Woolf’s Waves.

I’ve finished Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (see this post); it seems to be considered a classic (“In a 2015 poll conducted by BBC, The Waves was voted the 16th greatest British novel ever written”), but it didn’t do much for me — I appreciated the formal experimentation, but the language felt musty and “poetic” in the Victorian sense, the characters were too Bloomsburyishly twee to care much about, and Woolf’s snobbery kept annoying me, all those condescending remarks about boot-boys and shopkeepers. I did notice, though, that the color purple came up even more frequently than it did in To the Lighthouse (see this post), and since the novel is conveniently online, I thought I’d catalog its appearances as an aid to comparison:

‘I see a slab of pale yellow,’ said Susan, ‘spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.’
The air no longer rolls its long, unhappy, purple waves over us.
Now they twist their copy-books, and, looking sideways at Miss Hudson, count the purple buttons on her bodice.
This is our world, lit with crescents and stars of light; and great petals half transparent block the openings like purple windows.
‘The purple light,’ said Rhoda, ‘in Miss Lambert’s ring passes to and fro across the black stain on the white page of the Prayer Book.
When I read, a purple rim runs round the black edge of the textbook.
She lets her tasselled silken cloak slip down, and only her purple ring still glows, her vinous, her amethystine ring.
What vast forces of good and evil have brought me here? he asks, and sees with sorrow that his chair has worn a little hole in the pile of the purple carpet.
Or perhaps they saw the splendour of the flowers making a light of flowing purple over the beds, through which dark tunnels of purple shade were driven between the stalks.
I feel through the grass for the white-domed mushroom; and break its stalk and pick the purple orchid that grows beside it and lay the orchid by the mushroom with the earth at its root, and so home to make the kettle boil for my father among the just reddened roses on the tea-table.
Tables and chairs rose to the surface as if they had been sunk under water and rose, filmed with red, orange, purple like the bloom on the skin of ripe fruit.
On the wall of that shop is fixed a small crane, and for what reason, I ask, was that crane fixed there? and invent a purple lady swelling, circumambient, hauled from a barouche landau by a perspiring husband sometime in the sixties.
A single flower as we sat here waiting, but now a seven-sided flower, many-petalled, red, puce, purple-shaded, stiff with silver-tinted leaves–a whole flower to which every eye brings its own contribution.
But on the other hand, where you are various and dimple a million times to the ideas and laughter of others, I shall be sullen, storm-tinted and all one purple.
Instinctively my palate now requires and anticipates sweetness and lightness, something sugared and evanescent; and cool wine, fitting glove-like over those finer nerves that seem to tremble from the roof of my mouth and make it spread (as I drink) into a domed cavern, green with vine leaves, musk-scented, purple with grapes.
We who are conspirators, withdrawn together to lean over some cold urn, note how the purple flame flows downwards.
It beat on the orchard wall, and every pit and grain of the brick was silver pointed, purple, fiery as if soft to touch, as if touched it must melt into hot-baked grains of dust.
Gilt and purpled they perched in the garden where cones of laburnum and purple shook down gold and lilac, for now at midday the garden was all blossom and profusion and even the tunnels under the plants were green and purple and tawny as the sun beat through the red petal, or the broad yellow petal, or was barred by some thickly furred green stalk.
Now the shadow has fallen and the purple light slants downwards.
I love punctually at ten to come into my room; I love the purple glow of the dark mahogany; I love the table and its sharp edge; and the smooth-running drawers.
But I never rise at dawn and see the purple drops in the cabbage leaves; the red drops in the roses.
I throw my mind out in the air as a man throws seeds in great fan-flights, falling through the purple sunset, falling on the pressed and shining ploughland which is bare.
So imperfect are my senses that they never blot out with one purple the serious charge that my reason adds and adds against us, even as we sit here.
I luxuriate in gold and purple vestments.
His shirt front, there in the corner, has been white; then purple; smoke and flame have wrapped us about […]
A purple slide is slipped over the day.
Bees boomed down the purple tunnels of flowers; bees embedded themselves on the golden shields of sunflowers.

Oh, and I did learn an antiquated slang term, tweeny ‘betweenmaid’ (“a maidservant whose work supplements that of cook and housemaid”).

I think I’m going to move on to Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (a welcome birthday present two years ago); if anybody is wondering what my wife and I are reading at night these days, it’s Anita Brookner — we began with her first novel, A Start in Life (1981), and have now moved on to her second, Look at Me. The tales are slow and domestic, but the telling is terrific.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    When you exclude “violets” as a reference to flowers, you still have a few purple-adjacent color references:

    “I see the violet-sashed priests and the picturesque nursemaids; I notice externals only.”

    “In these dilemmas the devout consult those violet-sashed and sensual-looking gentry who are trooping past me.”

    “There are gauzes and silks illumined in glass cases and underclothes trimmed with a million close stitches of fine embroidery. Crimson, green, violet, they are dyed all colours.”

    “How satisfactory, the atmosphere of common sense and tobacco; old women clambering into the third-class carriage with their baskets; the sucking at pipes; the good-nights and see you tomorrows of friends parting at wayside stations, and then the lights of London–not the flaring ecstasy of youth, not that tattered violet banner, but still the lights of London all the same; hard, electric lights, high up in offices; street lamps laced along dry pavements; flares roaring above street markets.”

    ETA: No hits for “indigo,” “lavender,” or “mauve.” Any other near-synonyms for purple/violet?

  2. My aunt trained as a home economics teacher in Dublin c. 1948. When she reminisced wryly on the curriculum’s impracticality and outdatedness, mention was made of “the duties of the tweeny”.

  3. JWB:

    There’s lilac, a very light purple or violet whose sole occurrence is shown above by Hat. And crimson – a purple-tinged red, shown once above – occurs six times in the piece as opposed to just once for scarlet which leans orangeward.

    Blueblood. Heh. Blood or some compound of it occurs twelve times, rather luridly.

  4. ” ‘I see what is before me,’ said Jinny. ‘This scarf, these wine-coloured spots.’ ” Wine occurs many times elsewhere, once as a colour of leaves. Burgundy, claret, and port(wine) are absent, as are maroon, fuchsia, and magenta.

    Bruising or bruises (purplish and blood-based) occur three times. Here for example: “Now there was only the liquid shadow of the cloud, the buffeting of the rain, a single darting spear of sunshine, or the sudden bruise of the rainstorm.”

  5. These people drink a lot of wine.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Rightly or wrongly I think of “crimson” as a sort of red rather than a sort of purple or even a true edge case, but Noetica did make me think to check “maroon,” which is maybe more a true edge case (others may disagree …). No hits.

    “Claret” has apparently been historically used by posh Brits as a color term as well as a beverage term, but again no hits.

  7. A wine-dark sea of purple prose…

  8. The name Rhoda itself is connected with Greek ῥόδον (“a rose”), and roses are everywhere in this piece. But the Greek word connotes purple more than a pink rosy hue. Consider rhodopsin (= “visual purple” in retinal cells) and rhodocyte (alternative for erythrocyte: red blood cell).

  9. Carnations, including red ones, occur five times.

  10. used by posh Brits

    claret is common in the official colour schemes of British soccer teams, especially claret-and-blue as for Aston Villa, West Ham, Burnley, and Scunthorpe, none of which are based in posh areas.

    Fiorentina OTOH are I Viola.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    Ah well, perhaps the lack of any Scunthorpe United supporters among Woolf’s characters explains the lack of the lexeme in her text.

  12. Stu Clayton says

    @Y: A wine-dark sea of purple prose…

    Not Waving but drowning.

  13. Oddly connecting with the color scheme of The Waves, a few sentences into the first chapter of Lanark we get: “A crimson carpet covered the floor, the chairs were upholstered in scarlet, the low ceiling was patterned with whorled pink plaster, but dim green wall lights turned these colours into varieties of brown and made the skins of the customers look greyish and dead.”

  14. Amethyst[ine], vinous, and a talismanic ring brought together:

    ‘The purple light,’ said Rhoda, ‘in Miss Lambert’s ring passes to and fro across the black stain on the white page of the Prayer Book. It is a vinous, it is an amorous light.’

    ‘She lets her tasselled silken cloak slip down, and only her purple ring still glows, her vinous, her amethystine ring.’

    ‘And Miss Lambert, Miss Cutting and Miss Bard,’ said Jinny, ‘monumental ladies, white-ruffed, stone-coloured, enigmatic, with amethyst rings moving like virginal tapers, dim glow-worms over the pages of French, geography and arithmetic, presided; and there were maps, green-baize boards, and rows of shoes on a shelf.’

    Hatters will recall that amethyst is by etymology and age-old tradition a prophylactic against the effects of wine. Heh. Vinous (OED: “With names of colours: Like that of (red) wine; having a wine-coloured tinge”) goes concinnously with amorous via Venus.


    ‘They, too, have passed under the bridge through “the fountains of the pendant trees”, through its fine strokes of yellow and plum colour.’

    [The sun] beat on the orchard wall, and every pit and grain of the brick was silver pointed, purple, fiery as if soft to touch, as if touched it must melt into hot-baked grains of dust. The currants hung against the wall in ripples and cascades of polished red; plums swelled out their leaves, and all the blades of the grass were run together in one fluent green blaze.

    ‘I have netted over strawberry beds and lettuce beds, and stitched the pears and the plums into white bags to keep them safe from the wasps.’

    Currants, more or less purple, make nine appearances other than that one. We get strawberries twice and gooseberry bushes once, but they’re less relevant. Other “berries” that are more germane (and elsewhere are two brambles, to trammel it all together):

    ‘We hang mistletoe over the clock at Christmas, weigh our blackberries and mushrooms, count out jam-pots, and stand year by year to be measured against the shutter in the drawing-room window.’

    ‘– that is how the biographer continues, and if one wears trousers and hitches them up with braces, one has to say that, though it is tempting now and then to go blackberrying; tempting to play ducks and drakes with all these phrases. But one has to say that.’

    All we’re really missing are wo[o]lfberries.

  15. those boot-boys had it good..

    ‘The boot-boy made love to the scullery-maid in the kitchen garden,’ said Susan, ‘among the blown-out washing.’
    The growl of the boot-boy making love to the tweeny among the gooseberry bushes

    I haven’t read the Waves since I was a boy and it didn’t wear well, now I notice the affectation and snobbery too much. To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway are still profoundly moving though..

  16. “A crimson carpet covered the floor, the chairs were upholstered in scarlet, the low ceiling was patterned with whorled pink plaster, …”

    Sounds like a ‘Tart’s boudoir’ as my mother wouldn’t say. But yes, there was a certain style of lurid coffee shops back in the day. I guess goes with the plush seats and flock wallpaper in the cinema?

  17. ‘I pour out cup after cup while the unopened flowers hold themselves erect on the table among the pots of jam, the loaves and the butter. We are silent.’

    Unopened flowers? Pots of purple jam? Well might we be silent.

    ‘Yes, I hold Gray’s Elegy in one hand; with the other I scoop out the bottom crumpet, that has absorbed all the butter and sticks to the bottom of the plate. […] I am filled with the delight of youth, with potency, with the sense of what is to come. Blundering, but fervid, I see myself buzzing round flowers, humming down scarlet cups, making blue funnels resound with my prodigious booming. How richly I shall enjoy my youth (you make me feel).’

  18. what my wife and I are reading at night these days, it’s Anita Brookner …

    I did read Hotel du Lac because it won the Booker. (Also because insisted-upon by my then wife.) And did start one other (the wife seemed to have the full set); but it seemed to be the same novel with differently-named people. I found the plots contrived and the characters cardboard. (sorry)

    I also tried Lewis Percy because the blurb claimed it was a departure “a remarkable leap of imaginative empathy in her portrayal of a man”. I found no man. Only her stock female protagonist, wearing trousers.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    Lanark is well worth reading. It’s a great example of whatever it is that it’s an example of.

  20. @Noetica: I would assume “unopened flowers hold themselves erect on the table” would be specifically roses (again). That they are erect presumably signifies they are cut, rather than living on a potted plant, and roses are by far the most prominent example of flowers that are sold (and placed in vases) while still unopened.

  21. PlasticPaddy says

    How about (purple) calla lilies as unopened flowers? For some reason they seem more erect to me than cut roses…

  22. FWIW, my own experience with The Waves is somewhat similar to LH’s. I’d read almost all of Woolf’s novels in college or grad school, but somehow never got around to The Waves, so there it sat, gathering dust, on my “to be read” shelf for decades. Every so often, I’d take it down, read about five pages, sigh, and put it away again, my eyes having glazed over. Finally, last year, I decided to “read” it on Audible. That did the trick. I think it’s the fact that the book hovers somewhere between poetry and prose that somehow made it more digestible in that format. However, at the end of the day, the novel seemed as ephemeral to me as a summer’s day. Formally interesting, but wonderfully forgettable.

    Lanark, on the other hand, survived my great library purge of 2016 in which I got rid of most of the books that I told myself “I’ll never read that again.”

  23. the color purple came up even more frequently than it did in To the Lighthouse

    Based on an entirely unscientific sampling of the first few pages, I’d say there’s an unusually high incidence of all colour words — as compared with Standard Average Novelese. Does ‘yelllow’ or ‘grey’ [**] (say) appear much in To the Lighthouse?

    [**] Yellow 49; Grey 45; Purple 30.

    In Mrs Dalloway Purple twice; Yellow 15;Grey 38. Or is that an effect of being set in Westminster?

    h/t VirginiaWoolfProject. They seem to not yet have got round To the Lighthouse.

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