By Paul Duckworth, MLIS
“Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them; it is for you to seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping.”
—Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own”
I’m a bit embarrassed, but I need to admit up front that I’ve never read anything by Virginia Woolf. Why embarrassing, you ask? First, because I’m writing this article about her. Second, because I was an English major in college and she was a prominent literary figure in the Bloomsbury set—as well as an atheist, feminist, and pacifist. One would think she would be a legitimate part of an English major’s education. What happened that kept me from getting acquainted with her? Maybe I skipped a course on early twentieth century writers, or perhaps my college didn’t give sufficient attention to female authors. Now, let’s look at the fact that most colleges in that time period, the early 1970s, failed to highlight most women authors. No, let’s not—that’s an entirely different article. Whatever the cause of my lack of familiarity with Woolf, I regret that I did not come to know her in my education. Thankfully, I discovered her through my career as a public librarian.
Right now, you may have thoughts and questions bubbling up in your mind.
“When did she live?”
“She killed herself, right?”
“Bloomsbury set? That’s old-fashioned women’s underwear, isn’t it?”
“She lived in a lighthouse, didn’t she?”
“I heard she was anti-Semitic.”
“She was a lesbian.”
“Wait—don’t tell me. Wasn’t she in that film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
“Someone told me that her first name was not Virginia. Is that true?”
Or perhaps even: “Why is this guy writing an article about her?”
Whoa! Stop right there, please. All will be revealed. Be patient and I will correct some misconceptions and tell you, if not everything, then at least a lot of interesting things about Virginia Woolf.
First of all, as some of you are presuming, she is, in fact, deceased. She was born in London, England, in 1882, to a wealthy intellectual family. Woolf died in 1941 in the depths of the River Ouse, near her home in Sussex. Suffering from yet another lengthy period of debilitating depression, she had waded into the river, her pockets filled with heavy stones so that she would sink and drown. She had tried to take her own life, unsuccessfully, a few times earlier in her life, but this attempt proved successful.
An odd word to use in describing suicide: successful. Was her life successful, or was it her death that succeeded? What makes a life a success? By the standards of her time, she was wildly successful in that she married well, was exceedingly well-read and educated, and was a published author of fiction, nonfiction, essays, plays, and short stories. In addition, she was the central figure in a prominent artistic and literary group called The Bloomsbury Group. Money was always easily available to her, and so her life wasn’t burdened by the manual labor that most women endured in England in this time period.
Nothing stood in her way to work creatively regarding her thoughts, opinions, insights, writings, and associations with people. Nothing except her psyche. Her failing was not one of those usual ones of ability, time, or space, but rather was hidden in the inner reaches of her highly intelligent mind. She inherited a family curse—mental health issues that many of her relatives experienced. Hers was a fragile mind, prone to exhaustion and depression and shaken by the family dynamics of her early years, including being sexually molested by her two older half brothers, Gerald and George. All contributed significantly to what is clear today—she dealt with bipolar illness. She was vivid in her descriptions of how it manifested itself at times. One example is Woolf’s reflection on her mental state after completing her first novel The Voyage Out. “I married, and then my brains went up in a shower of fireworks. As an experience, madness is terrific… and not to be sniffed at, and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one, everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets as sanity does.”
Well, what about Woolf’s family? They were prominent and quite successful in turn-of-the-century London. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a writer, historian, and biographer. He was the son-in-law, through his first marriage, of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Julia Margaret Cameron, her cousin, was a well-known photographer. Her brother, Adrian Stephen, was a pioneering psychoanalyst and well-known pacifist. Her half-brother Gerald Duckworth (no relation to the author of this article) founded the publishing company Gerald Duckworth and Company. Her sister, Vanessa Bell, was a painter and interior designer. Chevalier Pierre Ambrose Antoine de L’Etang, her great-great grandfather, was from the French nobility and served first as a page to Marie Antoinette and later as stable master of the royal stables at Versailles. Her husband, Leonard Woolf, was a political theorist, author, and publisher. He founded Hogarth Press, which consisted of a small hand-operated printing press located in his and Virginia’s home, Hogarth House, at 34 Paradise Road in London.
And so, what about Virginia herself?
- No, she did not live in a lighthouse. She did, however, write the novel To the Lighthouse, published in 1927.
- The question of anti-Semitism is a bit complicated. Her husband, Leonard, was Jewish. It’s clear, though, in some of her writings, that she described Jewish people in critical and negative ways. Here’s a line from a letter she wrote in 1930: “How I hated marrying a Jew — how I hated their nasal voices and their oriental jewelry, and their noses and their wattles — what a snob I was: for they have immense vitality, and I think I like that quality best of all.”
- Whether or not she was a lesbian might be debatable, but it is a fact that she had a long physical and emotional relationship with Vita Sackville-West, which began after Virginia married Leonard Woolf. Leonard knew of their affair and approved of it, because he wanted his wife, who was often gloomy and depressed, to have some happiness.
- Her first name was Adeline, the name of her mother’s deceased sister. Virginia’s family never called her Adeline, due to their painful association with the name.
- She did not, obviously, play any part in the 1966 Mike Nichols film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was adapted from the 1962 Edward Albee play. So, where does the title come from, you ask? George and Martha, played onscreen by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, sing the lyrics “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” Interesting enough, in an interview with him published in The Paris Review, Albee stated “‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ means ‘Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf…who’s afraid of living without false illusions?” (See here for additional clarification)
- In addition to her novels, she is also known for her essays, including “A Room of One’s Own,” in which she stated, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
So, what are the takeaways here?
- Would Woolf perhaps still be living and writing if she had had access to Symbyax, Prozac, or Risperdal? Slim chance, as she would be 137 years old.
- Could she have benefited from talk therapy or positive psychology? While beneficial for many people, these approaches could not be a remedy for the severe bipolar symptoms from which Woolf suffered.
- Should she be ignored, not given a spotlight, since, like so many prejudiced people, she seemed to have harbored anti-Semitic views? Good question, but it begs similarly revisionist appraisals of any number of past luminaries, including Theodore Roosevelt for his joy in slaughtering wild animals, Melvil Dewey for his lascivious behavior with women, and Frederic Remington for his anti-Semitism and racist views of Native Americans.
- Should she have left her husband for Vita Sackville-West or worked for a closer connection with Leonard? Hmmm, sounds like magical thinking to me. What knowledge does one have of the ways of the heart and the pathways of individuation? Besides, by most accounts, Virginia and her husband were close.
- Are her contributions of little value, given her personal life and death? Seriously!? How many other giants of literature could be similarly dismissed, given this manner of thinking?
- Was Woolf a complicated enigma who offers little of value to modern readers? I wonder if this question might be more than a wee bit judgmental. Let’s dissect this thread and examine the facts.
- One should resist the temptation to judge historical authors on the basis of current standards and mores
- Her impact on her contemporaries was significant
- She helped lay the groundwork for future feminists
Woolf was a professional reviewer, innovative essayist, novelist, publisher, biographer, and political organizer in the socialist and women’s movements. She seems to have known or met nearly everyone of importance in her day, including Sigmund Freud, with whom she and Leonard had tea shortly after Freud escaped Nazi Vienna for London. She spoke out against war and violence. Professor Jean Mills, author of Virginia Woolf, Jane Ellen Harrison, and the Spirit of Modernist Classicism, said: “Woolf’s comment ‘thinking is my fighting’ was an aphorism that we can usefully claim for ourselves today. Her essay “Three Guineas” has been read as her attempt to grapple with the root causes of violence and war, and she articulates several conceptions of peace throughout her literary output.”
Woolf was not hesitant to break the mold of cultural expectations for proper women’s behavior. In “10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Virginia Woolf,” the British literary biographer Lyndall Gordon wrote, “In the 19th century nice women were quiet. Virginia Woolf said that she and her sister were taught the ‘tea-table’ manner. This was designed to keep polite, self-effacing conversation flowing. The most vital fact in her life was the contrast between this stifling of utterance, this concealment in ’shadow’ and the ground shaking under her like an earthquake when she brought out her full-throated ’Outsider’ voice, protesting against military or domestic violence in favour of nurture, listening and sympathy, values which the civilized of both sexes already share. The voice of her Outsider prepares the way for the present voice of the #MeToo generation.”
In the midst of Woolf’s articulate contributions to literary, cultural, political, and social circles, there was an intermittent and turbulent wrestling with an unknown force within her psyche. She was unable to elude it. In a suicide note she left to her husband, Leonard Woolf, she wrote, “I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of these terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.”
If a person were to take away only one reason to celebrate Woolf, it would be my assertion that she was not just an important author, but a feminist icon. How so? She gave two lectures at the University of Cambridge’s women’s colleges in 1928 and developed them into the famous essay “A Room of One’s Own,” which was published the following year. As Wikipedia states, it was “an important feminist text… noted in its argument for both a literal and figurative space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by men.” Her voice, along with those of other women writers before and after, has helped to open up publishing to women. And, it has helped put more women’s book on our library shelves and important voices in the spotlight.
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