Virginia Woolf “Virginia Woolf – A Life of Struggle and Affliction” The literary critic Queenie Leavis, who had been born into the British lower middle class and reared three children while writing and editing and teaching, thought Virginia Woolf a preposterous representative of real women’s lives: “There is no reason to suppose Mrs. Woolf would know which end of the cradle to stir.” Yet no one was more aware of the price of unworldliness than Virginia Woolf. Her imaginative voyages into the waveringly lighted depths of “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse” were partly owed to a freedom from the literal daily need of voyaging out – to the shop or the office or even the nursery. Her husband, Leonard Woolf, believed that without the aid of her inheritance his wife would probably not have written a novel at all. For money guaranteed not just time but intellectual liberty.
“I’m the only woman in England free to write what I like,” she exulted in her diary in 1925, after the publication of “Mrs. Dalloway” by the Hogarth Press, which she and Leonard had set up to free her from the demands of publishers and editors. What she liked to write turned out to be, of course, books that gave voice to much that had gone unheard in the previous history of writing things down: the dartings and weavings of the human mind in the fleet elaborations of thought itself (Malcomi, 4). “Mrs. Dalloway” is a finespun tribute to the complexities of social interaction on a single day in London in 1923, ending with a shallow society hostess’s glittering party; it is also one of the Patton 2 written about the effects of World War I. Virginia Woolf was not without politics or fierce worldly concerns (4-5). The diaries and letters spanning both world wars are filled with bulletins arguments, terrors of distant armies and next-door bombs and the precariousness of the entire civilization of which she knew herself to be a late, probably too exquisite bloom. Her art is less direct.
In her novels the resonance of great events sounds from deep within individual lives. More than any other writer, Woolf has shown us how the most far-off tragedies become a part of the way we think about our daily expectations, our friends, the colors of a park, the weather, the possibility of going on or the decision not to. The old image of Virginia Woolf the snob has largely given way to various loftier characterizations: Virginia Woolf the literary priestess, or the Queen of ever-titillating Bloomsbury, or – most influentially – the vital feminist whose requisite “room of her own” came to seem the very workshop in which such books as “The Second Sex” and “The Feminine Mystique” were later produced (Reinhart, 27). Recently, however, Woolf has been granted a too modern female pantheon: the victim. The discovered molestations of her childhood, the bouts of madness that led to her suicide, seem now to commend rather than to qualify her right to speak for women. But Woolf’s personal example is in the strength and the steady professionalism that kept her constantly at work – the overambitious failures as sweated over as the lyric triumphs. For all her fragility as a woman, she was a writer of gargantuan appetite, and she knew full well how much she intended to enclose in her fine but prodigious, spreading, unbreakable webs.
“Happier today than I was yesterday,” she wrote in her diary in January 1920, “having this afternoon arrived at some idea of new form for a new novel (Reinhart, 36). Suppose one thing of another .. only not for 10 pages but for 200 or so – doesn’t that give the looseness and Patton 3 lightness I want; doesn’t that get closer and yet keep form and speed, and enclose everything, everything?” She not only said that she was depressed, but that she was going ‘mad’ again, and beginning to hear voices. She could not concentrate, and believed she could not read or write. She was hopeless and self-critical, and to the end maintained that her suicide was justified and that she would not recover.
Her suicide was planned and determined, and despite a possible failed attempt a week earlier cannot be seen as an impulsive gesture that went wrong. When she wrote at the end of her life that she was going mad ‘again’, she spoke the truth and from lengthy experience. She had her first breakdown at the age of thirteen, and others when she was twenty-two, twenty-eight, and thirty. From 1913 to 1915, from the age of thirty-one to thirty-three, she was ill so often and for so long that permanent insanity was feared (Malcomi, 12). These attacks were severe, requiring medical treatment and bed rest. During the rest of her life she had wilder mood swings.
All this, especially the lengthy illnesses of 1913/14 and 1915, is well documented; in particular, typical phases of mania and depression are described in textbook-like detail. When elated, her husband describes her incessant talking, the content becoming increasingly incoherent as she worsens in the next day or two, until, acutely manic, there is only a ‘mere jumble of dissociated words.’ Equally convincingly he describes her thought processes when depressed: she believes that she is not ill, that her condition is her own fault, and is unable to accept reassurance or to be argued out of her beliefs. The symptoms of elation and depression are convincingly described, and their severity made clear. Over the years we can trace the phasic nature of her illness, with irregular attacks ranging from the mild and doubtful to the severe and prolonged. This is a convincing life history of manic depressive psychosis, culminating in suicide at Patton 4 the age of 59, and including a suicidal attempt in her thirties which was almost successful.
Because no specific treatments were available during her life the illness can be observed running its natural course; such severe and lengthy attacks would be rare today. Her medical history otherwise can be followed in detail in her diaries. She had much minor ill-health between 1915 and her death in 1941. Some of this is attributable to mild mood swings, either up or down, perhaps overzealously managed by her husband and doctors with bedrest and curtailment of her social life. She suffered from frequent lengthy and disabling headaches, migrainous in character, accompanied by depressive symptoms and by palpitations (Malcomi, 10). Flu- like illnesses and dysmenorrhoea are frequent.
The doctors who attended her and her family were the most distinguished of the time, especially the psychiatrists, but despite their eminence had no effective treatment to offer at the time, and seem prejudiced and unhelpful to modern eyes, although their textbooks show they were able to make an accurate diagnosis. There is an impressive family history of affective illness. Her brother Thoby died young but was an emotionally disturbed child. Her sister Vanessa had an episode of depression in her thirties after a miscarriage. The attack lasted some two years, and was regarded by the family as similar to Virginia’s depressions. Her brother Adrian also suffered from episodes of nervousness and depression.
Her father was a gloomy pessimistic man who had two mild attacks of depression. His father – her grandfather – had three serious depressions which affected his career. Her first cousin on her father’s side developed severe mania in his twenties and died within a few years in an asylum (13-14). For generations her family history is filled with gloomy men and eccentric Patton 5 family was also very creative, not only in literature. Her father founded and wrote much of the Dictionary of National Biography.
Many of her relatives were friends of Thomas Carlyle:see Virginia Woolf and Thomas Carlyle. Virginia resembled her father in many ways, and had a lose but ambivalent relationship with him. Her siblings were creative in other ways. Her sister was a painter, and her brother one of the first English psychoanalysts. Her personality was a mixture of shyness and ebullience. She was remembered by friends not as a gloomy depressed person but as a brilliant conversationalist, laughing, joking, gossiping, and often indulging in malicious flights of fantasy at the expense of her friends.
She was loved by children, given to interrogating others in her search for material, and often rude and snobbish. She was awkward out of her social class, and had an odd eccentric appearance which made people stare at her in the street (Reinhart, 26-27). As a child she was sexually abused , but the is difficult to establish. At worst she may have been sexually harassed and abused from the age of 12 to 21 by her stepbrother George Duckworth, 16 years her senior, and sexually explored as early as six by her other stepbrother. It is likely that her sisters and stepsister were also sexually abused. In later life, probably as a result, she was sexually frigid in her marriage. She had several homosexual flirtations in adult life, some intense, but probably not involving physical relations.
It is unlikely that the sexual abuse and her manic-depressive illness are related. However tempting it may be to relate the two, it must be more likely that, whatever her upbringing, her family history and genetic make-up were the determining factors in her mood swings rather than her unhappy childhood. More relevant in her childhood experience is the long history of bereavements that punctuated her adolescence and precipitated her first depressions. Early losses are known to be related to adult depression. Her life and illness accords with recent work on Patton ? Bibliography Rienhart, Ruth.
“Virginia Woolf – Rediscovered.” The New York Times. 12 May 1991, late ed. : C1. 12 May 1991. http://www.times.com Malcomi, Richard. “Virginia Woolf’s Psychiatric History: Summary and Site Guide.” Compuserve Modern Feminist Literature Guide.
(1999) 24 Aug. 1999. http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepage/malcolmi/w oolf-psych/sum.htm Rienhart, Ruth. “Virginia Woolf – Rediscovered.” The New York Times. 12 May 1991, late ed. : C1.
12 May 1991. http://www.times.com Malcomi, Richard. “Virginia Woolf’s Psychiatric History: Summary and Site Guide.” Compuserve Modern Feminist Literature Guide. (1999) 24 Aug. 1999. http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepage/malcolmi/w oolf-psych/sum.htm.