Sarah Arnold follows in the footsteps of the incredible writer that has inspired her artistically, academically, and personally
By Sarah Arnold
My artist inspiration is a series that shares stories of how artists from the past to present day have inspired different people in different ways.
Recently, I bought a typewriter. Don’t get me wrong, I am writing this piece on a laptop, but for the sake of setting the mood, imagine me at the typewriter: the clacking sound when I hammer letters on the paper makes my flat mate shriek in her room. My typewriter is loud, it is unapologetic, it has a unique voice.
I am a modernist gal, I read modernist literature. My copy of Mrs Dalloway is colour-coded to the extent where I ran out of coloured highlighters. However, my own experience of reading Virginia Woolf has not only shown me how, as individuals, we are shaped by the art we consume, but it has helped me find my voice.
When I first travelled to London, I was fifteen, shy, and didn’t quite know what to make of the fact that I was accepted to take part in a summer school on creative writing. It was my first time abroad all by myself and the thought of the Big Smoke seemed intimidating to a school girl from a small German town. But there was something about the streets of Bloomsbury – it’s quiet parks, brick houses, urban modernity, and ancient history – that never quite let go of me. It was also the first time I had read Woolf; in a workshop on London writing.
Today, I often trace the paths from Mrs Dalloway through the city when I’m there, envisioning what all of this must have been like a hundred years ago. I am fascinated by the developments that characterised the turn from the 19th to the 20th century: the modern human condition, the modern metropolis, technology, war, authorities, colonialism, death – all of this is just as relevant today.
“My own experience of reading Virginia Woolf has not only shown me how, as individuals, we are shaped by the art we consume, but it has helped me find my voice.“
In her essay Modern Fiction, Woolf explains how modern life is “an incessant shower of innumerable atoms,” and calls for new literary forms to articulate the modern human condition. I believe that in our digital age, we are also faced with “showers of atoms” – be it news flashes, emails, text messages on our phones, or traffic noise.
Through her stream-of-consciousness wanderings through the pulsating city of London, Woolf made me discover a role model and a home all at once. I have known for so long that I wanted to be a writer in London like Woolf, but I come from a practical family, and though it was never discouraged, I had no way of knowing how to find my way back to this city from Germany. So I started studying English and Comparative Literature at 18, moved out, and became financially independent.
Once I had read Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, a book that traces the relationships between women and fiction and exposes the anonymity of female voices in history, I learnt that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Both were provided by my work as a tutor, a waitress, a barmaid, a cloakroom assistant, and where I still work as a research assistant at a university. Don’t get me wrong: it hurts every month to see 500 quid go from my bank account right into my landlady’s and the flat is way too expensive – we’re only students! But all the drinks I’ve served are worth it for the liberty of having my own place and being able to write.
Another thing Woolf writes about in A Room Of One’s Own is that, for decades, women wrote poems without signing them and published anonymously or under pseudonyms. She asks the readers to call her narrating self “Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any other name [they] please– it is not a matter of any importance,” mirroring how women’s voices were not of much importance at the time.
By those specific names, Woolf echoes an old Scottish ballad that Francis James Child collected under the title Mary Hamilton (Child 173). Because ballads come from oral tradition and are subject to constant variation (such as different titles), they are usually referred to by their number in the collection – and the ‘Child’s collection is most commonly referred to – which lists the several versions and their origin. This specific ballad deals with the affair, unwanted pregnancy, and subsequent execution of one of Mary Queen of Scot’s maids. Woolf’s reference to it does not only mirror her situation as a woman pitted against authorities, it also underlines the ongoing anonymity of female lives. It is only recently that research tries to record the lives of the women behind such traditions as that of balladry. Woolf makes a case for the relevance of female voices in history, and inspires us, as women, to raise our voices to counter decades of silence.
“Woolf has inspired me in many ways to write and research about women’s lives, record their stories, and tell my own.“
I have learnt all of this in my seminars at university and through my own personal reading, and I have come to further appreciate not only the themes in Woolf’s writing and their relevance for society today, but her role in the history of literature. Woolf has inspired me in many ways to write and research about women’s lives, record their stories, and tell my own. Now I am a writer, a poet, a student, an essayist, an employee, and a feminist. I am also a woman, who has found her own voice, because of Virginia Woolf, and because of all the women whose untold stories have paved the way.
Although it seems too artistically crafted to be true, bear with me: while I was writing this feature, I was impatiently awaiting a decision on my MA application. While working on the finishing touches, I received an email that I was accepted at King’s College London, where Virginia Woolf used to study at the heart of a vibrant city that I have already declared my future home at 15. At the end of A Room of One’s Own, Woolf asks us to “draw [our] life from the lives of the unknown who were [our] forerunners.” She is such a forerunner for me. I have found my voice, and I will continue to use it thanks to Virginia Woolf and the generations of women before me.