‘Evening Over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car’ by Virginia Woolf

“Evening is kind to Sussex, for Sussex is no longer young, and she is grateful for the veil of evening as an elderly woman is glad when a shade is drawn over a lamp, and only the outline of her face remains. The outline of Sussex is still very fine. The cliffs stand out to sea, one behind another. All Eastbourne, all Bexhill, all St. Leonards, their parades and their lodging houses, their bead shops and their sweet shops and their placards and their invalids and chars–á-bancs, are all obliterated. What remains is what there was when William came over from France ten centuries ago: a line of cliffs running out to sea. Also the fields are redeemed. The freckle of red villas on the coast is washed over by a thin lucid lake of brown air, in which they and their redness are drowned. It was still too early for lamps; and too early for stars.”

Published in a posthumous essay collection, ‘Evening Over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car’ blurs the line between narrative essay and nonfiction short story. Though the gorgeous descriptions of Sussex are enough of a draw on their own, the real wonder here is Woolf’s evocation of technology’s ability to transform modes of perception and categories of aesthetic experience. In this case, the new technology explored is the automobile. Woolf’s “reflections” catalogue our anxious need to name and classify in the face of excessive beauty, though they also get at something very particular to my interests as an avid roadtripper, an aspect of driving that I’ve rarely seen discussed, but know all too well: the way the self proliferates, consciousness splits, while one drives on a lonely road. In the solitude of the car, we multiply. It’s not just that Woolf is the first writer I know of to describe this phenomenon, but that she remains its best chronicler in this brief, elegiac story/essay. 

First published in Woolf’s collection The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays, 1942, Hogarth Press, available now in numerous print editions, and also available online at Berfois

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