What Ever Happened to Virginia Woolf?

By Paul Duckworth, MLIS

Virginia_Woolf_Illustration

“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?”

shutterstock_705620560“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.

shutterstock_1216099198Nothing 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.

shutterstock_1145084495And 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  6. 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.
    1. One should resist the temptation to judge historical authors on the basis of current standards and mores
    2. Her impact on her contemporaries was significant
    3. 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.”

 

shutterstock_575109037Woolf 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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The Man and the Machine: What Ever Happened to Oliver Sacks?

By Paul Duckworth, MLIS

On a sunny, mild day last week, rare this winter in the Midwest, I walked to the mailbox to collect the usual assortment of flyers: oil change coupons, muffler shop flyers, supermarket ads, the ubiquitous fast food coupons, and special offers for hearing aids (yes, I admit that I am “of that age”). There, mostly hidden amidst the glossy and pulp paper promotions, was something I actually wanted—the new issue of The New Yorker, dated February 11. And so, sometime that evening, after walking outdoors enjoying the weather, cleaning up after the cat, and cooking a pot of spicy curried dal, I was able to settle in and savor the deliciously-drawn and worded cartoons, plus an article or two of interest. As I flipped through pages, I stopped, riveted and disbelieving, on page 28: an article by Oliver Sacks! Those who don’t know me can’t appreciate what a fan I am of this odd, intelligent, soft-spoken Brit.

You may very well be mulling over the words “Oliver” and “Sacks” and thinking, “Is it Sacks? Seems it should be Sachs” and “Why are those words somehow meaningful to me?” Or perhaps, “Wasn’t he a doctor?” Or, “Why am I connecting him with Robin Williams?” Plus, of course, the question “Whatever happened to him?”

What happened to him is simple to say: he died in 2015, aged 82, after a great career as a neurologist and writer. The fact that he is deceased may help you better understand why my eyes were riveted, my mind reeling, by this page 28 in one of my favorite magazines. The article was titled, appropriately enough, “The Machine Stops.” Is Sacks comparing himself to a worn out machine? I wondered. Are we humans merely a collection of wires and chemical reactions operating under the marvelous laws of physics? Has Sacks spoken from the dead? More about this article soon, but first, some background about the man and his marvelously mesmerizing mind.

Unless you are a neurologist, your first association with Sacks probably dates back to a movie theater in 1990 when you went to see Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in “Awakenings.” Or, if your amalgamation of protoplasmic cells had not yet emerged onto planet Earth back then, you might have watched the film more recently at home on DVD, courtesy of your local library. But then, being the reader you are, no doubt you connected the film to the book of the same title, written by none other than Oliver Sacks.

So, you very well may know who Oliver Sacks is, or was. However, I’d wager that there’s a lot about the man which you may not know. Following is a list of statements about Sacks and his life. See if you can tell which of them of him are true, which are false. Answers are at the bottom of this article, in small print, upside down. Take a guess, or look up the answers in your thousands of books and millions of web pages at your disposal.

  1. He was British, born in London.
  2. Was a bodybuilder on Muscle Beach in Venice, Calif.
  3. First cousin of Israeli prime minister Abba Eban.
  4. Suffered from a rare condition called prosopagnosia: a neurological condition characterized by the inability to recognize the faces of familiar people.
  5. His I.Q. was between 180 and 200, higher than that of Stephen Hawking.
  6. Sacks “discovered” Temple Grandin and wrote about her.
  7. Used L-Dopa.
  8. Was a meth-head, for a time.
  9. Was gay.
  10. Immigrant to the U.S.
  11. Lived on an Israeli Kibbutz for a while.
  12. Scuba diver.
  13. Both parents were physicians.
  14. Failed medical school.
  15. Atheist.
  16. Owned a BMW motorcycle, which propelled him on numerous long road trips.
  17. In his early college days, after being awarded £50 for an Oxford University essay on anatomy, he spent most of it to purchase the twelve-volume Oxford English Dictionary.
  18. His middle name was Wolf.
  19. Made friends with the Hell’s Angels.
  20. A collection of his essays, titled The River of Consciousness, was published posthumously in 2017.
  21. A collection of his essays, Everything In Its Place, will be released this April.
  22. Recovered from encephalitis lethargica, also known as sleeping sickness.
  23. His books have been translated into more than 25 languages.
  24. Was reputed to have been a prolific handwritten-letter writer who never used email.
  25. His neurological knowledge helped inform the early inventive stages of the Internet.
  26. Authored 16 books.
  27. Doubting himself, he burned the manuscript for the first book he wrote.
  28. Suffered from writer’s block for several years.

So, how did you do? Look, now you know more facts about Sacks than you ever thought you wanted to know, plus a few plausible-sounding things that are not true.

OliverSacks-quote

In case you’re wondering, I haven’t forgotten about saying more in regard to what inspired me to begin this article: Sacks’ short essay, “The Machine Stops.” In the summer of 2015, weakened by cancer, short of breath, his eyesight failing, having just a few weeks to live, Sacks was attempting to complete an essay about social media and in the midst of his work discovered the prescient 1909 short story “The Machine Stops,” by E.M. Forster. Forster’s story was set in a futuristic world where people live in solitary isolation underground and a giant machine takes care of all their needs, including a device for communicating with other isolated people that we today would recognize as instant messaging and video chat. At the story’s close, the machine “crashes” and down goes civilization with it. But before they die in the chaotic entropy, people realize this: the only thing that matters is humanity and one’s connection to the natural world. Forster’s Sci-Fi story resonated with Sacks, and in a letter (handwritten, of course) to his friend Atul Gawande, Sacks shared that he was trying to complete his essay about smartphones, etc. and was delighted to have found Forster’s short story.

In this final, brief piece, “The Machine Stops,” which The New Yorker withheld until now, Sacks wrote what were perhaps his final words to the public and “raged against the machine” with his calm, intelligent, rational, and cogent observational thoughts:

Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases…. [People] have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved…. [I feel] that the very culture in which one was nourished, and to which one has given one’s best in return, is itself threatened [and I have] deep fears about the well-being and even survival of our world. Nonetheless, I dare to hope that, despite everything, human life and its richness of cultures will survive, even on a ravaged earth. While some see art as a bulwark of our collective memory, I see science, with its depth of thought, its palpable achievements and potentials, as equally important; and science, good science, is flourishing as never before. I revere good writing and art and music, but … only science, aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass. This idea is explicit in Pope Francis’s encyclical [On Care For Our Common Home]…. We can surely pull the world through its present crises and lead the way to a happier time ahead. As I face my own impending departure from the world, I have to believe in this—that mankind and our planet will survive, that life will continue, and that this will not be our final hour.

As I conclude, I think about the film “Awakenings” and Sacks’ later comments about his work in that hospital ward. He was tenacious and courageous in trying to reach and cure those patients who were locked in their own bodies, yet awake in their minds. I think about listening to the audio version of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat as I drove through the Sandhills of Nebraska one July many years ago. Sacks was compelled by his curiosity to enter the world of these people with neurological differences and share their experiences with us. On The Move comes to mind, his fascinating tell-all autobiography that I listened to a couple of years ago as I was driving to Yellowstone. I loved listening to his voice, as he accounted stories and scientific knowledge. What lingers most for me, though, is his sense of compassion for those with neurological differences and how he treated each person with whom he worked with gentleness. Sacks regarded each one as a full, three-dimensional human being, rather than mere subject or patient. In so doing, he has given his readers much wonder, delight, empathy, and insight into the human condition. Sacks was a 19th-century gentleman who, lucky for us, lived in the 20th and early 21st centuries. His joy of knowledge and his ability to take events and facts and weave them into insightful connections is unparalleled. His words remain as a gift for us and for the future.Answers

 

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Shreddings of the Heart: Who Was V. C. Andrews?

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

As a young, impressionable librarian, recently graduated with my MLS degree, I went to work in a public library in a medium-sized Midwestern city, where I did the usual reference tasks common in the 1970s. I was fascinated by the rich variety of interests and passions that motivated patrons to not only visit the library but actually come to the desk and ask for help (how often does that happen these days?). Among the subjects and authors that people were looking for, two names often popped up in requests: “Where’s Barbara Cartland?” and “Why aren’t there any V. C. Andrews books on the shelf?”

I gracefully step aside from discussion of Cartland’s bodice rippers and ask you to focus your attention on today’s topic: shreddings of the heart, which is what Andrews penned. Stir together themes of vulnerable children tormented by neglect, rape, incest, greed, death, or betrayal by a family member, sprinkle in ghastly gothic overtones, skillfully fold in some personal tragedy, and top it all off with the workings of a vivid imagination, and it is no wonder that readers of V. C. Andrews’ five-book Dollanganger series identified with the characters and felt as if their hearts had been ripped apart with each new installment.

V._C._Andrews Source Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Who was this V. C. Andrews who attracted so much interest from readers, especially teenage girls? And whatever became of her? Yes, I know — in simple terms, she died. “What!?” you say, “Dead? But she has a new book coming out this month!” Indeed. That’s part of the story. There is much more to tell, both before and after her passing.

Cleo Virginia Andrews was born on June 6, 1923 to William and Lillian Andrews of Portsmouth, Virginia. After high school, she enrolled in art correspondence courses and then began a successful career as a commercial artist and fashion illustrator. All the while, she felt completely compelled to write, and did so every night after work, at home, where she continued to live with her mother, Lillian, for Cleo’s entire life (for Lillian outlived her).

Silent Pain

Unbeknownst to most people, Virginia was crippled and confined to a wheelchair much of her adult life. Two conflicting stories exist about the cause of her condition. One claims she fell down the stairs at school, which caused back injuries. The other, vouched by relatives, says she suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis. Family members describe her as being in a full-body cast for a time, and having little or no neck movement. Her editor, Ann Patty, said, “Her spine was fused – it didn’t move. From her butt bone to her head, the spine did not move.” Her cousin describes Andrews as standing up at a high desk and typing out her first few novels. Whatever the cause, Andrews lived her life in great, unremitting pain. She suffered in silence, but the pain poured out through pen and paper. Fans of her fiction can be thankful that her hands and mind did not object to constant use.

Andrews was bored by her artistic daytime job. All her imagination and energy went into writing. Several stories and novels were rejected. Then, a magic moment: her pitch letter to a literary agent resulted in Flowers in The Attic being bought by Pocket Books with a $7,500 advance. Two weeks after its 1979 paperback publication, it was on the bestseller list. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So how did Cleo Virginia Andrews become V. C.? As one story goes, a printer at Pocket Books reversed her name on the cover and shortened it to initials. Another explanation is that the publisher wanted readers to wonder if the author was a man or a woman. Just think—we could be talking about the famous Cleo Virginia Andrews today! A happy accident, or publisher’s strategy, indeed.

Fame and Inspiration

When fame (and fortune) landed in her lap, Andrews avoided publicity. She was quite private and gave few interviews. Indeed, her physical condition was not well known. She kept her focus, day and night, on writing, never caring about health or other matters. According to a relative, Joan Andrews, “She knew she had a lump on her breast, but would not take care of the situation until she finished the current novel she was working on and also the sequel. By then the cancer had begun to spread.” She died of breast cancer on December 19, 1986, just seven years after Flowers’ first publication and is buried in Olive Branch Cemetery, Portsmouth, Virginia. In a rare interview with Contemporary Authors, she said, “There is no beauty without ugliness, and no enjoyment without suffering; we have to have the shade in order to see the light, and that is all I do in a story, put my characters in the shade–and try before the ending, to have them in the sunlight…. My novels are based on dreams, and situations taken from my own life, in which I change the pattern so that what might have happened actually does happen–and therein lies the tale.”

Andrew Neiderman

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Source: IMDB

V.C.’s two brothers and her mother took charge of her estate, and along with their publisher, secretly selected an author to continue the ideas and storylines of her books. It seems that a tax case in the early 1990s between the estate and the IRS resulted in the ghostwriter’s name being publicly revealed. Andrew Neiderman has been the voice of V.C. Andrews’ many bestsellers since finishing up her fifth book, Garden of Shadows. His story is fascinating in itself. He was hired by the estate, never met V.C. Andrews, and is a popular fiction writer in his own right, with several novels published. When he began writing as V.C. Andrews, he used two different computers, one for his own work, and one for Andrews’. He has done quite well in imitating her voice, types of characters, and nuances. Contemporary readers maintain the popularity of her novels, with no end in sight. Many seem not to know that Andrews has been gone for more than 30 years.

Continuing a Legacy

Neiderman recently signed another contract with Simon & Schuster for an additional four V.C. Andrews titles, after already having done about twenty. Silhouette Girl was just released on January 2. Beneath the Attic, a prequel to Flowers in the Attic, comes out at the end of August, 2019. For those with a fondness for statistics, her 75+ novels have sold more than 100 million copies in 95 countries and have been translated into 25 languages. Not bad, eh?

 

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