The recent post on semicolons got me thinking about someone who is notorious for her use of the semicolon. Virginia Woolf. Yes, I know she’s a literary icon, but I’ve always had a problem with her punctuation. And, yes, I know I’m not the first one to point this out, but humor me. When you’re as famous as she was, a little criticism is to be expected…

Regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most influential modernist literary figures, Woolf wrote essays, short stories and a number of acclaimed novels, such as 1925’s Mrs. Dalloway. An example of free indirect discourse storytelling, this book details a single day in the life of society-minded Clarissa Dalloway as she travels around interwar London on a beautiful spring morning, making preparations for a party she is to host that evening. Reminiscing about her girlhood and trying to rationalize her decision to marry the dependable Richard Dalloway, instead of the mysterious and difficult Peter Walsh, she crosses paths with a cast of characters that allows the author to introduce and explore themes of mental illness, homosexuality, feminism and existentialism. Closely tracking the fleeting thoughts of relevant characters, the narration goes back and forth in time and travels in and out of individual minds, allowing Woolf to blur the line between direct and indirect speech and, in the opinion of many, revolutionize the novel as an art form in the process. One of those who believe Woolf revolutionized the novel is author Michael Cunningham, whose book The Hours drew its inspiration from Mrs. Dalloway. Speaking of Woolf’s book he says: “The novel as an art form has not been the same since” and “[i]t contains some of the most beautiful, complex, incisive, and idiosyncratic sentences ever written in English…” In my opinion, examination of Woolf’s prose reveals that much of the “idiosyncratic” nature of her sentences can be traced to an obsessive and excessive use of the semicolon, a bit of punctuation the author wields with wild abandon and total disregard for all rules of grammar in Mrs. Dalloway.

According to my old high school copy of The Borzoi Handbook for Writers, the semicolon is generally used to “join statements that are closely related in meaning” or to “indicate a connection between sentences with interior punctuation” or specifically “show where items end in a series” containing commas. “She used to used to be terribly afraid of flying; even going to the airport was an ordeal” would be an example of the former, and “His favorite authors were Carson McCullers, a native of Georgia; Truman Capote, who was born in New Orleans; and E. M. Forster, who belonged to the Bloomsbury Group” would be an instance where the latter is used. These guidelines regarding the semicolon are generally true for both American and British English, as is borne out by grammarians such as Richard Nordquist, who also advises that the usage of punctuation devices such as the dash, colon and semicolon can be quite effective when used “sparingly.” Apparently, Virginia Woolf never got that memo.         

That’s not to say that the renowned author doesn’t ever use semicolons according to these rules in Mrs. Dalloway because in the opening lines of the novel she demonstrates total mastery of semicolon-usage when she writes “The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming.” However, in the next paragraph already, that is, still on the opening page of the novel, the reader is exposed to an idiosyncratic, mind-boggling use of the semicolon that will characterize the prose on the remaining 193 pages of the book:

How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about the happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?” – was that it? – “I prefer men to cauliflowers” – was that it?

Examining this single sentence on the opening page of the book, it is easy to see how writers such as Michael Cunningham would consider Woolf’s prose “idiosyncratic” to say the least. In addition to the inclusion of two quotes and the use of parentheses and dashes, Woolf uses the semicolon five times to produce a passage that critics such as the English poet Fiona Pitt-Kethley might refer to as “rambling” at moments. It appears that, only in the vaguest sense of the word, can Woolf be said to use the semicolon to clarify interior punctuation in clauses or join statements sharing an intimacy in meaning; studying this airy bit of musing with the eye of a teacher of English grammar, it is difficult to justify Woolf’s abuse of the humble (and obviously misunderstood) semicolon. Don’t get me wrong, there is a certain beauty to Woolf’s prose, a wonderfully gossamer and fanciful tone that creates a distinct literary dreamscape, but I find her use of the semicolon so idiosyncratic as to impede rather than enhance the flow of her narrative. I know many don’t see it that way, but you have to wonder how the first draft of the Mrs. Dalloway manuscript would stand up to the scrutinizing eyes of members in your average writing workshop today.

However, (sorry, I am going to get snarky here) when you and your husband own your very own publishing company in early 20th– century England, as did Virginia Woolf and her husband, the need for peer review is superfluous and you can publish whatever you like, including disturbingly abundant instances of semicolon use that have since been validated by undeniable fame and the recognition as “genius” by so many. If genius is what her prose is, then the following beginning of a single sentence with its dozen semicolons found half-way through the novel must be absolutely brilliant:

Her ladyship waited with the rugs about her knees an hour or more, leaning back, thinking sometimes of the patient, sometimes, excusably, of the wall of gold, mounting minute by minute while she waited; the wall of gold that was mounting between them and all the shifts and anxieties (she had borne them bravely; they had had their struggles) until she felt wedged on a calm ocean, where only spice winds blow; respected, admired, envied, with scarcely anything left to wish for, though she regretted her stoutness; large dinner-parties every Thursday night to the profession; an occasional bazaar to be opened; Royalty greeted; too little time, alas, with her husband, whose work grew and grew; a boy doing well at Eton; she would have liked a daughter too; interests she had, however, in plenty; child welfare; the  after-care…

Such a sentence could indeed be referred to as “idiosyncratic” and in the case of the many sentences found in Mrs. Dalloway, they are the rule rather than the exception. In fact, it’s hard to find a single page in the novel that doesn’t have at least one cluster of semicolons on it. (OMG – Will the snark never end?)

According to the British writer on grammar, Lynne Truss, many non-writers avoid the colon and semicolon for various reasons, including for being “old-fashioned” and “mysteriously connected to pausing” not to mention being “dangerously addictive (vide Virginia Woolf)” and  having “difference[s] between them … too negligible to be grasped by the brain of man.” Many writers avoid the semicolon as well, however, Virginia Woolf was not one of them; perhaps she needs to be taken to task for such promiscuous use of a perfectly viable form of punctuation, as admirable as many find her storytelling to be.

For many, such as Yours Truly, a true and faithful Grammar Grump, the reviewer only referred to as “Sean” on the online article “Bad Reviews of Good Books” sums it up best when he, in equal parts exasperation and tongue-in-cheek humor, rants: “Has any author ever used as many semi-colons as Woolf does in this book? It’s a question that plagued me as I slogged through her tedious dreck of a novel; I might have asked other questions; questions like: does she even know what a semi-colon is supposed to do? Does she? Know? What a semi-colon is supposed to do? Mostly she treats them like commas.”

Oh, Sean…I feel your pain. Did Virginia Woolf really know what a semicolon was meant to be used for – or was she maybe just a visionary, someone way ahead of her time? I really want to fall in love with her novels like so many others have, but until I can get over the semicolon thing, I don’t see it happening. But, mark my word, I will keep on trying. Robin Lippincott, author of Mr. Dalloway, In the Meantime and Our Acadia suggested once that I go back and try reading some of her earlier novels, in which she used a more traditional approach to punctuation. I’ve got The Voyage Out in the to-be-read stack next to my bed and will keep you posted when I get around to it.