[SIDE CONVERSATIONS] DON RAKOW: Good evening, and welcome to the David Call Auditorium and the 15th annual Harder Lecture. I'm Don Rakow, the Elizabeth Newman Wilds Director of Cornell Plantations. And I would like everyone who's assembled to follow a simple exercise I'm now going to practice.
OK. It was 16 years ago that Torrey Harder and I met at the bench to commemorate and memorialize his parents that Torrey ventured the idea of constructing an event that would bring together the English Department and Cornell Plantations. The idea immediately intrigued me, and as we talked about it, it seemed like the best approach would be to have an annual lecture that would focus on the intersection between nature and literature.
It has been a very exciting ride over the past 14 years to see the many ways in which members of the English department faculty and alumni of that department could address this intriguing subject of nature and literature. And I am quite confident that tonight's presentation will provide a new angle on that wonderful subject.
I would like to mention a few things before introducing Roger Gilbert, the current Chair of the Department of English. The first is that, over the years, many of you have said, I really enjoyed that Harder Lecture, but I would love to be able to read the transcript because I want to be able to reflect on some of the things the speakers said, or, alternately, darn, I really wanted to attend that Harder Lecture but was out of town at the time.
So I'm very pleased to announce that as a result of an additional gift generously made by Torrey Harder, we now have nearly all of the previous 14 Harder Lecture transcripts available as a compendium on the Plantations website. And if you go to Learning At Plantations from our Cornell Plantations website, which I should point out is cornellplantations.org, and then, from Learning At Plantations, go to Harder Lecture Series, and you will see all of those previous transcripts available there.
I also would like to mention that immediately after the lecture this evening, we will, as is our custom, be holding a Gala Garden Party in the Cornell Plantations Botanical Garden. On the back of your programs, there are directions for how to walk to the Botanical Garden. If you prefer to drive, there will be available parking there.
And there will be ample food, beverage, music. And we invite all of you to join us. Also at the garden party, both Molly Hite and David McDonald will be available to sign copies of their respective books, which will be available for sale in the Nevin Welcome Center, which will be open at the time.
One more thing I'd like to do before turning things over to Roger Gilbert-- we are truly fortunate to have, I believe, 14 members of the extended Harder family with us this evening. So I would like the members of the Harder family to just stand and be recognized.
Now, for those of you who are counting, that may not have seemed like 14, but several members are in the back, so believe me. Well, at this point, I would like to ask Roger Gilbert, Chair of the Department of English, to come up and to introduce tonight's speakers. Roger.
ROGER GILBERT: Well, it is my great pleasure and privilege to introduce our two speakers today, Molly Hite and David McDonald. Molly Hite is already known to many of us, having been a member of the English department at Cornell since 1982.
Professor Hite specializes in modern and post-modern British and American fiction. That's a lot of ground to cover. She's one of our most popular teachers both of undergraduates and of graduate students.
She's written books on Thomas Pynchon and on experimental fiction by women, and she's just finished a study of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, which is a subject closely related to the topic of today's lecture. She's also published two very different but equally wonderful works of fiction, one a hilarious academic novel, and the other a police procedural. I hope those will be for sale.
If that isn't enough versatility for you, she has also been a very resourceful administrator, including a recent stint as Chair of English, in which capacity she introduced previous Harder lecturers. And now, it's her turn, and we couldn't be luckier.
Joining Professor Hite this evening is David McDonald, who many of us will be meeting and hearing for the first time. He's had a fascinating career that's included periods both as a political activist and as a garden photographer, two activities that may not seem obviously related but which he has embraced with equal passion. I believe it's his interest in the art of the garden that will inform his presentation today, but I wouldn't be surprised if some politics sneaks in.
David McDonald cites as his two "photo gods" the great turn of the century Parisian, Eugéne Atget, and the contemporary photographer Frank Horvath. His work has appeared in many magazines, including Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Landscape Architecture, and Better Homes and Gardens, and he now works as a fine arts photographer based in Seattle.
Well, it's hard to imagine a more suitable topic for the annual Harder Lecture, a collaboration between the English Department and the Cornell Plantations, than the one that Molly Hite and David McDonald will show and tell us about this evening-- literature, life, gardens, the influence of Vita Sackville-West. Please join me in welcoming Molly Hite and David McDonald.
MOLLY HITE: Hi. Say the name Vita Sackville-West, and you produce a kind of frisson that Vita herself evidently produced simply by walking into a room. But it's a different kind of frisson for two different constituencies, both of which I think are probably well-represented tonight. To be very brief, one group says, oh, Vita Sackville-West-- Sissinghurst. And one group says, oh, Vita Sackville-West-- Orlando.
Sometimes these two constituencies are entirely separate. I've met people who know Vita entirely for her magnificent gardens and gardening advice and others who know her entirely as the seductive muse of lesbian passion, or to use the term then current, "sapphism."
In the latter case, Vita was a woman who inspired and, as it were, starred in Virginia Woolf's 1948 novel Orlando, which Woolf called a biography, and who was the influence who provoked both the great materialist feminist essay "A Room of One's Own" and Woolf's most innovative novel, the 1931 play-poem The Waves. I'm getting echoes. Are you getting echoes?
Oh, you're good. OK, great. We're trying to bring these two streams of influence together this afternoon. In our case, it takes two people for the two areas of emphasis. David McDonald will tell us about garden innovations and the garden writing, and he has all the eye candy. Vita would undoubtedly have loved how sexy he makes plants because that was kind of the way she felt about them.
I've got less seductive pictures. And David's a photographer. I'm a downloader and scanner. And so these are old pictures, and only a few of them. But then, I'm doing gossip.
Vita's larger-than-life personality, and also her larger-than-individuals heritage, plays such a great role in the identity she formulated for herself. It was an amazing identity. It wasn't really one identity. She herself talked about her dual personality.
I'm dealing much too briefly with that and also with her literary influence on Virginia Woolf, which is the way she first came into my purview. I worked on both. Vita has always been there, lurking, in the context of both. But I never really focused directly on Vita until fairly recently.
I'm dealing, also, with one aspect of Vita that nobody even pays attention to anymore. It was very important to her. She was an enormously successful writer. She sold more than Virginia Woolf by far.
[SNEEZING IN AUDIENCE]
Yeah. She was a best-selling novelist who began publishing with Virginia and Leonard Woolf-- so the Hogarth Press-- when she got together with Virginia. And this bounced the Hogarth Press up into a money-making situation that made the Woolfs comfortable. They were now able to live on the proceeds from the press. So she, in a way, was who put them on solid footing.
The novel I especially like of hers-- she's actually a better writer than you'd think-- she's, as a prose writer, she's very good. There's a novel called All Passion Spent. And by the way, I've got a one-page sheet of further readings, so we can talk about this afterwards. And anybody who wants a sheet of further readings, we'll put it down here after the talk so you can play with it.
I have not read Michael [INAUDIBLE] biography, the one that just came out. I have not even looked at it. I'll say that right now. Has anybody? We hope.
Anyway, All Passion Spent was published in 1931, when Vita was 36. But it's about-- it's a really wonderful topic-- it's about an 88-year-old woman. And it's really quite wonderful. It's very delicate.
This woman was generally regarded as beautiful, well-behaved, and a bit dim. And she spent her life as the wife of a prominent and illustrious, great man-- prime minister, viceroy of India. On his death, in his 90s, this old woman quietly shakes off her children and grandchildren and goes off, on the Underground, to lease a house in Hampstead that she noted 30 years earlier to live the life that was interrupted when she accepted the great man's proposal.
And I put this quotation on the sheet, and I invite you to read it. It occurs around the middle of the book, when she's thinking, in her garden, in Hampstead-- a garden, of course-- about how she got sidetracked for 68 years, basically. It's charming.
And notice the style of this passage, which is kind of Edwardian or late Victorian-- very different from somebody like Woolf, who was an experimenter. Vita was kind of a traditionalist as a writer. But boy, did she sell. That book is very much worth reading. I recommend it.
In 1927, she won the Hawthornden Prize. Do you know about the Hawthornden? They're still giving it. It's for the best work, fiction or poetry, in England of the year. And she got it. And she got it for her long poem, which was called The Land. This is the basis of the poem called "The Oak Tree" in Orlando.
And-- I'm trying to see if that's-- there she is. Good. OK. Let's start here. And actually, I was going to give you a big chunk of The Land, the opening, and then go through it at tedious length, explaining to you how technically clever it was, despite being totally banal. And then, I thought, why am I doing this? So I cut that out. It was about a page.
The Land carries on a Victorian tradition of competent, readable, and vaguely patriotic poems. But it's a kind of poem that people really yearned for with modernism going on all around them. I mean, let's sit back and read a good poem. And people actually did that. And this one, you could read, right? You didn't wonder about it. It didn't have footnotes.
And I find it terrible. But you might even like it. Who knows? There is an odd online fan club of The Land I discovered when I was messing around looking about it.
Virginia always told Vita that she was a traditional writer. She writes this many times in her letters to Vita, and it's a real put-down, but I don't think Vita caught that. In her diaries and letters to others, Virginia often put it more harshly, as the comment in a letter to Jacques Raverat early on, when Vita wrote with "complete competence and a pen of brass." Woolf could really, really, really do you-- she could skewer somebody.
Woolf also noted at several points that Vita was too fluent, which is a quality that many of us may wish we had but was actually true in Vita's case. She basically never changed anything. She just wrote. Between the ages of 14 and 18, by the way-- these are her juvenalia-- she wrote five full-length novels-- one in French-- and five plays.
She declared in a letter to Virginia that she would rather, quote, "fail gloriously than dingily succeed." But although the sentiment was true to her temperament-- and boy, was it true to her temperament-- it was also true that, often, she dingily succeeded.
In the final analysis, Vita was less a writer than what Virginia Woolf termed "a personality." In an essay called "Personalities" that Woolf wrote while she was involved with Vita, she describes truly great writers as having, quote, "something elusive, enigmatic, impersonal about them," which makes them relatively uninteresting biographically.
She continues, "It is the imperfect artist who never managed to say the whole thing in their books who wield the power of personality over us." And that was Vita. Vita did wield the power of personality over most people.
Here's Virginia describing her shortly after they'd met. And it's a great, famous quotation, but also great. "She shines in the grocers shop in Sevenoaks with a candle-lit radiance, stalking on legs like beech trees, pink-glowing, grape-clustered, pearl-hung."
To see Vita shining, we need to look at the last portrait-- this one-- painted when she was 18. This was a time when Vita, in her own confession-- which is a spectacular work, and actually, if you pick up the notes, you'll find out where to get it-- in her own confession of 1920 wrote that she had grown "less ugly." The reaction to her seems to confirm that the painting shows more of what attracted people of both sexes than at least some of the photographs of her. She didn't photograph well all the time.
Vita shone in many places and for many different people. Her male suitors included the Marchese Orazio Pucci, a son of a prominent Florentine who followed her about Europe for several years before finally accepting her rejection and hurling himself into war. He went to Libya, by the way.
And he did. He made a nuisance of himself. He followed her everywhere. The minute he saw her, he knew she was the one. Ditto Lord Lascelles and Lord Granby, who were each heirs to one of the great estates of England.
And of course, there was Harold Nicolson, whom she married. All these men simply fell over upon seeing her, and they pursued her. She had that sort of effect. All this was, by the way, before all these incidents I'm mentioning.
So before there was any assurance that she'd be an heiress, there was a lot of fiddling that I won't even go into-- but it's fascinating-- about the shady business of her occupancy of Knoll and her mother and her grandmother and her father and the various live-in boyfriends and girlfriends that the mother and father had. But the strongest tendencies were, in the word of the time, sapphist. I like this picture. I like this picture-- sorry-- rather because it makes her look like Oscar Wilde.
--but a better sense of how androgynously gorgeous Vita is. This is, again, a newspaper picture, so the resolution is not good. But this is Vita going to court. On her left is Harold, to whom she was engaged. On her right is Rosamund Grosvenor, with whom she was having a passionate affair. And you can sort of see that. Rosamund is just hanging off her.
And then, that's her father on the far right. And-- what was I going to say about that?-- well, they say it was a very slimy case. There were two slimy public trials that went on in Vita's youth.
Oh, I was going to say, she could be an Edwardian dandy. If you didn't know that was a skirt-- you really can't tell by looking-- she could be a gorgeous young man or a gorgeous young woman. And that's very much the kind of attraction she had. This had to do with whether the mother was allowed to accept a legacy from the guy that lived with them, basically, for years and years and years, when he died. And boy, was that a big deal.
And she met her great love, Violet Keppel-- later Trefusis, but I'm going to say "Tref-e-sis," which I'm sure she did-- at school when she was only 11 and Violet two years younger. She also had an ongoing affair with a female cousin-- Grosvenor-- and her affair with Virginia Woolf was interwoven with liaisons with at least two other women.
Now, Woolf got very irritated over those two other women and said so-- a lot. She wrote some really nasty things about them. She minded not only that they were there but they weren't in her league. She felt they were quite stupid, and they probably were. And she felt Vita should have better taste. She didn't want to be in the group of people that Vita was involved with if it included these very dull and stupid women.
And here, we see-- oops, that's not it. My god. No. I seem to be missing a slide. Never mind. All right. I should note that both Harold Nicolson and Leonard Woolf, the husbands, knew of and condoned the Vita and Virginia affair.
Then, Virginia wrote in her 1926 diary, "She was sitting on the floor in her velvet jacket and red-striped shirt, I knotting her pearls into heaps of great, lustrous eggs." By the way, those pearls keep showing up. They're symbolic, but she actually did wear pearls a lot. "She had come up to see me. And so we go on-- a spirited, creditable affair, I think, innocent-- spiritually-- and all gain, I think.
Rather a bore for Leonard, but not enough to worry him. The truth is one has room for a great many relationships." And this is very much the Bloomsbury ethic and the Bloomsbury credo there. But of course, it was also true of Vita for another reason-- because she was an aristocrat. There are those pearls again. "Pearl-hung" is one of the epithets that Virginia Woolf uses most often of Vita. These pearls are a recurrent motif of their affair and give a nicely symbolic sense of their sexual adventures. But Vita also did wear pearls almost all the time. It was one of the things one did if one were a Sackville. And she was, in her entire identity, a Sackville.
Oh, there's Vita and Virginia. There are the pearls. OK. Note that in this photograph, the pearl-hung Vita is identified as Orlando. Orlando, of course, is intrinsic to Orlando and the photographs in it. And the later ones are all of Vita in various ways.
OK. To be a Sackville was to be an aristocrat with a lineage that went back to the dawn of English history. And Vita was very, very identified with that. This is why Wolfe's novel, Orlando, and the character Orlando can encompass this history from the 16th century to the present, which is stipulated as Thursday, the 11th of October, 1928-- the day the novel, Orlando, was published.
The class privilege-- it's blank, it's supposed to be blank-- the class privilege that Vita grew up with is central to her enormous self-confidence, a quality that bowled over Virginia and bowled over all the other conquests that Vita made. But Vita was also an aristocrat from a shady family. And in a way, the flaunting of conventional sexual mores that distinguished at least the two preceding generations of Sackvilles gave her an amazing absence of sexual shame. That's one of the things you see from her letters. She just doesn't mind. She does all these things.
She minded very much if she finally realized she'd hurt someone, although it often took a long time for her to realize that. But she didn't mind at all that she did not conform to respectable gender roles or sexual identities. On and on with that. There's some things on the source sheet that really are good reading for that. One is the Nicolson book-- by her son-- and then, there's Glendinning's biography.
We see the particular sexual complexity, insinuosity, that Vita embodies in the character of Orlando, who begins life in the 16th century as a beguiling, if rather awkward, boy and then, at the beginning of the 18th century, takes a longish nap in Constantinople-- where Vita and Harold once lived-- and awakes to find herself a woman but, otherwise, exactly the same, we're told by the biographer, the narrator of the story.
This biographer refuses to explain or accept theories that Orlando was really a woman all along or that Orlando was still a man but a little confused. The biography proclaims, "Let biologists and psychologists determine. It is enough for us to state the simple fact Orlando was a man till the age of 30, when he became a woman and has remained so ever since."
As Woolf developed in A Room Of One's Own, by the 18th century, women could write for a living. They had come out, as it were, as real people. And from the 18th century on, it seems she feels it's simply more interesting to be female than to be male. And that seems to be the ground reason Orlando changes sex.
Sexuality and gender become even more unstable when Woolf brings Orlando into the Victorian era. And Orlando, now female, realizes from a tingling in her ring finger that she desperately needs to be married. And I put that great quotation down there, and I'm not going to read it. Because it's simply too long. It's one of my favorites.
It plays with sexuality in a very, very funny way with this tingling finally resolving itself in the need for a wedding band-- not what you would have thought. And here's a picture that goes with this. Vita did dress up for this one-- Orlando in about the year 1940.
The man that Orlando meets at this point, the Victorian era, very romantically, of course, is one Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, Esquire. But the chemistry hits them both instantly and takes this form-- and I think this is another wonderful passage, this time of dialogue-- "'Oh! Shel, don't leave me,' she cried. 'I'm passionately in love with you,' she said. No sooner had the words left her mouth than an awful suspicion rushed into both their minds simultaneously. 'You're a woman, Shel!' she cried. 'You're a man, Orlando!' he cried."
Men who are women and women who are men add to the complexity generated by the man who becomes a woman but was still, in the words of the biography, the same. In Orlando, the vacillations of sex and gender produce an ideal marriage, which is emphatically not a traditional one.
Now, both Vita and Virginia had marriages of this sort, which, after some rough patches at the beginning, allowed for all sorts of other relationships, as long as candor and tenderness between spouses was the primary value. We tend today to have reified sexuality into an identity. One is either gay or straight or, perhaps, bi.
But sexual behavior, like gender, has nuances that make something as definite as an identity hard to establish. For instance, Virginia Woolf considered Vita a sapphist but not herself, even though she was in the middle of a torrid relationship with Vita, and even though she'd had romantic relationships with at least two other women before.
The assumptions of both, however, led to a friendship that lasted until Woolf's death. In their openness to desires that are a bit beyond a single name or definition, and their emphases on the primacy of love and friendship over sexual passion, we see a place where aristocratic license meshes with the progressive practices of the Bloomsbury Group, a group that was otherwise socialist and anti-aristocratic.
Now, Vita influenced other writings by Woolf than Orlando. Kathleen Raine, who was one of the students at Girton College, Cambridge, who heard Virginia Woolf's talks to girls, wrote a memoir of the occasion. Raine reported that Virginia arrived with Vita, the two of them dressed beautifully and descending, quote, "like goddesses" into the reception room.
Now, this means, probably, that Vita rigged up Virginia. Because Virginia was hopelessly dowdy and never could get it right. So clearly, Vita, who always got it right-- she was born to get it right-- and was always beautifully dressed, must have had a hand in this. Orlando had just come out and was selling well. And both women had the status of literary superstars.
In the talks, as later in the manifesto that Woolf made of them, Woolf's persona begins a discussion of the theoretical new novel by contemporary woman in this way-- "I turned the page and read-- I am sorry to break off so abruptly. Are there no men present? Do you promise me that behind that red curtain over there, the figure of Sir Chartres Biron is not concealed? We are all women, you assure me?
Then I may tell you that the very next words I read were these-- 'Chloe liked Olivia.' Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women." Now, of course, the verb "like" here covers a range of intensities, from deep friendship to amatory passion.
In the earlier draft of the essay and in the talks, Woolf had played up the suggestiveness further, saying-- and here, pretending to read-- this is from the manuscript-- "'Chloe liked Olivia. They shared a'-- the pages had stuck. While fumbling to open them, there flashed in my mind the inevitable policeman, the summons, the order to attend the court, the dreary waiting, the Magistrate coming in with a little bow, the glass of water, the counsel for the prosecution, for the defense, the verdict.
The book is called obscene, the flames rising, perhaps on Tower Hill, as they consumed masses of paper. Here, the pages came apart. Heaven be praised! It was only a laboratory. They were engaged in mincing liver, which is apparently a cure for pernicious anemia." So she's playing with innuendo, playing with suggestions of lesbianism in this.
The reference here, of course, is to The Well of Loneliness trial, which took place in 1927, where Radclyffe Hall's famous lesbian novel-- but not Hall herself-- was tried for and convicted of obscenity. One reference to this trial remains in the published version-- the reference to Sir Chartres Biron, who was the presiding magistrate of the case. The trial and the novel itself were very important to Vita, who organized witnesses for the defense.
And by the way, they never got to say anything because nobody was allowed to testify. It was the trial of a book, and only the book could speak. So the prosecuting attorney read aloud salacious passages to everybody. That was it. That was the trial. And they condemned it.
All right. I'm going to get another blank. Is that a blank? Good. Vita was not usually political in her ideas or activities, and her reflexive political positions tend to come from her heritage. She was conservative, nationalistic, patriotic, and pro-empire.
She'd had no interest in feminism, a progressive political stance, but Woolf was interested in converting her. In many respects, the last chapter of A Room of One's Own is Woolf's triumphant synthesis of feminism and what did matter to Vita-- freedom of sexual choice and freedom to publish.
Now, finally, as I suggested, I see links between Vita's influence and Woolf's most experimental novel, The Waves, which is the novel, I just have to say, I love most. I haven't seen much done on the subject of Vita's relationship to it. And suddenly, the book that Woolf called abstract, mystical, and eyeless-- in two senses, vision and the I of the subject-- abstract, mystical, and eyeless seems the opposite of anything Vita would write or even read.
Yet it's clear that The Waves and Orlando were conceived at the same moment and were conceived because of Vita. The event that led to them was not Vita's presence or Vita's letter but rather Vita's absence. In October of 1930, Woolf reported in her diary that she was both depressed and relieved because Vita did not come to visit when she'd said she would.
The combination of depression and relief seems to have set up the mood that she describes as "frightening and exciting in the midst of my profound gloom, depression, boredom-- whatever it is." Her reflections are on life, that huge topic.
It's a topic that resonates through Orlando, as well. But the two childhood memories that she brings up become important as repeated motifs in The Waves. In a diary entry the next year, the stimulus becomes obvious.
"Two nights ago, Vita was here, and when she went, I began to feel the quality of the evening-- how it was spring coming, a silver light mixing with the early lamps, the cabs all rushing through the streets. I had a tremendous sense of life beginning.
Mixed with that emotion, which is the essence of my feeling but escapes description, I felt the spring beginning and Vita's life so full and flush and all the doors opening. And this, I believe, is the moth shaking its wings in me. I then began to make up my story, whatever it is. Ideas rush in on me. Often, though, this is before I can control my mind or pen."
So this is a huge moment of inspiration. And we should note that the original title for The Waves was The Moths. That's what she was thinking about here. And she imagined the moths as, perhaps, autobiography centering around the singular she.
But the book she went on to write, almost helplessly and very fluently, was Orlando, a faux biography-- not an autobiography-- centered around a singular personality, a she who was also, however, and in several respects, a he. Only after Orlando was finished did she return to her most difficult fictional innovation.
And here is where I finally bring Virginia Woolf together with gardens. For the novel, The Waves, like that great house, Sissinghurst, is bounded by a garden. In the speeches of the six main characters-- and these speeches are mostly internal, present tense self-narration, it's a very odd book-- the garden figures as a scene of many characters' early formative experiences. In particular, the garden is the scene, we might say-- or even the primal scene-- of one of the great moments of the novel, a traumatic moment supplanting the notion of original sin and involving four of its six characters.
So we have the garden tied in very directly with creation myths at the beginning of the novel. And then we have this event, which for four of the characters is extremely formative. And it takes place in the garden. This is in the first chapter where the characters are young. They're in school. They're in what we'd call elementary school. It's not clear how old they are.
But we start with the idea, Louis, who is a colonial boy, feels outcast. He's from Australia. His refrain is "my father, a banker from Brisbane." And I should mention this was both based on a dear friend of hers, who she also, as a joke, regarded as colonial, and that is Thomas Stearns Eliot, who, of course, was born in St. Louis, Missouri in the colonies.
But Louis goes off and into the garden and hides behind a bush, OK? And he tells himself-- it's a lovely thing, but notice what's going on. It's amazing to me that most critics never noticed what was going on here. I did annotations to the book that pointed it out really clearly. OK.
So Louis is standing here. And this is his self-narration. "I hold the stalk in my hand. My roots go down to the depths of the world. All tremors shake me, and the weight of the Earth is pressed to my ribs.
My body is a stalk. I press the stalk. A drop oozes from the hole at the mouth"-- what is this kid doing, right? --"and slowly, thickly, grows larger and larger. Now, something pink passes the eyehole.
Now an eyebeam is slid through the chink. Its beam strikes me. I am a boy in a grey flannel suit. She has found me. I'm struck on the nape of the neck. She's kissed me. All is shattered."
Now, Louis, clearly, is comforting himself in the way that young boys comfort themselves, being the stalk and bringing a drop out of its tip. Jenny, who is running by, sees the leaves shaking on the bush and stalk and kisses him-- rushes in and kisses him, an act of courage for her. Susan, witnessing the kiss, is furiously jealous and runs away. And Bernard, who has seen the whole thing, runs after her to console her with a story.
And that actually, really, forms the core identities of these four characters. The incident shapes each into the characters she or he grows up to be, and each continually recalls it from his or her perspective.
Even more important-- that's not it, we don't want that-- even more important, we encounter the garden as an essential structural element of The Waves. The garden is always present in some form in what most commentators call the interludes-- the passages in italics that begin each of the nine sections chronicling the lives from childhood to old age and death of six friends.
And the interludes actually trace an arc of the sun's rising and falling. You've got these nine events that take place on this arc so that you could say The Waves take place in one day, like [INAUDIBLE] like Mrs. Dalloway, except the arc is, of course, by a very familiar old conceit, the arc of a human life.
So in the first section, where the sun has not risen, the garden is only indicated-- "The light strung up on the trees in the garden making one leaf transparent and then another." But this interlude clearly introduces a creation story. And with the advent of the light, the garden grows.
In the second section, we return to the garden as the sun rose higher. And it acquires an aural dimension. We hear about the birds. Moving to the fourth section, the section where the sun rose, we see the advent of death and also of nature, "red in tooth and claw."
The sonorous birds are also predators and the cycle of growth entails decay. The passage is powerful, well observed, and incantatory, a sensuous litany of disgust. And I think you've got that on the handout, right? Yeah. I'm not going to read it, although it's quite wonderful.
Then, very quietly, the scope of the garden enlarges. The introduction to the fourth section, where the sun has risen, brings us an ominous simile, perhaps of inevitable imperial decline. The spray of the continually falling waves beyond the garden arises "like the tossing of lances and assegais"-- these are African spears-- "over the riders' heads," and the birds act in a group to peck "furiously, methodically until the shell broke and something slimy loosed from the crack."
In the fifth section, where the sun is at its zenith, the interlude introduces the death of the leader of our six friends. This is the moment at the center of the book where the horrible event occurs, the death of Percival. Percival's an ambivalently coded and uninvolved character whom the others regard as supremely charismatic and admire extravagantly.
To herald this section, we find a provincial English garden has been pulled into the dimensions of a great part of the earth. [INAUDIBLE]. Oh, shoot. Oh, I see. Right. "Now, the stars burnt uncompromising, undeniable. It fell upon the arid waste to the desert, here wind-scourged into furrows, here swept into desolate cairns, here sprinkled with stunted dark green jungle trees.
It lit up the smooth gilt mosque, the frail pink and white card houses of the southern village, and the long-breasted, white-haired women who knelt in a riverbed beating wrinkled cloths upon stones." And it goes on. The emphasis on southern, the mosques, and the long-breasted, white-haired women extend the garden to radically other and foreign dimensions-- North Africa and the Middle East, soon to be fronts in the Second World War and scenes of revolutionary uprising.
Expansion here, however, is not really ominous but rather enlarging. The world of the six friends is not entirely the world. Even the death of a hero, whom Bernard later imagines "would have shocked the authorities," eventually is not the end of anything.
But also, and surely not coincidentally, the descriptions evoke some of the sites of Vita's and Harold's great travels when he was a diplomat-- Cairo and Luxor, Turkey, Persia, and Constantinople, where Vita made her first garden. And this, finally. This is, of course, Harold and Vita, later on. At first glance, to me, I thought this was a Middle Eastern setting. I thought maybe this was Constantinople somewhere.
But of course, it's Sissinghurst. Imperialist to the end, Vita brought back her moments from the Empire to her conception of a great house fit for a Sackville and, even more, a great garden. We'll go to David.
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Vita Sackville-West, a prolific poet, novelist, and memoirist, considered herself foremost a writer, but her enduring reputation rests on the imprint of her provocative personality on the life and writing of Virginia Woolf, and on her stirring contributions to the art of gardening, both in practice and in writing.
Cornell English professor Molly Hite guides us over the peaks of their powerful relationship and the works it inspired in Woolf: the renowned materialist-feminist essay, "A Room of One's Own"; the faux-biography and parody of literary history, "Orlando"; and Woolf's most experimental and perhaps greatest novel, "The Waves," in which a detailed representation of a romantically wild garden expands into a whole world.
Hite delivered the William H. and Jane Torrence Harder Lecture on August 24, 2011 as part of the Cornell Plantations fall lecture series.