The Joyful, Gossipy and Absurd Private Life of Virginia Woolf

“I caused some slight argument with Leonard this morning by trying to cook my breakfast in bed. I believe, however, that the good sense of the proceeding will make it prevail; that is, if I can dispose of the eggshells.” (13 January 1915)

So wrote Virginia Woolf 100 years ago, musing on her latest domestic experiment. This attempt to cook eggs in bed was a light interlude in what was to become one of the worst years of her life. Reading her letters and diaries recently in the London Library, I discovered a more playful side to the modernist writer, who we have come to think of as stern, humourless, even tortured. Virginia’s daily journal and correspondence reveal a sensitive, perceptive young woman who loved a “debauch of gossip” with her friends. And this time in her life, January and February 1915, was a precious lull before the storm: one month later she plunged into a nervous breakdown so severe that she lost the rest of 1915.

Sadly, these breakdowns were nothing new. The sudden death of her mother from rheumatic fever in 1895 had provoked Virginia’s first breakdown at the age of 13. Her father’s death in 1904 triggered her second collapse; her nephew and biographer Quentin Bell wrote: “All that summer she was mad.” She also endured the death of her half-sister Stella in 1897 and her beloved brother Thoby in 1907; the repeated bereavements took their toll on her mental health. Virginia’s third breakdown in 1913, aged 31, occurred less than a year after her marriage to Leonard Woolf.

Between 1913-15 Virginia made several suicide attempts, including trying to jump from a window and overdosing on Veronal, a powerful sedative. As the ‘madness’ took hold, she would stop eating or sleeping and at times she hallucinated – Bell records that she once heard “the birds singing in Greek and [imagined] that King Edward VII lurked in the azaleas using the foulest possible language”. 1915 ought to have been a good year for Virginia. As well as the publication of her first novel, she was starting to make a living from reviewing and other critical writing. She and Leonard were living in Richmond, making plans to set up their own printing press, and discussing buying a bulldog, to be called John. So why did 1915 take such a disastrous turn?

She had been grappling with endless drafts of The Voyage Out for four or five years – Leonard recalled her rewriting it “with a kind of tortured intensity”. It was finally published on 26 March 1915, the day after Virginia entered the nursing home where she was to remain for the next six months. The novel had been accepted for publication in 1913 (by her half-brother Gerald Duckworth, who is said to have sexually abused her as a child) but was delayed because of her hospitalisation. Throughout Virginia’s life, the process of completing a book and working on proofs was a time of extreme anxiety, followed by the terrible wait for publication, and, still worse, the critical response. In 1936 while struggling with The Years she recalled the misery and self-doubt she had experienced two decades earlier: “I have never suffered, since The Voyage Out, such acute despair on re-reading . . . Never been so near the precipice to my own feeling since 1913.”

It was appropriate that I was rediscovering my great-aunt’s letters and diaries in the London Library: her father Sir Leslie Stephen was president of the Library from 1892 until his death in 1904. Virginia referred to it as “a stale culture smoked place” in 1915, although she was a regular visitor there. When the librarian showed me her original registration form, I was moved to see that she joined the library four days after her father’s death. Despite being only 22 years old, she describes her occupation on the form as “spinster”.

The joy of Virginia’s personal writings is the lively and varied content, from literary highs to domestic lows, gossip about her contemporaries and relatives, often satirical, sometimes spiteful (especially about the “Jews”, Leonard’s large family). On the one hand she is writing to Thomas Hardy: “I have long wished to tell you how profoundly grateful I am to you for your poems and novels, but naturally it seemed an impertinence to do so.” (17 January 1915). And in her diary at the same time she is documenting the daily catastrophes in their “House of Trouble” in Richmond: on a typical January day “the pipes burst; or got choked; or the roof split asunder. Anyhow in the middle of the morning, I heard a steady rush of water in the wainscot . . . various people have been clambering about the roof ever since. The water still drips through the ceiling into a row of slop pails.”

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