Virginia Woolf ‘tried to speak the truth…wrung it drop by drop from my brain,’ and made the commitment to experience the world as female, but what did it cost her?
For a woman to comprehend her condition is to trigger the precursor for madness, therefore she learns early on to bury the implications of it, erase her knowledge of it, stifle it, plaster over it with hobbies and food and shopping and sex, blocking out the information she needs in order to realise her authenticity. Now and again she catches glimpses of it (the truth), and if the planets align then the chasm breaks open, and it is total; and if she’s lucky—only if she’s lucky— she becomes a radical feminist.
In her brave and controversial book, Who’s Afraid of Leonard Woolf, Irene Coates explores what it meant to be Virginia Woolf in stifling Victorian England. The title makes no bones about the fact she holds one person in particular responsible for Virginia’s death: her husband. The book is a rebuttal against the plethora of biographies written by both people close to the Woolf’s (family members) and lesser known academics who exonerate and vindicate Leonard, portraying him as the long-suffering husband of a madwoman. Books with titles such as “A Marriage of True Minds” (derived from Shakespearean quote), written by George Spater and Ian Parsons, gush about the emotional and intellectual connection which ran between the happy couple. But Coates points out that:
“For whatever reason most commentators are content to portray him as the husband of Virginia Woolf—a hopefully benign character, even a ‘saint’—who kept her alive during one of her ‘mad’ turns and otherwise got on with his own work. It is certainly time to question whether this view of Leonard is valid.”
Leonard was to continue this pattern of re-writing history in his autobiography, when Virginia was no longer alive to defend herself. Coates reminds us that “Virginia’s autobiography is in her own writings, in her diaries, letters and novels; this is where we find her. It is left to those who come later to take a view of their life together which should not be defined by the attitude Leonard takes in his autobiography.” She painstakingly investigates first-hand sources such as letters, diaries and writing drafts and margin notes, and from this she pieces together the missing links, revealing a very different story to the one the historians would have us believe.
There seems to have been three major life events that shaped Virginia’s inner world, and her writing. The first was the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth, from the age of six. The second was her marriage to Leonard, which would manifest in her fiction, and the third was her passionate love affair with Vita, who would become the protagonist in the novel Orlando.
Many authors have taken great pains to excuse George’s nightly visits to Virginia’s childhood bedroom. Peter Alexander, in his book Leonard and Virginia: A Literary partnership described George as “a deeply affectionate young man,” and emphasized that “George Duckworth was by no means the monster of Virginia’s imagination.” Leonard, in his later autobiography, declared that these early molestations had not damaged her. Coates summarizes his attitude:
“He offered Virginia’s first novel The Voyage Out to Gerald Duckworth for publication, and went out of his way to praise George without, apparently, a hint of irony: ‘He was an extremely kind man and, I think, very fond of Vanessa and Virginia.’
But Virginia knew that she had been abused. In 1911, she wrote to her sister Vanessa about an intimate conversation she had had with Janet Case, a spinster, with whom she used to study Greek:
“She is a woman of great magnanimity…She sat stitching… and listened to a magnificent tirade which I delivered upon life in general. She has a calm interest in copulation…and this led to the revelation of all George’s malefactions. To my surprise she has always had an intense dislike of him; and used to say, ‘Whew—you nasty creature’, when he came in and began fondling me all over my Greek. When I got to the bedroom scenes, she dropped her lace and gasped like a benevolent gudgeon. By bedtime she said she was feeling sick, and did go to the W.C., which needless to say had no water in it.”
The reaction of Janet Case to Virginia’s recount of the abuse is very different to that of Leonard’s and Peter Alexanders’.
Long before she met Leonard, Virginia was earning money as a professional writer, supporting herself on her craft by writing articles and fiction. She had also been guaranteed economic security by a Quaker aunt, who had left her a good inheritance in her will, which enabled her to live independently. The aunt in question took care of Virginia, but not her brothers and sisters, which suggests that she had noticed Virginia’s sensitivity and had wanted to support her artistic talents by protecting her from marriage. But societal pressures were to catch up with her. In 1911 Virginia wrote to her sister Vanessa:
“Did you feel horribly depressed? I did. I could not write, and all the devils came out—black hairy ones. To be 29 and unmarried—to be a failure—childless—insane too, no writer. I went off to the museum to try and subdue them”
Virginia Stephen and her sister Vanessa Bell were charismatic, witty and beautiful. They were key members of the Bloomsbury Group which by all accounts was a group of Bohemian intellectuals, into which Leonard Woolf coveted membership. In 1910, Virginia took part in what would be known as ‘the Dreadnought Affair’ where a group of young men, along with Virginia disguised as a man, dressed up as the Emperor of Abyssinia and his retinue. They were invited to look over H.M.S Dreadnought at Weymouth:
“They were treated with all the dignity to which such august visitors were entitled. Afterwards they gave the game away; there could have been serious repercussions but good sense prevailed. This episode reinforced Virginia’s contempt for male pomposity.”
As Virginia’s husband, Leonard hoped to become a key member of the Group.. He had not much of a career to speak of in England although he had been working in the Colonial Service in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) for many years, but by marrying into an established family, he would gain a social position, as well as access to Virginia’s money. He had dreams of becoming a writer himself, and with Virginia’s income to lean on he would be able to realise his ambitions.
The letters between Leonard and his friends during his service in Sri Lanka allow us an insight into his attitude towards women which, at the time, Virginia would not have been privy too. She may not have known, for example, that he regularly visited prostitutes. It is now possible to paint a picture of his character from his correspondences. He writes to his friend, Lytton Strachey:
“The most astonishing & sordid thing I have seen out here was last week in court, a rape case. An old hag of a woman charged a boy of about 18 with raping her. You should have seen her in the witness box with the grinning table of lawyers, it was the absolute depths. She had to describe minutely the whole operation, the position of his & her legs & thighs & hands & mouth. It was quite plain that she had let him copulate with her & then had got annoyed & charged him: but even she collapsed in the box when asked: ‘How do you know that the male organ entered the female organ, did you see it?’ Eventually she said that she had felt it. ‘Have you ever felt the same thing in your dreams?’ At last she gasped out, Yes”
Leonard sees the ‘yes’ as proof of the woman’s guilt. That the woman was being harangued beyond endurance is neatly overlooked, as is the fact that the questions were sadistic and illogical.
Misogyny permeates much of Leonard’s writing during this period. He also despised and disliked male homosexuality, and particularly disliked Vanessa’s friend, Duncan Grant, a promiscuous homosexual who had fathered her youngest child, Angelica. When he returned to England from Sri Lanka he also left behind a young woman who, according to the conventions of the time, he should have married.
During his days as a Cambridge undergraduate, Leonard and his friends would sometimes amuse themselves with a form of bullying which they called “The Method”.
“The Method was a form of psychological attack, or brainwashing, which involved putting a person in the wrong and refusing to believe them when they replied; challenging their defences with unremitting questions for hours until they ‘cracked’. And it was all being done to reveal the ‘soul’ of the victim. This was carried out by a couple of highly neurotic amateurs, Lytton and Leonard, who had set themselves up as the arbiters of sanity….. When Leonard returned to England in August 1911, he brought back with him a psychological weapon that he had concocted in Cambridge and perfected in Ceylon: a method of manipulating other people to his advantage.”
We can only begin to imagine how he used “The Method” on Virginia. Fortunately, as it happened, he was unable to disrupt the dynamic of the Bloomsbury Group, which would continue to be led by the two sisters, Vanessa the painter and Virginia the writer.
Upon marriage, Leonard gave up his career and opened a small publishing house. Using Virginia’s money they bought a house together and refurbished it. He decided to build a gardener’s lodge on the grounds of their house, despite the fact Virginia had never really liked their house (called Monk’s house) and one day hoped to move. Coates explains that:
“Nothing would make him shift from Monk’s house and its garden. Her carefully managed but none the less very loving relationship with Vita, with its hopes for the future, had shown her that her life in this cottage was unnecessarily constricted. Not only were the small rooms claustrophobic and inconvenient, but she was constantly being disturbed because the property was too close to the village of Rodmell. Instead of considering moving, Leonard now employed a gardener, Percy Bartholomew, who was installed with his family in one of the two cottages they had acquired together with the field they purchased. Thus the spending of increasing amounts of Virginia’s money only served to consolidate Leonard’s growing ‘empire.’”
Despite her readiness to go along with his wishes, and to live where he chose, he deprived her of the material possessions she coveted, such as her own car. He writes about the reason for resigning from his part-time job at a publishing house:
“My resignation from the Nation was made possible by our financial situation which was revolutionized in the years 1928 to 1931…The turning point in Virginia’s career as a successful novelist came in 1928 with the publication of Orlando… After 1928 we were always well off”
Leonard gave up his job, and reluctantly told Virginia about his decision, whereupon she had a dream. This is how Virginia recounted it:
“I dreamt last night that I had a disease of the heart that would kill me in 6 months. Leonard, after some persuasion, told me. My instincts were all such as I should have, in order, & some very strong: quite unexpected, I mean voluntary, as they are in dreams, & have thus an authenticity which makes an immense, & pervading impression. First, relief—well I’ve done with life anyhow ( I was lying in bed) then horror; then desire to live; then fear of insanity; then (no this came earlier) regret about my writing, & leaving this book unfinished [The Waves]; then a luxurious dwelling upon m friends sorrow; then a sense of death and being done at my age [Virginia was 47]; then telling Leonard that he must marry again; seeing our life together; & facing the conviction of going, when other people went on living. Then I woke, coming to the top of all this hanging about me; & found that I had sold a great many copies of my book [A Room of One’s Own]; & was asked to lunch…the odd feeling of these two states of life & death mingling as I ate my breakfast feeling drowsy and heavy.”
In her next diary entry Virginia writes that Leonard’s freedom was “drawing near.” (Referring to him giving up his job.) Could her nightmare have been a warning that his freedom would be her thraldom, because he would from now on be completely dependent on the money she earned and be omnipresent in the house? Her response to the walls closing in around her was to dive down into her creative self and finish the book that some argue is her masterpiece, The Waves.
As we follow Coates’ map of Virginia’s life, we cannot help but notice the connection between the writer’s “madness” and her creativity. Her best books were written just after a spell of madness. It seems that madness is a defence taken by women struggling to defend their authentic selves against the relentless onslaughts aimed at them. Sometimes women cave in and are lost to us. When this happens they are able to continue to function in their daily lives. When they resist the process, madness, or suicide, claims them. Madness, then, is the way that women to escape the constraints imposed upon them by an oppressive society, with their integrity intact. Virginia’s work could not have been written without a strong sense of self, and so in order to protect it her mind fled the present moment.
During these mad spells, and through the convalescences, Virginia would write her greatest anti-patriarchal polemics. According to Coates,
“Entering that dangerous, visionary world is an important part of Virginia’s writing. She has often said that after an episode where she ‘submerges’, the material for her next novel comes to her. One is reminded of Hamlet—a play she must have read many times—with its equivocal exploration of the borderland between sanity and insanity, and the use Hamlet makes of it to uncover the truth about his father’s murder. The difference is that Shakespeare himself is not accused of being mad. “
And as time went on the gap between Virginia’s success as a writer and Leonard’s failure was widening. While Virginia was writing The Waves, Leonard was working on his first volume of a trilogy entitled After the Deluge. By now, they were in direct competition with each other, and the stakes were high—which one of them would be able to write a book that would influence others after their deaths? The ‘deluge’ in Leonard’s title referred to the first world war, and this was the major theme in his trilogy, whereas Virginia’s book focuses on the essence of life itself. Coates analyses the two “watery” titles that they had chosen:
“We may consider it strange that a war fought with metal weapons delivering unprecedented fire and explosive power, should be equated by Leonard with this basic life-giving liquid. However, to the arch rationalist, a large body of water is the ultimate irrational force, as barbarism was the ultimate irrational force threatening ‘civilization.’ No doubt he also saw water in biblical terms as ‘the flood’ that would sweep everything away. He was Job arguing against God, battling to replace God with his own (apparently) rationalist image.
For Virginia, water was certainly not a symbol of any outside, destructive or irrational force. For her it was both within herself and part of the world, its powerful ebb and flow: the gathering together of waves breaking on the shore when the hidden undertow drags them back, to rise and break again and again. That swelling of the waves, those tides, were felt in her own body and influenced the way she wrote: the restless shifting of the ocean was instinct in the very rhythm of her language.”
But with the intimacy between Vita and Virginia now ebbing, the lightness and energy of the writing in Orlando was replaced by a sense of weightiness and tragedy expressed in The Waves.
The publication of both After the Deluge and The Waves occurred in October 1931. This was what Coates calls “the watershed”. Each author hoped that the book would be the making of them.
“For Leonard, disaster came in the guise of a short and offhand review of his book in the Times Literary Supplement. He was at once cast into an abyss of gloom which is poignantly recorded by Virginia…There were other less critical reviews but they gave him no comfort. A week later Virginia records that ‘Happily that morbidity of L’s is over’. However, his prediction was right. His book sold in hundreds and did not reach the general public as he had wanted; while The Waves sold in twice as many thousands and had to be reprinted.”
On the 29th of February 1932, Virginia received an invitation, which would give her an opportunity to further make her mark on the history of English literature. She was the first woman to be invited to deliver the prestigious Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge. Leonard did not encourage her, and went out of his way to prevent her going, even giving her false information. Having graduated from there, Leonard felt that Trinity College was ‘his’ college, ‘his’ territory, but with his book a failure and his wife achieving beyond what he could have ever dreamed, his ego could not stand it. It probably went something like this:
“His wife, Virginia, who everybody knew was “mad”, surely those eminent professors did not want to take what she was saying seriously? If Virginia gave those lectures she would be known for ever afterwards as Sir Leslie Stephens daughter, one of the luminaries of the literary world, rather than his wife… It was simply too much for Leonard. He, who had failed to move the electors of those inferior ‘other universities’ to send him to Parliament; who had dreamt of being the great orator, the modern Pericles, and found that no-one took notice of him—how terrible if Virginia had succeeded in this, too, where he had failed!…”
Virginia declined the invitation and did not go.
From this point onwards Virginia had to contend with Leonard’s indifference and hostility towards her writing. After The Waves she published a little book called Flush, which was the story of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning seen from her spaniel’s point of view. It sold well, and brought in good financial rewards, but Leonard told her she should not have wasted her time writing a story about a dog. Her success continued unabaited. Her novel The Years was lauded as a masterpice and sold well in America. The Times Literary Supplement ran an article on a Century of English Novelists from Dickens to Virginia Woolf. But she was unable to enjoy her success:
“The public’s postive reaction to The Years once more sent Virginia soaring skywards on their marital see-saw and she — realising that this was a dangerous place to be in relation to Leonard– once more happily planned to appease him with money and goods: “Now at any rate money is assured: L shall have his new car; we will be floated again…”
By April 1938, the year she published Three Guineas, she was existing only on the pocket money Leonard allowed her– out of her own earnings. That month, the Woolfs sold Virginia’s half share in the publishing house, Hogarth Press, to a man named John Lehman. At the same time, Leonard got her to sign an agreement that meant she would not be allowed to publish her work anywhere else. Lehman speaks of the document Leonard forced Virginia to sign:
“In the ‘Scheme’ there was no clause which prevented either Leonard or me from engaging in any other publishing business, only one which prevented Virginia from doing so once she had ceased to be a partner. Of course it was a complete fantasy to imagine that, as soon as she had my 3,000 pounds (theoretically) in her pocket, Virginia would run off and set up as a publisher on her own… “
The word “theoretically” in this passage tells us that Lehman did not think for a minute that the money for her share of Hogarth Press had actually gone to Virginia. He was also to learn later that in fact the clause did apply to him, at which point Leonard refused to release him from it. If Lehman was not able to contest Leonard, then we can imagine that Virginia was certainly not in a position to do so.
The process of attrition continued. “Leonard now fostered the idea in her that she had to pay for the small gifts and commissions she enjoyed giving to Vanessa and the others living at Charleston by revising and selling her stories and articles so that she continued to anxiously overwork. He was soon to prevent her from making these gifts.”
Leonard’s complete control over her finances played a major part in Virginia’s decision to kill herself. She believed him when he told her that they would be ruined because they would have to draw on the capital she had built up over the years by her writing. And by the Spring of 1941, Leonard had succeeded in destroying Virginia’s last remaining friendship. The friend was an elderly woman named Ethel– one woman he could not control. Seeing that Virginia had no money, the old woman offered to pay for a hired car. Virginia wrote to her:
“Well, dearest Ethel, how damned generous you are, breaking, or ready to break, a golden lump off your hoard, all to buy a visit from me. I happen to be very humble just now. I can’t believe in being anyone. So I say with amazement, yet Ethel wants to see me! We shall meet one of these days… Never mind Leonard. He is a good man: in his heart he respects my friends. But as for my staying with you, for some occult reason, he cries No no No.”
Within a year of her death, Leonard was having an affair with a woman named Trekkie, and living on the interest of Virginia’s fortune. It is unclear whether the relationship began before or after his wife’s suicide, but what is clear is that he spent the rest of his life writing passionate letters to Trekkie and she would often come to live with him in Monk’s house, although she never divorced her husband, Ian Parsons.
As we can see, history has borne two perspectives of Virginia’s life and death: the male perspective, and the female. According to the male, Leonard was a saint who cared for his mad wife until the inevitable time came when she could no longer carry on, whereupon one morning she drowned herself. Coates calls this the “graceful way, the male way, of seeing her death in the icy waters of the River Ouse that March day in 1941.” But then she asks us, “Do we believe that?”. What about the female truth?
“As we approach the end of Virginia’s life, can we see her too as a victim of a killer male who wished her dead..? The female truth is less graceful: to live with a man who feels he has to conquer his partner before making his own name in the world, until her independent voice is silenced and she is reduced to supporting him; she may then be discarded for a younger woman.”
In the months before her death, Virginia had also made a new discovery. In her diary she writes about her realisation of what she called her “growing detachment from the hierarchy, the patriarchy… I am I & must follow that furrow, not copy another.That is the only justification for my writing and living” We have to remember that she was living in a time before there were any conceptualizations of feminist politics for her to turn to for help and guidance.
Virginia’s writing is intuitive and sensitive. Coates describes The Waves as “a difficult, mysterious book, unreachable for many. But for some women it is an endless and limitless resource” and believes that Woolf was “a pioneer… a woman not so much ahead of her time (although she was that) but outside clock time.” She also reminds us that:
“Nearly seventy years after The Waves was written, many women still find it hard to experience the world through their own female eyes instead of, indirectly, through male eyes. The book called forth a great effort of Virginia’s creative imagination as it is not confined to the interactions of individual human characters but involves nature through time; and social awakening after a long dark period of patriarchal supremacy…”
[This is Part 2 of a two-part article. ]
Below is a link to the “station scene in the movie The Hours, directed by Stephen Daldry, based on the book ‘The Hours” written by Michael Cunningham. It won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but both the book and the movie either unwittingly, or deliberately, obfuscate the truth about Virginia’s life by failing to provide context, and by their utter vindication of Leonard.