The blaming of Leonard Woolf

{Tavistock Square, 1939} Leonard, Virginia & Sally
It is for her beauty, her psychic pain, and the odd and tragic circumstances of her life as much as for the quality of her work that Virginia Woolf has attracted a certain type of critical attention; as one sharp commentator noted, she is the Marilyn Monroe of the intellectual world, “genius transformed into icon and industry.” While Woolf’s diaries and letters demonstrate that she could be cruel and vulnerable in equal parts, her popular image has come to elevate the vulnerabilities to the point of obscuring the tough, self-protective streak that sustained her and kept her alive and productive for a lifetime of nearly sixty years. An idealized and essentially misleading picture of Woolf as female victim of patriarchal oppression has become the dominant one, and countless stupid and condescending books and articles have supported it, the newest and stupidest being Who’s Afraid of Leonard Woolf by the Australian author Irene Coates.[1]
Although Coates presents herself as a bold individualist who daringly trespasses on hallowed ground by suggesting that the Woolfs’ marriage was less than idyllic and that Virginia was not really “mad” at all, her diatribe contains nothing new; it’s merely the last in a long and not very distinguished line of psychostudies of the perennially fascinating writer. As long ago as 1977, Jean Love, in Virginia Woolf: Sources of Madness and Art, was referring to Woolf’s “so-called madness,” a tag Coates uses repeatedly. In 1978, Roger Poole’s widely read book The Unknown Virginia Woolfestablished an entire school of anti-Leonard critical studies and advanced exactly the same theses that Coates insists upon: Leonard was a reductive, left-brained rationalist, constitutionally incapable of understanding or handling the sensitive artist he married, and Virginia’s madness was no madness at all but an avenue of escape and creative independence. (Coates blithely ignores Poole’s book, presumably because its existence negates her right to be considered an original thinker; his name does not appear in her text or bibliography.) Finally, in 1981 Stephen Trombley published All That Summer She Was Mad: Virginia Woolf, Female Victim of Male Medicine, another serious claim, and taken seriously by the academic community, that Virginia Woolf was sane.
Now there is some (very slight) excuse for Love, Poole, and Trombley: they wrote their studies before the publication of the plethora of information on manic-depressive illness that has recently become available to the general reader. In light of current knowledge, it has been widely accepted that Virginia Woolf, like many writers and creative artists, suffered from manic-depression, or bipolar disorder as it is also called. Hers was an almost textbook case, with onset occurring early in life and proceeding in periodic bouts broken up by long stretches of sanity and good health. Bipolar disorder is a hereditary condition, and several members of Woolf’s family, the Stephens, also suffered from affective disorders. Virginia’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, and her brother Adrian both had a mild form of manic-depression bearing the clinical name of cyclothymia, while her other full siblings, Thoby and Vanessa, underwent periodic episodes of depression; one of their first cousins was a manic-depressive, and their half-sister Laura Stephen was either retarded or disturbed in some unidentified way— possibly she was autistic—and spent her life in an asylum.
To posthumously diagnose Virginia Woolf as a manic-depressive is not to go very far out on a limb. Yet many of Woolf’s academic worshippers have passionately resisted the diagnosis, especially feminist scholars who have a great deal invested in the image of Woolf as a victim of patriarchal oppression, and who have fashioned an up-to-date Foucaultian model of Woolf’s madness and femaleness as a form of transgression and “otherness.” Another and more reasonable objection was the persistent use of the terms “mad” and “madness”—words used by Woolf herself—which are not at all useful in describing manic-depressive illness. Unlike, for example, schizophrenics, manic-depressives are normal most of the time, and suffer from their disease only periodically; literal-minded scholars—and so many Woolf scholars have been painfully literal—cannot accept that a woman who was clearly sane for much of the time can have had anything much the matter with her.
Other scholars and Woolf fans resisted the idea of manic-depression because they found it reductive to boil Woolf’s genius down to pathology, as though it were the disease writing and not the woman. This is simply to misunderstand the nature of the illness, which does not flatten out the personality of the sufferer but if anything makes it more distinctly his or her own, intensifying and crystallizing the individual vision. Woolf, like Byron, Shelley, Robert Lowell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and other sufferers from bipolar disorder, found rich material for her art in her periods of illness. “As an experience,” Woolf wrote, “madness is terrific I can assure you, 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. And the six months … that I lay in bed taught me a good deal about what is called onesself.” It cannot be a coincidence that such a high proportion of writers have been manic-depressives: medical studies have indicated that creative artists suffer from eight to ten times the rate of major depressive illness, ten to forty times the rate of manic-depressive illness, and up to eighteen times the rate of suicide of the general population.
If Irene Coates had spent a tiny fraction of the time reading about manic-depressive illness that she devoted to wallowing in Bloomsburiana, she might have sensed the thinness of her theory. (To take an example at random: she characterizes mania as “uncontrollable rage,” when it is nothing of the sort.) There is not a single book on mental illness included in her bibliography, and this in spite of the fact that recent years have seen several first-class popularizations of the subject, notably Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison’sTouched By Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which contains a chapter on Virginia Woolf and the Stephen family. Also strangely absent from Coates’s bibliography is Thomas Caramagno’s prize-winning The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic-Depressive Illness (1992), one of the few truly respectable and revealing books on Woolf’s psychological history and its relation to her work to appear.
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