By Ian Cornelius, Loyola University Chicago

Here I describe a 50-minute lesson and classroom exercise that uses Virginia Woolf’s corrections to proofs of To the Lighthouse. The aim of the lesson is to focus student attention on the details of wording in literary fiction; the lesson is sited in a core course that enrolls predominantly first-year students. Although I teach this course from a textbook (this provides a structured sequence of basic tools for literary reading), I go off-script twice during the semester, at the the conclusion of the units on prose fiction and poetry, respectively. Last year, at the conclusion of our fiction-unit, we read a few pages from Malory’s Morte Darthure in the original fifteenth-century English. This year, we read the first five segments of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in the Harcourt classics edition (through page 19 in that edition).

We spend two days with this material. On the first day, we approach Woolf’s novel using the interpretative tools we have acquired in previous weeks; we also draw comparisons with the short fiction we have read. Towards the end of the first class, I introduce Woolf Online, walk the students through that site, and explain their homework assignment: to read the same segment of text again, now in the digital images of Woolf’s corrected proofs. (One needs to explain what proofs are; this can be done simply.) 

In the next session, we dive directly into the text. The students may not have profited from their solitary explorations of Woolf Online, but they retain their photocopies of the Harcourt edition. I project p. 31 of the proofs and direct students to the corresponding page in the Harcourt text. I remind the students where the passage falls in the narrative action, and who the characters are. We then begin reading aloud, slowly, from the Harcourt text. At the end of the first paragraph, we turn our attention to the proofs.

Students observe that the text before them—the one we have just been reading—accurately reflects the changes entered by Woolf in the proofs: it reads “hearing something,” not “hearing a something”; likewise, it reads “very careful,” not “very very careful.” I now instruct students to re-enter, in their photocopies, that indefinite article “a” and that second “very.” When they have done this, we move to the second paragraph, where Woolf made more changes. After reading the paragraph aloud in the Harcourt edition, we take the changes one-by-one, annotating our photocopies to bring them into line with the uncorrected state of Woolf’s proofs. The corrections are especially heavy in the last sentences of the paragraph. Un-doing them requires some care. We take the time that the task requires. 

This done, I give students a 3-minute writing assignment: select one change and write about its effect. Why might Woolf have made the change she did? How does the change affect the style or meaning of the passage? At the end of three minutes, I ask students to share their thoughts in pairs or groups of three. 

After several minutes of group-work, I interrupt conversation to announce a more specific task: I will shortly ask groups to walk us through the significance of one change on this page. The first group to volunteer focuses our attention on Woolf’s deletion of the repeated word “very.” Subsequent groups discuss Woolf’s substitution of “Suddenly” for “But in a moment”; and (this is the most substantial of the revisions on this page) the softening of Woolf’s initial description of Lily Briscoe. Students know how to read these changes, even if they do not know Lily Briscoe’s later significence in the novel. My role is limited mostly to underlining and restating their observations. 

With ten minutes remaining, we turn to Mrs. Ramsey’s exchange with Mr. Carmichael on pp. 21 and 22 of the proofs. I focus attention on Woolf’s addition at the top of p. 22: “No nothing, he murmered.” The word “nothing” appears already, earlier in this paragraph. Once students have located that earlier appearance of the word, we compare the sentences: “But no, he wanted nothing” and “No nothing, he murmered.” Whose voice do we hear in the first sentence? How, I ask, is the paragraph changed by the addition of the second sentence?

With more time, we would consider a similar repetition or echo, created by Woolf on p. 28 of the proofs (“the cyclamen and the violets”). We could also consider three points at which Woolf introduced the particle “so,” with continuative force, in this segment of the proofs (on pp. 1420, and—again—31).

We do not make any further engagements with authorial drafts in this introductory chourse. The details of wording will, however, remain a central focus throughout our study of literature – and especially in our next unit, on poetry.