Quotations for Discussion: "A Sketch of the Past"

Updated July 7, 1997
Created July 7, 1997

Woolf’s autobiographical writings demonstrate some of the same narrative 
techniques she uses in her novels.

* analytical approach to writing (of both rhetorical devices and psychological 
* "tunneling" process
* narrative interruptions (e.g., p. 67)
* highly evocative imagery, especially visual (e.g., p. 66)

"A Sketch of the Past" (1939)

The Critic
"As a great memoir reader, I know many different ways. But if I begin to 
go through them and to analyse them and their merits and faults, the 
mornings . . . will be gone.  So without stopping to choose my way, in 
the sure and certain knowledge that it will find itself, or if not it will 
not matter—I begin:  the first memory." (64)

The Artist
"If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills 
and fills and fills—then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory.  
It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St. Ives.
It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one two, and sending a 
splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, 
behind a yellow blind.  It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn 
across the floor as the wind blow the blind out.  It is of lying and 
hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost 
impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can 
conceive."  (64-65)

The Woman
In "A Sketch of the Past," Woolf reports that until she wrote To the 
Lighthouse, "the presence of my mother obsessed me.  I could hear her 
voice, see her, imagine what she would do or say as I went about my day's 
doings.  She was one of the invisible presences who after all play so 
important a part in every life.  This influence, by which I mean the 
consciousness of other groups impinging upon ourselves; public opinion; 
what other people say and think . . . has never been analysed in any of 
those Lives which I so much enjoy reading, or very superficially.
[The Artist]	Yet it is by such invisible presences that the ‘subject 
of the memoir’ is tugged this way and that every day of his life; it is 
they that keep him in position.  Consider what immense forces society 
brings to play upon each of us, how that society changes form decade to 
decade; and also from class to class; well, if we cannot analyse these 
invisible presences, we know very little of the subject of the memoir; 
and again how futile life-writing becomes.  I see myself as a fish in a 
stream; deflected; held in place; but cannot describe the stream." (80 my 

On "Moments of Being"

"Every day includes more non-being than being.  Yesterday for example . . .
 has it happened a good day; above the average in ‘being.’  It [the 
weather] was the fine; I enjoyed writing these first pages; . . .  I 
walked over Mount Misery and along the river; and save that the tide was 
out, the country, which I notice very closely always, was coloured and 
shaded as I like—there were the willows, I remember, all plumy and soft 
green and purple against the blue.  I also read Chaucer with pleasure; and 
began a book—the memoirs of Madame de la Fayette—which interested me.  
These separate moments of being were however embedded in many more moments 
of non-being.  I have already forgotten what Leonard and I talked about 
at lunch; and at tea; although it was a good day the goodness was embedded 
in a kind of nondescript cotton. . . . The real novelist can somehow convey 
both sorts of being.  I think Jane Austen can, and Trollope; perhaps 
Thackeray and Dickens and Tolstoy.  I have never been able to do both."  

"2nd May . . . I write the date, because I think that I have discovered a 
possible form for these notes.  That is, to make then include the 
present—at least enough of the present to serve as a platform to stand 
upon."  (75)
Artist-Critic—Shock-Receiving Capacity

In childhood, long spells of "non-being, and "Then, for no reason that I 
know about, there was a sudden violent shock; something happened so 
violently that I have remembered it all my life.  I will give a few 
instances.  The first:  I was fighting with Thoby on the lawn.  We were 
pommelling each other with our fists.  Just as I raised my fist to him, I 
felt: why hurt another person?   I dropped my hand instantly, and stood 
there, and let him beat me.   I remember the feeling.  It was  feeling of 
hopeless sadness.  It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and 
of my own powerlessness.  I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed.  
The second instance was also in the garden at St. Ives.  I was looking at 
the flower bed by the front door; "That is the whole,"  I said.  I was 
looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain 
that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what 
was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower.  It 
was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me 
later. . . .

I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks they are 
now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly 
that they are particularly valuable.  And so I go on to suppose that the 
shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.   I hazard the 
explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to 
explain it.  I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as 
a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of 
daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token 
of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it 
into words.  It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole. . . .  
From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a 
constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; 
that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole 
world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.  Hamlet or a 
Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world.  
But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and 
emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are 
the thing itself.  And I see this when I have a shock." (71-72)

"I feel that by writing I am doing what is far more necessary than 
anything else." (73)

Woolf’s description of her mother, Julia Jackson Stephen (1846-95), "then": 
	"I suspect the word `central' gets closest to the general feeling I 
had of living so completely in her atmosphere that one never got far 
enough away from her to see her as a person. . . .  She was the whole 
thing; Talland House [St. Ives, Cornwall] was full of her; Hyde Park Gate 
[London] was full of her (83).   I see now, though the sentence is hasty, 
feeble and inexpressive, why it was that it was impossible for her to 
leave a very private and particular impression upon a child.  She was 
keeping what I call in my shorthand the panoply of life—that which we all 
lived in common—in being. . . .    The later view, the understanding that 
I now have of her position must have its say; and it shows me that a woman 
of forty with seven children, some of them needing grown-up attention, and 
four still in the nursery; and an eighth, Laura, an idiot, yet living with 
us; and a husband fifteen years her elder, difficult, exacting, dependent 
on her; I see now that a woman who had to keep all this in being and under 
control must have been a general presence rather than a particular person 
to a child of seven or eight.  Can I remember ever being alone with her 
for more than a few minutes?  Someone was always interrupting." (83)

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