A mind in flight: Why Virginia Woolf was not as fragile as history has remembered her

Seventy-five years ago, Virginia Woolf weighted the pockets of her overcoat with stones and walked into the River Ouse. The letter she wrote to her husband, Leonard, before she left remains astonishingly moving:
“Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And 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. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer.
The light that was extinguished was a voice that had revolutionized the sentence and the novel. In her essay Modern Fiction Woolf had called on the novelist to find new ways to represent consciousness: ‘Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.'”
This is a typically brilliant Woolfian sentence — capacious enough to give a kind of physical presence to a complex idea. It is also a call for formal innovation in the service of life itself. And this is what Woolf did in her novels — capture the mind in flight — and why she continues to provide such an inspiration for novelists such as Ali Smith and Tessa Hadley.
Yet since Woolf’s death, there has often been a tendency to emphasize her fragility, seen at that final moment of despair. Sometimes this comes from feminists who want to emphasize the power of madness as a form of female protest. At other times it comes from skeptics who wish to join Kathleen Hicks in dismissing her as over-privileged and fey. The Virginia who recently found her way on to our screens in Life in Squares was this kind of woman: too delicate and nervy to be imagined writing a book or giving a lecture, in contrast to her earthier sister Vanessa Bell.
A focus on her death can belie the strength with which she lived. She may have spent days or weeks at a time in darkened rooms, suffering from appalling migraines and from paralyzing depression.
But in the hours when she was working, she produced far more in her 59 years than most writers produce in much longer lives. There were nine novels, more than 100 essays, and what now amounts to six volumes of letters and another five of diaries. All of it was written in her startling, completely distinctive voice and with her fine sense of the rhythms of prose. Even her diary entries are miniature short stories in their own right, enlivened by humour and precise observation.
The content of the books themselves can be forgotten in our fascination with her biography. As part of the Bloomsbury set — that group who “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles,” as Dorothy Parker memorably put it — Woolf was consciously engaged in a struggle to overturn the more tedious conventions of Victorian England and to live more freely as a woman.
She fell half in love with her brother-in-law Clive Bell, during her sister’s pregnancy. There was also a liaison — somewhere between amorous friendship and affair — with Vita Sackville-West, who became the model for the flamboyant sex-changing heroine of Orlando (1928).
Around her, people were experimenting more fervently with free love. Vanessa Bell had a brief affair with the homosexual painter Duncan Grant, which produced her daughter Angelica, who then went on to marry Grant’s former lover David Garnett.
The anecdotes are relived endlessly now as they were then, and the living arrangements can be shocking to our own, still oddly puritanical age. Certainly there was wreckage along the way: it must have been deeply unsettling for Angelica to find out at the age of 18 that her father was not the man who had brought her up but their gay family friend.
But this is not the time to appraise the morals of Bloomsbury. And Woolf’s own experiments in living were, after all, rather low-key. Unlike many of those around her, she was not driven by sex. Biographers seem to agree that her marriage to Leonard remained unconsummated and that even the affair with Vita Sackville-West took place as much through letters as through physical encounters.
There are conversations to be had here, about whether this was the result of her childhood abuse at the hands of her stepbrother, about whether she was denying Leonard ordinary happiness in expecting him to commit to a sexless marriage, and about whether she might have been more fulfilled if her primary relationship had been with a woman.
But on the anniversary of Woolf’s death, it seems important to remember that any experiments in living that she did conduct were undertaken in the service of some of the most brilliant and original novels of the 20th century.
In her essay The Angel in the House, Woolf describes the need of the woman writer to break away from shame, both in her life and in her writing. Reading her novels, the sense we get that everything is fresh — that we are witnessing life being described for the first time — only came about because Woolf herself was committed to living and thinking from first principles, and doing away with received ideas.
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