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Virginia Woof and Graham Swift: Similarities Between Their Lives
essay [ ]

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by [anna_irina ]

2010-10-07  |     | 

Two writers, separated by time, yet who have so many things in common. Not only in their writings, but also in their own private lives.
What brings them close, as Sabina Draga notices, is that Graham Swift rewrites the stream of consciousness used by Virginia Woolf among others (James Joyce). Poetic language is another common feature with them. Several common aspects in their novels, such as the one-day duration of novels (for Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, and for Swift, The Light of Day or The Sweetshop Owner), aspects related to problematic relationships among families, a sad atmosphere, war, poetic reflections on higher issues or even on everyday life aspects, the narrative which is not chronological, which interweaves past and present.
Moreover, when it comes to the image of London, it appears both in most of Woolf’s writings and in Swift’s. Yet, this is not all.
“London itself perpetually attracts, stimulates, gives me a play & a story & a poem, without any trouble, save that of moving my legs through the streets... To walk alone in London is the greatest rest." (Virginia Woolf)
“London is different from all the other cities I know in its ability to create beauty. You can take a corner and suddenly you may experience a revelation, an unexpected moment of light, of architectonic or human beauty.” (Graham Swift)
To themselves, London holds a high significance. Both were born in London, Woolf in 1882 and Swift in 1949 (in south London, where he still lives). Swift calls himself an “authentic Londoner”. Just like his characters, he considers himself dependent on the “same terrain as the one my characters step on”. "There is a certain inescapable attachment," he says. "If you are born somewhere and circumstances don't take you away from it, then you grow up and remain within it. Of course there are times when I hate London, but equally there are times when I can walk round a corner and I really feel that this is my place."
A very close connection to London is also felt by Virginia Woolf. She is presented in The Hours when she is writing her novel Mrs Dalloway in 1923 as desperately wanting to return to the life of London, "the violent jolt of the capital." In her diary, she writes: “I decided to go to London, for the sake of hearing the Strand roar, which I think one does want, after a day or two of Richmond. Somehow, one can't take Richmond seriously. One has always come here for an outing, I suppose; & that is part of its charm, but one wants serious life sometime.” Similar to: "I love walking in London," said Mrs. Dalloway. "Really it's better than walking in the country."
Woolf and Swift also have in common their “job” as whole-time writers. Woolf was educated at home, she had a family wealth which allowed her to practice her job as a writer. She started being interested in writing since childhood. Swift started writing while he was a student: “I was a student and then I knocked around a bit and then I knuckled down to the job of writing and eventually got published and here I am at novel number whatever it is.” He abandoned his PhD thesis, on "The role of the city in 19th-century English literature". “That was really when I was teaching myself to write." It was then that he decided to become a full-time, professional writer.
During the beginning of the Second World War, more precisely, during the Blitz, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s house in London was destroyed. Swift had a less direct experience with war (the Second World War, by which he is fascinated): "Growing up in the 1950s, there was all the physical evidence of war," Swift recalls. "Whenever we went away on holiday we would pack stuff in five or six very sturdy brown canvas bags called parachute bags. I didn't realise what it meant. But my father would have put a parachute in this bag and it might have saved his life. So the second world war, which I never went through, has been my great history lesson."
Something else which can only draw attention is a similarity between the depiction of marriage as bargain by Swift in The Sweetshop Owner and the marriage of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Naturally, what Woolf’s marriage was like is still a matter of debate (there are various opinions and very different versions of the ‚story’, different accounts), yet one can hardly help noticing the similarities between Irene and Virginia: the mental breakdown of Irene due to a physical abuse (she is violated by a suitor), then her illness throughout the marriage (which turns to physical illness – asthma –), her way of controlling things, her lack of emotional attachment to her husband.
Swift never mentioned anything, at least not until now, about wishing to bring something similar to Woolf’s novels in his writings. He never mentioned anything about him being fascinated by her works either. Whether these similarities are purely coincidental or not, one can still only be fascinated by them.

Draga, Maria-Sabina. «Postfata. Graham Swift: Postmodernism si naratiuni alternative». Ultima comada de G. Swift. Bucuresti: Ed. Univers, 1999.
Swift, Graham. Last Orders. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
Swift, Graham. The Light of Day. England: Penguin Books, 2004.
Woolf, Virginia. A Writer’s Diary: Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Leonard Woolf. London: The Hogarth Press, 1965.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

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