After reviewing just over half of the International Booker Prize longlist, it’s time for a little palate-cleansing interlude, so this week will see me taking a break from that project and looking at a couple of other books from my shelves. First up today is a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed many times before, and did so again recently with an enjoyable reread of Mrs Dalloway. Yes, it’s time for more fun with the big bad Woolf, and this one proved to be a fascinating early work with hints of the direction she was to go in later years 🙂
Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf’s third novel, begins in Cornwall, where the widowed Betty Flanders is on holiday by the coast with her three children. The first we encounter is the middle child, Jacob, as he toddles along the beach in search of treasure, and this is our introduction to the character around whom Woolf’s novel is constructed. Each chapter moves us forward in time, allowing us to see Jacob as a young boy, a university student and a young man working and playing hard in London (and when I say ‘playing’…).
However, this is Woolf we’re talking about, and even if we get to see a lot of Jacob Flanders, his true nature remains strangely obscure. The writer somehow manages to write a story about him while keeping him in the background for the most part, with the people around him often far more fleshed out and human. In a way, then, Jacob remains an enigma, a puzzle to be solved, as the reader is taken through the early years of the twentieth century towards a premature ending to both the novel and Jacob’s life.
You may have noticed a slight (ahem) spoiler there, but Jacob’s Room isn’t really the kind of book where knowing the end spoils the experience. Woolf’s novel examines a generation of young men, those lost in the Great War, by showing the life of a typical young man, one of many destined to die. His name pretty much gives the game away from the start – it’s a cruel twist of fate whereby his place of death is sealed by the name his father has bequeathed him.
Jacob turns out to be a middle-class everyman, educated well at home before being packed off to Cambridge to prepare him for the comfortable life of a gentleman. He’s certainly attractive enough, always catching the eye of those around him, yet oddly elusive, mainly keeping to himself and only opening up to his good friend Timmy Durrant, and a few women he picks up along the way. There are, however, a few rare moments of access to his psyche, such as when we see him on one typical night at Trinity College and at times during his one great voyage of discovery, taking in Paris, Italy, Greece and Constantinople. Especially here, the young man realises his insignificance in the great scheme of things, as self-important as he can be at other times.
Surprisingly, the women in Jacob’s life are often far more three-dimensional than the man himself. The early chapters focus on his mother and her concerns, and we later encounter Timmy’s sister, Clara Durrant, and discern hints of her love for Jacob. When he gets to London, we spend time with Florinda, a woman of a very different class, and see their relationship blossom (one of a very different nature) – which is not to say that the young man allows himself to get tied down:
“I wish you’d been with me on Saturday,” said Jacob.
“I used to ride,” she said. She got up gracefully, calmly. Jacob got up. She smiled at him. As she shut the door he put so many shillings on the mantelpiece.
Altogether a most reasonable conversation; a most respectable room; an intelligent girl. Only Madame herself seeing Jacob out had about her that leer, that lewdness, that quake of the surface (visible in the eyes chiefly), which threatens to spill the whole bag of ordure, with difficulty held together, over the pavement. In short, something was wrong.
p.494 (Wordsworth Classics, 2012)
It’s all done rather discreetly, but Woolf cleverly shows us that young men are unlikely to spend all their free time playing chess and writing letters to their mother…
Where Night and Day was still a fairly conventional novel, Jacob’s Room shows an increased tendency towards the kind of experimentation that marks Woolf’s later work. The reader is taken back and forth, given hints of the future and glimpses of the past, and there are sections where mere impressions of nature and colours seem to take the place of any plot. Our inability to truly get to the heart of the main character is deliberate, and the writer herself hints at the impossibility of really knowing anybody:
Each had his own business to think of. Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title, James Spalding or Charles Budgeon, and the passengers going the opposite way could read nothing at all – save ‘a man with a red moustache’, ‘a young man in grey smoking a pipe’. The October sunlight rested upon all these men and women sitting immobile; and little Johnny Sturgeon took the chance to swing down the staircase, carrying his large mysterious parcel, and so dodging a zigzag course between the wheels he reached the pavement, started to whistle a tune and was soon out of sight – for ever. (p.464)
We’re merely witnesses to short snippets of Jacob’s life; there’s usually little to no context, just his days rolling on.
What we do get in this early work are signs of what’s to come. There are shades of Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse in the quick transitions between characters, with the text frequently leaping from one to the next. The novel features an expansive cast full of minor characters, and as with real life, some crop up repeatedly while others deliver a few lines and move on. It’s also reminiscent of The Waves in the way it consists of pivotal scenes from the main character’s life surrounded by huge gaps. Life moves on inexorably, and we only get to see a small part of the whole picture.
I wouldn’t rank Jacob’s Room among my favourite Woolf works, but it’s enjoyable enough and well worth a look. It’s best thought of as a study of an era, and a lost generation, but also as a glimpse of better work to come. The novel is perhaps best summed up by the room of the title, one we see several times in the second half of the story, and also where it all ends. It’s perhaps typical that one of the most powerful scenes in the book occurs without the presence of the protagonist. As we bid poor Jacob farewell, we are shown the outer trappings of a life – and what remains of it after someone has moved on.