Every time I get discouraged by writing, I engage in a bit of schadenfreude, and soothe myself with the frustrations of others. “I write two pages of arrant nonsense after straining … Then I trust to some inspiration on re-reading.” That’s Virginia Woolf while writing The Waves, but I’m pretty sure I said the same thing, more or less, while writing this post.
This constant self-effacement is a theme that runs through Woolf’s letters. Her talents didn’t really lie in the library, she would tell you. They were in the kitchen. “I have only one passion in life — cooking,” Woolf wrote to her friend (and occasional lover) Vita Sackville-West. “I have just bought a superb oil stove. I can cook anything … I assure you it is better than writing these more than idiotic books.”
Where Woolf hesitated to praise her own writing, she wasn’t nearly so shy about her talent for baking. “Cooked lunch today and made a loaf of really expert bread,” she wrote. Bread was her specialty, particularly a traditionally British double-decker creation: the snowmanesque cottage loaf. Her dedication to the kitchen was unusual for a woman of the upper-middle class. She did, however, draw the line at doing the dishes (“How servants preserve either sanity or sobriety if that is 9/10ths of their lives … God knows”).
In Recollections of Virginia Woolf, Louie Mayer, the Woolfs’ cook, marvels at Virginia’s calm expertise. “She showed me how to make the dough with the right quantities of yeast and flour, and then how to knead it. She returned three or four times during the morning to knead it again. Finally, she made the dough into the shape of a cottage loaf and baked it at just the right temperature.”
It’s Woolf’s birthday today; she would have been 131, although she didn’t make it even half that far, her mental illness wearing her away. But from Woolf’s letters, the time she spends cooking seems to be its own rest cure, clearing her head of everything else but the dough. “My bread bakes well,” she writes in her diary, and it resounds like a soothing mantra. If all else fails, I tell myself, my bread bakes well. My bread bakes well.
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