JANUARY 25: Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Today we will explore the life and affections of a favourite writer of mine - Virginia Woolf. This first post will be echoed by reviews of several of her books later this year, which is why we won’t linger too much on praising her literary genius.
To put you in the right mood, you can listen here to the only recording of her voice, first broadcast by the BBC on 29 April 1937 as part of a series called Words Fail Me.
British writer Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882 in a stepfamily, to Julia Prinsep Jackson, who was Julia Margaret Cameron’s niece and a Pre-Raphaelite model, and to Sir Leslie Stephen, who was previously William Thackeray’s son-in-law, and a historian, critic and biographer. Such parents came with friends from Victorian literary circles such as Henry James, Lewes and Lowell who were regularly invited at their house in Kensington, London, and influenced the education of the Stephen children.
Virginia Stephen by George Charles Beresford, July 1902
Listing the family tragedies that occurred while Virginia was still young is heartbreaking. Her half-sister Laura was sent to an asylum when Virginia was 9. Then her mother died when she was 13, shortly followed by her other half-sister Stella. To top it all, Virginia and her sister Vanessa were sexually abused as children and teenagers by their adult half-brothers. (Thankfully their crime was acknowledged and denounced by both women later on!)
This left the remaining four children, Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian to deal with a tyrannical, capricious father too occupied with his life’s work – editing the Dictionary of National Biographies. At that time, Virginia suffered (presumably as a result) several nervous breakdowns, and subsequent recurring depressive periods, for which doctors prescribed “Rest Cures” (ever read The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman?). Actually similar mood swings continued to torment her all her life, and partly led to her suicide in the River Ouse on March 28, 1941.
Vanessa et Virginia playing cricket at their family’s summer home in Cornwall, 1893 – a idyllic setting which inspired To the Lighthouse (1927) a vibrant homage to their mother.
While the boys were given a proper education and sent to Cambridge, that would have been inappropriate for the girls. At least, Virginia could educate herself thanks to her father’s huge private library – and, boy, did she read! Along with learning Ancient Greek, Latin, and German, she developed a yearning to write, starting with diaries, and a family newspaper, illustrated by Vanessa who took art classes. Furthermore, their brothers brought home their friends from Cambridge, which was the beginning of what we know as the Bloomsbury Group.
However it only officially became the Bloomsbury Group when the Stephen siblings actually left Kensington at their father’s death in 1902, and set up house in Bloomsbury, where they started to live a bohemian life and regularly welcomed Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes and others in their midst. They had so much fun (ever heard of the Dreadnought Hoax?) breaking the codes of Victorian society, in art, literature, but also in their social life – they had quite the progressive approach to sexuality. Though if homosexuality between men was accepted and even celebrated, as much as heterosexuality, that didn’t seem to include lesbianism – how progressive…
Socialising in the sun. From left to right, Angelica/Vanessa/Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf, Maynard Keynes. Photo from Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House photo album, before 1939.
But then, Thoby died, and soon afterwards, her sister Vanessa, to whom Virginia was really close, married art critic Clive Bell. After a fake marriage proposal by Lytton, the latter urged his friend Leonard Woolf, who was abroad at the time, to marry Virginia. They met and indeed married in 1912. Critics often disagree on their relationship and Leonard’s role in Virginia’s life – the saviour, or the prison ward. On the one hand, he refused her a child, giving her mental instability as a pretext and influencing the doctors’ ultimate decision, and was often painted as the poor husband of a frigid Virginia in the latter’s first biographies – a portrait shaped by his perspective, which hides his own issues regarding sex and women. But on the other hand, he nurtured Virginia’s talent, tried to keep her stable by moving to the countryside, giving her a hobby (as prescribed by doctors) by creating the Hogarth Press, which published her own books, but also that of the members of the Bloomsbury Group, other contemporary writers, and the first English translation of Sigmund Freud’s work. At least, most critics agree to say that, without Leonard, Virginia probably wouldn’t have lived as long - and written as much - as she did.
“Virginia Woolf” (c.1912) portrait by Vanessa Bell. Vita Sackville-West as “Lady in a Red Hat” (1918) by William Strang
Nevertheless, Virginia’s affections were more often directed towards women – it started with her first crush, her cousin Madge, then with Violet Dickinson, 17 years her senior, who helped her through the death of her father. Later on, she intrigued and impressed the extravagant Ottoline Morrell, who developed a crush on her and often invited her to her salons, though Virginia would often ridicule her and mock her behind her back – aware of the power she yielded thanks to her words and wit, she always liked to hold court in society, where she gave satirical portrayals of everybody (while drinking champagne). Composer Ethel Smyth also fell for Virginia, and both women remained friends till the latter’s death.
Her most famous relationship though was with Vita Sackville West, whom she met in 1922. Their affair led Virginia to write to - and about - her lover. She described Vita as “pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung” and wrote to her “you only be a careful dolphin in your gambolling, or you’ll find Virginia’s soft crevices lined with hooks!” Their romance led to the writing of Orlando, qualified by Vita’s son as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” but also inspired other writers, such as Edna O’Brien, Eileen Atkins, Christine Orban…
Virginia was fascinated by bisexuality (as the fusion of both male and female identities in one person, not the modern understanding of the term) and experimented with the ideas of genders, and heterosexual and homosexual relationships in her writing. If you are interested in that reflection, I recommend the recent lesbian reading of her works (both fiction and non-fiction).
Want to know more? Here are some anecdotes about her…
Auditory Processing Problems
• *someone says something* “what?” *repeats themselves* “sorry?” *repeats themselves again* “pardon?”
•"hey, y'see the red thing at the top of the shelf, will you get it?“ “Sorry, what?” “On the sh-” “oh yeah sure, I’ll get it.”
•*doesn’t hear teacher because someone’s pen is making a scratchy sound at the back of the room*
•*replays video 10 ten times to figure out what they’re saying*
•teachers asking, “why do you always stop writing in the middle of a sentence, just write down whatever I’m saying,” followed by the response, “I’m just processing it,” rebuked by, “we’ll stop processing it and just write.”
•*gets really focused on staring out the window and goes through four songs without hearing a single on*
“The sun goes down upon the Ankh, And slowly, softly fades - Across the Drum; the Royal Bank; The River-Gate; the Shades. A stony circle’s closed to elves; And here, where lines are blurred, Between the stacks of books on shelves, A quiet ‘Ook’ is heard. A copper steps the city-street On paths he’s often passed; The final march; the final beat; The time to rest at last. He gives his badge a final shine, And sadly shakes his head - While Granny lies beneath a sign That says: 'I aten’t dead.’ The Luggage shifts in sleep and dreams; It’s now. The time’s at hand. For where it’s always night, it seems, A timer clears of sand. And so it is that Death arrives, When all the time has gone… But dreams endure, and hope survives, And Discworld carries on.”
/u/Poem-for-your-sprong; originally posted here: https://np.reddit.com/r/books/comments/2ysvzb/terry_pratchett_has_died_megathread/cpcp6bg/
In honor of the third anniversary of Terry Pratchett’s death, and in memory of Sir Terry himself.
I needed something to make me cry, and today the internet provided.