How is one to live in such a world? - Virginia Woolf

How much sex did Virginia Woolf want? How much did she have? And what was the ratio between the two? The French writer and critic Viviane Forrester poses these as political, not prurient, questions. Her book, newly translated into English by Jody Gladding, won the Prix Goncourt de la biographie in 2009, four years before her death in 2013, aged eighty-seven. Forrester recalls interviewing Quentin Bell for a radio programme in 1973, soon after his biography of his aunt was first translated into French. “You show her to be a very complete, very intellectual woman, who loved life in all its forms”, Forrester began. Bell interrupted: “From the perspective of sexual life, one cannot call her a complete woman. She was cold. She was not normal from this perspective. In other relationships, yes, she was normal”. When Forrester challenged the notion of normality applied to the most intimate and secret part of life, Bell shuddered – “That coldness!” – and quoted his father Clive’s view of Woolf: “For the rest of us, life’s great business is the adventure of love. For her, it is when a butterfly comes through the window”.
Forrester is by no means the first to challenge Bell’s portrait, but her biographical method is distinctively disruptive. She sets out to expose the “false appearances” and “serious misunderstandings” under which Woolf laboured, by destabilizing the stories she believed, or half-believed, about her most significant others. She approaches Woolf’s life as “the story of one life lived among others, silhouetted against them”, and emphasizes the extent to which, “without Virginia knowing it, most of those closest to her, in particular, her father, sister and especially her husband, differed sharply, and in vital ways, from their reputations – which often still endure”. The result exudes the spirit of Hamlet– shrill, truth-seeking, unbalanced – which seems suited to a subject who exclaimed, aged fifteen, “How is one to live in such a world?”
Forrester argues that the marriage between Virginia and Leonard Woolf “was a matter of two trapped beings, each of whom appeared to the other as a last resort”. When they married in 1912, Virginia was thirty. “Am I to have no proposal then?” she wrote to her sister Vanessa in 1908. “If I had had the chance, and determined against it, I could settle to virginity with greater composure than I can, when my womanhood is at question.” Leonard was her chance. After studying at Cambridge with Virginia’s brother Thoby Stephen and their friend Lytton Strachey, he had worked as a civil servant in Ceylon and hated it: “O le sale monde! The fetid, sordid world”. Leonard asked himself “why one doesn’t commit suicide, except that one is dead & rotten”. He slept with a prostitute and told Strachey, “the elaborate absurdity made me almost impuissant from amusement”. Virginia was his chance of a life back in England.
Their honeymoon in Venice was a fiasco. Virginia wrote to Strachey:
“Several times the proper business of bed has been interrupted by mosquitoes. They bloody the wall by morning – they always choose my left eye, Leonard’s right ear, whatever position they chance to find us in. This does not sound to you a happy life, I know; but you see, that in between the crevices we stuff an enormous amount of exciting conversation – also literature.”
Leonard publicly attributed their sexual failure to Virginia: she was paradoxically “frigid” and dangerously “excitable”; he told the writer Gerald Brenan that when he tried to make love to her on their honeymoon she became so violently agitated that he had to stop, lest she go mad. In this way, Forrester says, he secured for himself “the reputation of a frustrated Don Juan, with a martyr’s halo”. A convenient mask, she suggests, for his own sexual incompetence. Leonard also consulted doctors, some with, some without, Virginia, and concluded that it would be dangerous for her mental health to have children, even though she wanted them, and even though her psychiatrist, Sir George Savage, declared it would do her “a world of good, my dear fellow, do her a world of good!” In her biography of 1996, Hermione Lee puts this decision into cultural context, pointing out that Bertrand Russell and his first wife Alys were persuaded, in 1893, that the danger of inherited insanity from both sides of the family should prevent them from having children. Encouraging as Savage was, in the 1880s he had pronounced: “an insane patient may have an insane, idiotic, wicked, epileptic or somnambulistic child”.
Where Lee steers a careful and judicious path through the evidence, Forrester aims for dramatic effect. She connects the disappointment of Woolf’s erotic expectations within marriage with the physical intimacy between her and Vita Sackville-West. Forrester argues that Virginia fell in love with Vita in 1926:
“Passionately, and it was reciprocal. But on her part, she offered herself totally, without the least reservation, overcome with well-being, sensuality, and physical pleasure. There for the taking. And almost immediately rebuffed. Soon Vita would beat a retreat with regard to sex. Her pretext? It would be . . . identical to Leonard’s!”
The evidence for this is a letter Vita wrote to her husband Harold Nicolson saying she was “scared to death” of arousing physical feelings in Woolf, because of her madness: “that is a fire with which I have no wish to play”. Forrester reads this as a second, devastating rejection of Woolf’s erotic appetite. But the clichéd language of caution was shared between Vita and Harold: “It’s a relief to feel that you realize the danger and will be wise. You see, it’s not merely playing with fire; it’s playing with gelignite”, he wrote back, reassured about his interests within an open marriage. Lee provides a more nuanced interpretation of the relationship between the two women, both aspirant writers who did not “find each other out” but “made each other up”. When Vita’s poem The Land won the Hawthornden Prize, Woolf’s reaction “hovered between generosity and mockery”. She grew increasingly critical of “Donkey West”, whom she always considered quite stupid. She could not stay fixed in her feelings for Vita: “one emotion succeeds another”. Then just as Vita’s interest was beginning to turn elsewhere at the end of 1927, Woolf “recovered her for her fiction” and producedOrlando (1928).
In contrast to her sister, Vanessa Bell’s descendants and biographers have considered her the epitome of “a complete woman”: wife, mother, lover, artist and creator of Charleston. Virginia herself contributed to the description of a gulf between them: “You have the children. The fame by rights belongs to me”. Forrester argues that contrary to the myth of physical fulfilment, Vanessa’s sex life was always troubled by jealousy and insecurity. It ended altogether after Angelica, her daughter by Duncan Grant, was born in 1918. Vanessa was thirty-nine and Grant had fallen in love with David (Bunny) Garnett. Bunny looked into Angelica’s cradle and wrote to Strachey: “I think of marrying it; when she is twenty I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous?” He did and it was. Closing the space between Virginia and Vanessa, Forrester writes:
“Two sisters, two of the most liberated women of their time, unbelievably beautiful, are united in exile, deprivation, the denial of their bodies, decided by two men. To all appearances, at least.”
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