The boy who decried Woolf

From Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf:

Then, while a seedy-looking nondescript man carrying a leather bag stood on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and hesitated, for within was what balm, how great a welcome, how many tombs with banners waving over them, tokens of victories not over armies, but over, he thought, that plaguy spirit of truth seeking which leaves me at present without a situation, and more than that, the cathedral offers company, he thought, invites you to membership of a society; great men belong to it; martyrs have died for it; why not enter in, he thought, put this leather bag stuffed with pamphlets before an altar, a cross, the symbol of something which has soared beyond seeking and questing and knocking of words together and has become all spirit, disembodied, ghostly—why not enter in? he thought and while he hesitated out flew the aeroplane over Ludgate Circus.

Far be it from me to find fault with the late, great Virginia Woolf—the woman whose writing inspired my own mini-masterpiece, The Aftermath—but read those words again very carefully:

Then, while a seedy-looking nondescript man carrying a leather bag stood on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and hesitated, for within was what balm, how great a welcome, how many tombs with banners waving over them, tokens of victories not over armies, but over, he thought, that plaguy spirit of truth seeking which leaves me at present without a situation, and more than that, the cathedral offers company, he thought, invites you to membership of a society; great men belong to it; martyrs have died for it; why not enter in, he thought, put this leather bag stuffed with pamphlets before an altar, a cross, the symbol of something which has soared beyond seeking and questing and knocking of words together and has become all spirit, disembodied, ghostly—why not enter in? he thought and while he hesitated out flew the aeroplane over Ludgate Circus.

Do you see Mrs Woolf's utter howler, there? Her schoolgirl error, so to speak? The sort of mistake that, when realised, would almost compel any writer worth their salt to fill their pockets with stones and take a long walk into the nearest convenient river?

What do you mean, ‘No’?! IT'S STARING YOU IN THE FACE!

How can a ‘seedy-looking’ man possibly be ‘nondescript’? Nondescript means not distinctive enough to be described. But she's just described him: she said he was ‘seedy-looking’! Anyone who can be described as ‘seedy-looking’—or, indeed, as anything else—is, ipso facto, most definitely descript.

If I might make so bold, I think what Mrs Woolf meant to write was something along the lines of:

Then, while a seedy-looking, otherwise nondescript man carrying a leather bag stood on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and hesitated, for within was what balm, how great a welcome, how many tombs with banners waving over them, tokens of victories not over armies, but over, he thought, that plaguy spirit of truth seeking which leaves me at present without a situation, and more than that, the cathedral offers company, he thought, invites you to membership of a society; great men belong to it; martyrs have died for it; why not enter in, he thought, put this leather bag stuffed with pamphlets before an altar, a cross, the symbol of something which has soared beyond seeking and questing and knocking of words together and has become all spirit, disembodied, ghostly—why not enter in? he thought and while he hesitated out flew the aeroplane over Ludgate Circus.

(My emphasis added.)

Sloppy, Ginny! Sloppy!

 

2 thoughts on “The boy who decried Woolf

  1. And while she's at it, could she maybe put in a couple of full stops?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *