I cannot find the person I was when I first read Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, originally published in 1922 and now celebrating its centenary. I cannot remember when or where I read it; I have no idea how I felt or what I thought about the novel. That experience has dissolved into nothing.
I don’t think this is a coincidence. This novel is about disappearance, and it has a talent for eluding its readers. Written between 1920 and 1922, at a time when the families of 6 per cent of the British adult male population – 880,000 men – were mourning their deaths in the First World War, Jacob’s Room tells the story of Jacob’s short life through a series of disjointed vignettes. He is a child at the beginning, then a student at Cambridge. After a few years that include trips to France and Greece, he disappears. From a series of hints we infer that he has died in the First World War, “fighting for [his] country”, as his mother says. “He left everything just as it was”, muses his friend Bonamy when he and Jacob’s mother are clearing out Jacob’s room. “What did he expect? Did he think he would come back?” Jacob’s life is broken off abruptly, leaving behind “his letters strewn about” – the detritus of a life unlived.
The book’s central preoccupation is with Jacob and his doomed generation: “simple young men, these, who would – but there is no need to think of them grown old”. Deflection is right there in that sentence, the narrator interrupting herself so that she doesn’t stray into painful territory. Readers do witness young men going to their deaths in Jacob’s Room, but they are automatons rather than people, marching up hillsides “like blocks of tin soldiers” then falling flat, “save that, through field-glasses, it can be seen that one or two pieces still agitate up and down like fragments of broken match-stick”. Field-glasses and match-sticks shield the narrator and the reader from the shattered bones and the blood. In her review of Woolf’s earlier novel Night and Day (1919), Katherine Mansfield complained that Woolf had ignored the war that was raging across the water during the years of its composition. Jacob’s Room would instead rework it at a careful distance.
To readers in 1922 the novel felt oddly insubstantial. When Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, read the typescript, he told her that “the people are ghosts”. To the poet RC Trevelyan, the author acknowledged that “the characters remain shadowy”. George Manning-Sanders, in New Witness, commented that “Solitude moves through the pages of Mrs. Woolf’s book”. For all its brittle vividness, Jacob’s Room leaves its readers feeling alone in an empty room, surrounded by ghosts.
The unreality of the people in the novel feels like another deliberate deflection. Like most of us Woolf loved warmth, vitality and most of all human presence. Beautiful, charismatic women anchor the great novels that she published in the 1920s, Mrs Dalloway (1925) To the Lighthouse (1927). But Jacob’s Room is anchored by a young man who is presented through a series of fragmented episodes that sometimes seem to have little relevance to one another. We never really see Jacob. His presence is registered by the marks he leaves on others, like the wrinkles in the pair of old shoes his mother finds in his room after his death: “What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?”, she asks Jacob’s friend. What is she to do with his things, with her memories, with the emptiness of his room where “the wicker arm-chair creaks, though no one sits there”? This novel is dominated by women’s fear of men’s absence, a fear of being left behind while the men go – well, it is men go: to work, to the city, to war.
Re-reading Jacob’s Room during its centenary year, it’s hard not to think about the innumerable global conflicts since the one that destroyed our protagonist. The World Population Review counts thirty-two countries involved in active conflicts, including wars of territorial aggression, civil wars, terrorist insurgencies and ethnic violence. For residents of the UK and Europe, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has a proximity that makes turning away extremely difficult. What ethical do imperative we have to engage with it – and what forms can that engagement take? We can read the newspaper, of course; we can get instant news updates on our phones; We can even take Ukrainian refugees into our homes. But it’s still possible to avoid the horror, to look away, to turn all that violence and all that suffering into shadows on the periphery of our vision. War is elsewhere – and so, it seems, is Jacob.
Even as a little boy Jacob has a talent for disappearing. In the first scene of the novel he wanders away from his mother on the beach. She tells his little brother to “run and find him,” prompting calls of “Ja-cob! Ja-cob!” – all of which go unanswered. Jacob has gone off to pick up a skull that he has spotted “lying among the black sticks and straw under the cliff”. His disappearance on the beach is caused by an encounter with death, just like his absence from his chair at the end of the novel. He is doomed from the beginning, all his small absences an anticipation of his final demise. Perhaps the deflection strategies of Jacob’s Room – the insubstantiality of its characters and especially of its leading man – are an attempt to avoid reminders of death. The narrator knows that Jacob will die young, and that haunts her reactions to him as he drifts through life, ignorant of what’s to come. “Life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.” The objects to which we pay attention are insubstantial and evanescent, because we know they will disappear. Woolf’s refusal to substantiate her leading man is defensive. Looking Jacob in the eyes, when she knows he will die young, is an impossible task for the narrator. Her helpless “God knows” registers the folly and the reclessness of loving a creature you know you will lose. But, of course, that is how we all must live; and war, with its multiple, relentless consequence, only brings that home to us more acutely.
At another time I might have been able to write a more cheerful piece about what Woolf was trying to do in this novel, hailed in her diary as a formal experiment in which she found out “how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice”. Contemprary reviews of Jacob’s Room were mixed (most complained of a lack of convincing characters), but a number of critics, including WL Courtney and WJ Turner, approvingly remarked on its “impressionist” technique, its jazz-inflected “staccato rhythms” and its “flashes of lightning” . There is beauty and satire in this novel, with its vivid invocation of urban life and painterly descriptions of the natural world: “the whole floor of the waves was blue and white, rippling and crisp, though now and again a broad purple mark like a brise; or there floated an entire emerald tinged with yellow”. But the writing is broken: Woolf insisted that gaps of varying size (one line, two lines, three lines – a proofreader’s nightmare) intrude constantly on the published pages of the novel. Reading Jacob’s Room Against a backdrop of war – ruined cities, devastated lives, economic and political breakdown – brings out its bleakness, its rendering of a world full of multiple losses. We witness once again a Europe returned to violence, and lies, and hypocrisy. I hope I can forget this most recent reading of Jacob’s Room as easily as I have forgotten my first encounter with it, when I was a younger, brighter, more hopeful person. Now it seems to speak only of absence and death, of the war that was supposed to “end all wars”, but instead spawned more, and more, and more.
Suzanne Raitt is the Vice Dean for Arts, Humanities and Interdisciplinary Studies and the Chancellor Professor of English at William and Mary, Virginia
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