Monday 29 August 2016

Virginia Woolf - The woman who remade the novel

Virginia Woolf took her own life 65 years ago, after struggling with her mental health and failed relationships. Since then, her reputation has grown

Jonathan deBurca Butler

Published 28/03/2016 | 02:30

Virginia Woolf in 1902, photographed by George C. Beresford.
Virginia Woolf in 1902, photographed by George C. Beresford.

Virginia Woolf had suffered bouts of depression before. This time it was different. Or at least she felt it was. On March 28, 1941, she wrote a short letter to her husband, Leonard.

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"Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times... 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…"

Leaving the note in the drawing room of their Sussex retreat, Woolf walked to the nearby River Ouse, filled her clothes with stones and walked into the water. It would be three weeks before her body was recovered.

"This strange, lovely, furtive creature," as she was once described by Lady Ottoline Morrell, was gone and English literary society was stunned.

TS Eliot wrote that it was "the end of a world" while EM Forster spoke of his feeling "trembly" on hearing the news.

Not all sections of society were as kind. When her final letter to Leonard was made public, it became a plaything of the media.

One article that appeared in a prominent English newspaper changed "those terrible times" - a reference to her first acute bout of depression some 25 years earlier - to "these terrible times", an apparent reference to World War II.

Newspapers had a field day making out that the writer's suicide was somehow an act of unpatriotic cowardice rather than a personal tragedy.

The moniker 'Mad Virginia' poked its head above the parapet; a simplistic narrative that would no doubt have disappointed, rather than enraged, a writer who took such pains to examine the depths and complexities of her own fictional characters.

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"In the past, too much was made of Woolf's breakdowns," says Dr Heather Ingman of Trinity College Dublin. "After her death, her nephew, Quentin Bell, who wrote a biography of her, painted a picture of his fragile, elderly aunt, and in one way it served critics to see Woolf as an invalid, writing some experimental novels for a few specialist readers. That meant they didn't have to bother much with her work."

For many years after her death, Woolf was dismissed as niche. Many argue that a proper re-evaluation of her work did not occur until the rise of feminism.

"She was certainly appreciated during her own lifetime," says Professor Nicholas Daly, Chair of Modern English and American Literature at University College Dublin. "In the 1930s she was offered and turned down two honorary doctorates. But she looms much larger now, I think. There is hardly an English degree taught that does not contain at least one novel by Woolf, and she has become a byword for experimental modernism."

Woolf was born in London on January 25, 1882 (just a few days before another modern experimental writer, James Joyce, was born in Dublin). Her parents were notable innovators in their respected fields. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a historian and the founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, a genre of literature that his daughter would later attempt with mixed results. Julia, her mother, was a well-educated daughter of the Raj, who had modelled for some Pre-Raphaelite painters.

Both of Woolf's parents had been widowed and brought children to the new marriage. Together they had four; Virginia was their third.

In total there were eight children in the household, and, given the constant stream of eclectic visitors to their door the house was sometimes chaotic. It was also a hotbed of intellectual activity and debate. Henry James and James Russell Lowell were regular visitors. It was an atmosphere that Virginia would continue to cultivate throughout her life.

"Woolf's background was very important to her development as a writer," says Dr Ingman. "The access she had to her father's library, and his literary discussions with her, helped shape her as a writer."

The relationship between the step-siblings was often fraught. George and Gerald Duckworth, who were respectively 14 and 12 years older than Virginia, were later accused by the author and her older sister Vanessa of sexual abuse.

While many put Woolf's first breakdown down to the sudden death of her mother in 1895, others have suggested it was down to these assaults. Two years later, another tragedy struck the household when Virginia's half-sister Stella Duckworth died suddenly. The death of her father from stomach cancer in 1904 provoked another alarming collapse. This time Virginia attempted suicide by jumping from a window and she was briefly institutionalised.

And yet, every time she recovered, Virginia would fling herself back into life. The family propensity for pursuing knowledge continued unabated. Virginia and her closest sibling Vanessa surrounded themselves with London's finest minds.

Economist John Maynard Keynes, biographer Lytton Strachey, as well as the aforementioned Forster were among an informal network of friends and relations that became known as the Bloomsbury Group.

The Bloomsburies railed against the stuffiness of Victorian values and would often attempt to undermine it. On one occasion, Virginia and some associates, most notably Horace de Vere Cole from Ballincurrig, Co Cork, dressed themselves as Abyssinian royals and convinced the captain of the HMS Dreadnought to give them an official tour of the ship. The story goes that when the so-called royals saw something they liked, they would express their pleasure with the made-up exultation, "Bunga! Bunga!"

According to biographer CP Snow, the members of the Bloomsbury Group "tried to get the maximum of pleasure out of their personal relations. If this meant triangles or more complicated geometric figures, well then, one accepted that…"

It was through the Bloomsbury Group that Virginia met her husband, Leonard Woolf, a political theorist, author and publisher who came from a Jewish family of 10. Leonard was bright and had won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he came into contact with the likes of Keynes and Forster. Perhaps his most enduring friendship was that fostered with Lytton Strachey. Strachey, who was homosexual, proposed to Virginia in 1909 but was, much to his relief, rejected.

In a letter to his old Cambridge chum, Strachey suggested that Leonard should think about a proposal, noting that "he'd have the immense advantage of physical desire".

It would take some time, but eventually Leonard took his friend's advice, marrying Virginia in 1912. Their relationship was strong and passionate, but in keeping with the ethos of the Bloomsburies, not necessarily exclusive.

In 1922, Virginia met the writer and garden designer Vita Sackville-West. She and her husband, Harold Nicholson, were openly bisexual. On discovering that Vita was a writer, Virginia invited her to publish a book with her and Leonard's new printing company, Hogarth Press. The offer was accepted and the pair gradually struck up a friendship. Some three years later it developed into a passionate love affair.

"Vita shines in the grocer's shop," wrote Virginia in her diary, "...pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung... There is her maturity and full-breastedness... a real woman."

Leonard knew about the romance but seems to have thought little of it. If Virginia was happy, so was he.

In 1927, Virginia, inspired by the relationship, wrote Orlando, a tongue-in-cheek fictional biography that explores the life of a young man, who, as he weaves his way through some four centuries of time and several relationships with both men and women, can seemingly change gender in an instant. Vita, too, had many affairs, something the fragile ego of Virginia was unable or perhaps unwilling to accept. The affair ended some time in the late 1920s though the pair did remain firm friends thereafter.

Arguably, Orlando is at the centre of Virginia Woolf's most prolific period as a writer.

Though she had been writing professionally since 1900, it was at this time that many of her most famous works were written and published.

Mrs Dalloway, arguably her most famous novel, was published in 1925 and tells the story of Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged society woman, who spends a day organising a party. As she wanders through London, her inner monologue reveals much about her thoughts, disappointments, anxieties and desires.

To the Lighthouse, published in 1927, takes those complex themes and pushes them even further by casting the author's insightful eye over an even-larger range of characters whose lives and thoughts are interwoven in a whirlwind on the page. Again the plot is simple, centring as it does on the planning of a visit to a lighthouse.

Through disruption, disappointment and a constant struggle between pessimism and optimism, Woolf reveals the family tensions and the intricacies of what must count as among some of the most complex and fully developed characters in English literature in her own inimitable, detailed and beautiful style.

Four years later, The Waves appeared, an experimental novel or as Woolf herself called it, a "playpoem", focusing on soliloquies spoken by the book's six main characters. This was followed shortly thereafter by the quirky Flush: A Biography, which examined the life of Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning as seen through the eyes of her cocker-spaniel.

"She is one of a number of figures who make a decisive break with the Victorian and Edwardian fiction that had gone before," says Prof Daly. "She [along with others] created an experimental modernist fiction that is less about plot and more about form. She tries to make the novel something fresh and new by, for example, capturing reality as something flickering and unstable, and by the revelation of character through key moments. It's not unlike Joyce's idea of epiphanies actually."

With each novel, Woolf attempted to push the boundaries and create something new, to delve as far as humanly possible into the inner workings of her characters.

"I suppose what she did differently to other writers of her generation was to lay open the internal physiology of her unique if very fraught mind," says Susan Cahill, presenter of Newstalk's Talking Books. "She observed her mind, creatively or otherwise, and offered her readers a view of the mind. Put simply, it's psychological and philosophical depth at play. That's her big contribution. She wasn't scared to put it all down on the page. She gave voice to thousands of women who felt beaten down, vulnerable, disconnected and maybe frightened."

In 1934, Virginia and Leonard visited Ireland, taking in much of the West coast and Dublin.

In her diary, she described "the perfection of Irish conversation", and the "character and charm" of "half squalid" Irish life. She spoke of her fascination with the "rocks and the desolate bays". So smitten were the Woolfs with Ireland that they even considered buying a house in Glengariff, Co Cork.

Alas, it was not to be. By the mid-1930s London was swamped by the continuous threat of war. Eventually it arrived and the Woolfs were forced to move from London to the Sussex home where Virginia would eventually take her own life.

In the years that followed her death, Leonard Woolf became the target of vitriol.

Some who held Virginia up as a mascot for their cause painted him as a controlling and interfering husband who felt himself diminished by her success. On one occasion he was even accused of having a hand in Virginia's death.

The truth of their relationship was simple enough. In the last line of Virginia's suicide note she writes: "I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been."

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