All the Lives and Virginia Woolf

Well I do know you, don’t I? Otherwise, why did you jump off the shelf in the Kingston public library in Canberra, Australia, into my hands? I took a quick look at the end flap on the front cover of the book All the Lives We Ever Lived. Then I put it on the automatic checkout machine and out the door the book went with me.

The tagline to the title of the book “Seeking solace in Virginia Woolf” did not speak to me. I read Virginia Woolf when I was young and determined to be an intellectual who had read all of the “important” books.  I vaguely remember reading A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf  which resonated with me because of its assertion of women’s equality. However, I don’t remember becoming attached to either the work or life of Virginia Woolf.

But this book, All the Lives We Ever Lived, sought me out. I knew nothing about it or about the writer. I saw it by chance sitting on the library shelf and brought it home. I started reading. And I kept on reading every day until I finished it. I felt a bit dissatisfied with the ending. I was hoping that the book never ended so I could continue our one-sided conversation with me listening while the author, Katharine Smyth kept talking. As a reader/listener I was never bored, nor did I skip paragraphs or pages. I read/listened diligently.

Throughout the book, Virginia Woolf was present but not dominant. She added an extra dimension to the memoir Katharine Smyth wrote about her life, her father, her family and her attraction to Woolf’s book, To The Lighthouse.

Her relationship to her father was very unlike mine to my father. She was close to her father and shared many activities, including sailing, with him. My father was distant and controlling.  I never really knew him, although I should have.

I am researching and writing a novel Tracking the Human: nobody’s a long time based on events in his life. All the Lives We Ever Lived offers no guidance to the work I am trying to write. Nor should it. For my family, the title might be All the Lives We Never Lived.

Katharine Smyth glories in the written word and the production of art. “Art may not give us the unequivocal truths that we desire from our world, but it can provide a stay against its chaos and confusion.” p. 186.

She speaks to me in my ongoing need to read, read, read, to find myself and to be myself, whoever that may be. “And is not the sight of ourselves laid bare on the page – endlessly complex, and yet not singular at all – one of reading’s humblest, most delightful rewards?” p. 243.

Thank you, Katharine. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation.


Author: Pamela Collett

I was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. I have a B.A. from Stanford University and a M.Sc. from Cornell University. I have lived and worked in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, California as well as in Washington, DC. Outside the United States, I lived and worked in Venezuela, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Uganda, Somalia and Kenya. I currently live in Canberra, Australia. I edited three books: Bold Plum: with the Guerillas in China's War against Japan by Hsiao Li Lindsay; Peace and Milk: Scenes of Northern Somalia by James Lindsay and Fatima Jibrell; and Solo vale si piensas rápido by Mehedy Lopez, a book of poetry in Spanish. In 2016, I published a book of my poetry and drawings, Silence Spoken. I have taught communication skills, English as a second language, and English for journalists (in Beijing, China) at university and secondary school levels. I was a features writer for the Daily Journal, (Caracas, Venezuela), and The Chronicle of Higher Education. I am a member of the ACT (Australian Capital Territory) Writers Centre, active in a writers’ group and a contributor to poetry readings, That Poetry Thing, in Canberra, Australia.

One thought on “All the Lives and Virginia Woolf”

  1. Thank you for introducing me to such an interesting approach to a book. Love the context that Katherine put into motion here!

    And I suspect the innocent comment of “all the lives we never lived” will somehow inform your writing and bring something to life inside of it.


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