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Spending Time in "Jacob's Room"

Personal copy and photo by Phillip Trey

The first time I opened Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf I was 22 and on a plane to Las Vegas. I was going on a (mostly) impromptu weekend trip with 2 close college friends. I read some of Jacob on the plane, maybe 10 pages on the short flight heading south, and was less than hooked. The life of Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs. Dalloway have been central to my favorite-things lists for as long as I can remember. I can never get enough of the brilliant and complex author, or the character Clarissa Dalloway. So, having trouble getting into another one of her novels worried me. The non-linear story, the flashes of other characters’ interiors, and their subsequent disappearances, was at times quite jarring. Where the stream-of-consciousness in Mrs. Dalloway felt masterfully tied together, in Jacob it felt broken apart.

Virginia Woolf, 1927

Jacob’s Room is the third novel by Woolf, and was published in 1922. As Goodreads summarizes:

Jacob's Room is the story of a sensitive young man named Jacob Flanders. The life story, character and friends of Jacob are presented in a series [of] separate scenes and moments from his childhood, through college at Cambridge, love affairs in London, and travels in Greece, to his death in the war. Jacob's Room established Virginia Woolf's reputation as a highly poetic and symbolic writer who places emphasis not on plot or action but on the psychological realm [...] occupied by her characters.

After a warm-weathered blur of a weekend, I returned to school and put Jacob back on the shelf. Disappointed, yet hopeful to have time after the semester to dive back in.

Virginia Woolf

Five years later, at 27, I decided to bring him with me again on a trip, this time to England. On the red-eye flight, I opened the novel to see where I’d long-ago left off, and out fell a Burberry business card. While in Vegas, I’d tried on a blue leather trench coat at the Caesar’s Palace store that, to this day, my vegetarian heart still desires. The gorgeous salesman had picked up on me lusting after it, and made sure to give me his card before he left. The sight of the card, leaving me with a flood of random memories from that trip.

Phillip Trey outside Virginia Woolf's country home

During my busy and truly magnificent 17-day tour of England (which included visiting Virginia Woolf’s countryside home even though it wasn't yet open to the public), I’d hardly had time or energy to read much. When I returned home, Jacob was kept on my bedside table, maybe 40 or 50 pages read. I’ve since come across a review of Jacob’s Room from The Guardian, written in 1922. The unnamed author says:

Perhaps it is partly by the aid of the novelists that we have come to imagine our lives as sequences, but Mrs Woolf won't have that at all. She provides us with chunks of what seems arbitrary and is certainly not explicit, and leaves us to sort them. There is art in it, of course, and doubtless the unaccustomed reader permits himself to be disconcerted too much by the disjointedness. Mrs Woolf has no turn for the plausible, and scorns the canny. But she does not appear to have much interest in character except as it is manifested in the capacity to receive and record impressions.

Reading this review, I felt both a deeper understanding and a twinge of defensiveness for Virginia. The novel itself may also be self-aware of the critics last comment in the line from Woolf that, “It is no use trying to sum people up.” Yet, isn't that what we as readers are trying to accomplish, in order to better understand the characters? The same anonymous continues later that:

[Y]et this is one of the most arrogant books that has been written lately. Never was anything more unkindly, unsentimental, ungenial. Jacob has a few faint love affairs, including one with a married woman who is presented contemptuously, there are various acquaintanceships and contacts, probably he was killed in the war; it doesn't matter.

The harshness of the critique mixed with the praise reminded me of a point in the novel where I found myself most interested. More than halfway through the story, a new love affair is introduced (and before the married woman mentioned), this time not necessarily an admirer of Jacob, but rather a woman scorned by society. The affair is subtle, maybe it even never happens, but the probable-prostitute of Fanny Elmer receives, in my opinion, the most effort of Woolf for character depiction. A depiction that is unkindly, unsentimental, ungenial. A woman repeatedly built up in one sentence and torn down in the next. Until this point, most characterization, especially Jacob’s, is limited. The snapshots of time, place, and person are compiling but still unclear. However, when we reach the story of Fanny Elmer, we get the clearest picture of a complex London woman, with the “ankles of a stag.”

Photo by Phillip Trey

It is also through the destruction of Fanny, and subsequent descriptions of women, that we may get the best perception of Virginia’s own contemplations of appearances, “As for the beauty of women, it is like the light on the sea, never constant to a single wave. They all have it; they all lose it.” While reading this novel, I was blown away by the backhanded compliments and the straightforward criticisms used for Fanny Elmer, which might’ve been mined from Woolf’s own complicated relationship with women and her struggles with her own queer identity. It left me with a sour taste, and more questions than answers.

Photo by Phillip Trey

Almost a year after England, I took Jacob (still unfinished) with me to Cancun on a New Year’s vacation. My mother was re-reading the novel (yet again), and figured I’d finally finish it to discuss it with her. However, it wasn’t in the city of sin, under the gray skies of England, or even on the beaches of Mexico that I would finish the story, but rather a month later at 3am in my own bed. It seems almost a let down that I would travel the world with Jacob, to only finish at home, but also unintentionally fitting. The framing of the novel is Jacob’s own room, after all.

Photo from PropellerMag, and the original illustration designed by Vanessa Bell, Virginia's sister

Emily Burns Morgan, for PropellerMag, wrote a very interesting review of the novel:

Though the very essence of life is explored, there is not really a plot to this story. Jacob moves from his hometown of Cornwall to London, then to Italy, Greece, and finally back to England. He meets women and men that he likes and dislikes. He falls in love and has epiphanies, as well as depressions. But none of what happens matters much; the real work of the book is not accomplished by plot, but by impressions.

Echoes of the anonymous Guardian review are read here, but also highlights the strength of this difficult novel. Jacob’s Room, at its essence, plays with our memories, our opinions of those in our lives, how others remember us. Our recollections are not linear, our lives are not either. I see a business card and am transported back to college adventures. I’m on a beach in Mexico and think of castles in England. To think about another’s life in a linear fashion, when it is shared as otherwise, can be frustrating, but when we live our own lives full of memory triggers and scents and sights, it all somehow makes sense. It was really only in finishing Jacob’s Room, that I could begin to appreciate it. To make sense of the impressions of a life, and to better understand the life Jacob lived.

Stay Backwords,

Phillip Trey

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