What the Night Sky Meant to Virginia Woolf
The influence of the stars and astronomy on one of the most spectacular of English writers.
Few are the great writers who’ve not had, in one way or another, an obsession with the stars. Virginia Woolf, one of the past century’s most resplendent minds, was no exception. “Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern,” she once wrote. The notion necessarily endowed both her books and her life with a sense of the harmony implicit in reality, and of the existence of a subtle mechanism which rules the universe. It’s thus not strange that among her many obsessions were the stars and the night sky.
Woolf, educated at home, grew up surrounded by the books of her father, Leslie Stephen, a man of letters and the owner of an enormous library. In his collection were a tremendous number of volumes on science, geology, natural history, and astronomy (all of them obsessions of the Victorian mind). During her childhood, the young Woolf was to learn of the movements of the planets, the cycles of the moon, and the distances between the stars, scales of time and space that were to occupy her mind for the rest of her life. The family had a country house on the Cornwall coast, where the starry skies and moons awakened fantasy in her young mind. These even reappeared in the night landscapes of one of her most important novels, To the Lighthouse.
Growing up, Woolf’s love for the stars grew too. From a very young age she installed a telescope at the summer home, and she kept up to date with astrological discoveries, and those of Hubble and Einstein. She also regularly consulted the astronomy books of the time, among them the bestselling The Mysterious Universe by James Jeans. These were reflected in nearly all of her own books, but especially in The Waves (1931) and The Years (1937).
Woolf understood well the mystery and beauty of outer space and the galaxies. She once wrote in an article entitled The Narrow Bridge of Art, “The age of the earth is 3,000,000,000 years; that human life lasts but a second… it is in this atmosphere of doubt and conflict that writers have now to create.” It was as if the universe and its numbers called on her to write, to leave a legacy on this little planet, in the corner of one small galaxy.
In 1927, Woolf witnessed a total eclipse of the sun, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (the next one wouldn’t occur until 1999). She meticulously described the event in her diary, the irregularities of the solar surface, and the dramatic passage from light into darkness, and back again into light.
The telescopes which gradually spread across the Europe of her time were the objects of Woolf’s obsession. Before owning her own as an adult, Woolf would spend entire nights watching the stars with members of the Bloomsbury Group. This led to the short story The Searchlight, in which a young man uses a telescope first to see the stars, and then to spy on a girl. The objects of fascination, they appear recurrently Woolf’s writings, in no less than six of her nine novels, as well as in numerous essays and short stories.
To Woolf’s unique sensitivity, the night sky offered glimpses of the world’s essence, that something sometimes called “reality.” For Woolf, such visions surpassed beauty, and in her own lucid, spectacular prose she thus described it in a journal entry from 1926 (in a section on the development of To the Lighthouse):
"I have some restless searcher in me. Why is there not a discovery in life? Something one can lay hands on and say, ‘This is it.’ My depression is a harassed feeling. I’m looking: but that’s not it—that’s not it. What is it? And shall I die before I find it? Then […] I see the mountains in the sky: the great clouds; and the moon which is risen over Persia; I have a great and astonishing sense of something there, which is ‘it.’ It is not exactly beauty that I mean. It is that the thing is in itself enough: satisfactory; achieved."
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