to find a relevant cover for their edition of Jacob’s Room. The copy I have is the Oxford World Classic edition, and it uses a painting by Geoffrey Trimble dated 1938, showing three young men, their heads very close to each other, drinking tea but apparently not communicating and appearing distant from each other.
The original 1922 edition had an illustration by Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, depicting long, open drapes at a window. Other covers show, an Ancient Greek bronze head of a young Adonis. Others show various interiors of Edwardian rooms, all with windows looking out, some with a single young man inhabiting them, some without. The most lurid and striking of them all depicts an adaptation of Edvard Munchs, The Scream.
Jacob’s Room was first published in 1922. London would have looked like this.A colour film of London in 1927.