Novels and essays wrote by Virginia Woolf

BIOGR.

Virginia Woolf once observed, "to have so many selves." In her novels and essays, not to mention nearly 4,000 letters and a 30-volume diary, Woolf lebehind her a voluminous anatomy of self, and in the years since her 1941 suicide, biographers and critics have created a succession of further portraits.

Biographies are fictions we contrive about lives we find meaningful. Facts are interpretable, and become available to the biographer with a certain randomness: the significance of unknown ''facts'' can scarcely be determined.

To literary formalists, she was a groundbreaking stylist, a courageous experimenter who, along with James Jfractured and remade the novel. To feminists, she was an early advocate of women's rights, a writer concerned with both the social and emotional consequences of patriarchal politics. Quentin Bell's 1972 biography of his aunt focused on her life rather than her art, leaving us with a picture of a high-strung, unstable woman, irreparably damaged by her childhood and dependent in later life on the ministrations of her devoted husband, Leonard. Phyllis Rose's "Woman of Letters" (1978) provided a feminist reading of the transactions between her fiction and her life, while Lyndall Gordon's "Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life" (1984) attempted to use Woolf's own narrative techniques by focusing on a series of epiphanic moments that supposedly shaped Woolf's sensibility and art. James King's biography, which draws heavily on Woolf's diaries and letters, takes an altogether more comprehensive approach, providing the reader with more than anyone could want to know about the writer's daily ups and downs, travels and flirtations.

Virginia Woolf had very mixed feelings about biography, or ''life-writing,'' as she called it. On the one hand she was an enthusiast: ''As everybody knows,'' she wrote in her essay on Christina Rossetti, ''the fascination of reading biographies is irresistible.'' But, she also declared biography to be ''a bastard, an impure art'' and claimed that the very idea was ''poppycock.''

·Mr. King -- a professor of English at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of earlier biographies of William Cowper, Paul Nash and William Blake -- tells us about Woolf's menstrual problems, her attacks of diarrhea, her difficulties in buying clothes. He tells us about her sexual frigidity and her fears about being thought cold and detached. He dwells at considerable length on Woolf's lengthy flirtation with Clive Bell, her sister Vanessa's husband, and also speculates that Woolf might have had an incestuous relationship with Vanessa. That suggestion, at least based on the evidence presented in these pages, seems highly suspect. As Mr. King himself points out, Woolf always shied away from the sexual side of relationships. And while Vanessa notes in a letter that Virginia was "pining for a real petting" and refers to her as an "ape" who might make "a pleasant enough bed fellow," similar animal imagery and language orecur in the sisters' and their friends' correspondence without a specifically sexual context.

For that matter, a schematic Freudianism informs this entire biography. As Mr. King sees it, the young Woolf longed for more attention from her beloved mother, who died when Virginia was 13, and as a result, experienced attraction to other women, like Vita Sackville-West, whom she regarded as a kind of substitute mother. Her feelings toward her father, Mr. King argues, were more ambivalent: on one hand, she wanted to emulate his literary career; on the other, she was determined to rebel against both his old-fashioned esthetics and his patriarchal view of the world. The sexual molestation Woolf suffered as a young girl at the hands of her half-brother, George Duckworth, says Mr. King, leher with a lasting mistrust of men, while the early deaths of her half-sister, Stella, and her older brother, Thoby, leher obsessed with death.

On the matter of Woolf's own suicide, which occurred against the threatening backdrop of World War II, Mr. King offers a few theories, some more convincing than others. He suggests that she was depressed by the ascent of Hitler, which meant, in his words, "that phallic man had triumphed." He suggests she was convinced that her last book, "Between the Acts," was a failure. And he suggests she felt "deeply alienated" from Leonard, Vanessa and Vita (even though the last decade with Leonard had been happier, on the whole, than ever; even though her relationship with Vanessa routinely fluctuated; even though the affair with Vita had long since wound down).

In Mr. King's view: "She carefully chose the time and circumstances of her death, very much in the manner of an artist imposing her will upon life. Her decision was deeply courageous: although she would not be able to write about death, she would actually face the experience itself."

Mr. King's readings of Woolf's novels are colored by his determination to show how her work reflects "the search for a distinctly feminine esthetic, one in which the intuitive parts of the self are dominant." It is an approach that not only tends to apply retroactively the dogmatic statements she made about men and women in the latter part of her life to earlier works of art, but that also has the effect of ghettoizing her overall achievement and reducing her stature as a modernist master to that of a women's writer.

·A remarcable work is "Virginia Woolf :A writer’s Life". As Lyndall Gordon well knows, no writer's life has been so fully documented as Virginia Woolf's. Woolf le4,000 letters and 30 volumes of a diary, ''yet the woman writing remains elusive.'' Between those who have already had too much of Woolf (they rarely complain of having too much of JYeats or T. S. Eliot) and those who recognize that she created her own life like a novel and that we shall not soon be done with interpreting it, there yawns an abyss.

A South African by birth with a doctorate from Columbia University who teaches at Mrs. Gordon has given us a ''writer's life'' that is measured, and brave in its imaginative interpretations. 3

Mrs. Gordon notes that it is not external, recorded events that mark the significant moments in a writer's life, but rather what she calls turning points, internal illuminations. She identifies these turning points in Woolf's life. They were: ''1892 when a ten-year old child spied the monumental characters of her parents; 1897 (two years atheir mother's death) when the sisters learnt to walk alone; 1905 when the young woman tramped out the unorthodform of her novels; 1907-8 when she discovered the uses of memory; 1912-15 when she set up her private life against all marital and mental odds; the fertile spring of 1925 (when she was planning ''To the Lighthouse''); the 'fin' of 1926; and the 'soul's change' of 1932.''

The 'fin' of 1926, what Woolf called ''my vision of a fin rising on a wide blank sea,'' marked her new conception of fiction. As she herself wrote of this vision: ''No biographer could possibly guess this important fact about my life in the late summer of 1926; yet biographers pretend they know people.'' Her ''soul's change of 1932'' was her decision to write with a public rather than a private voice. At the age of 50 she had become a feminist, a reformer and a questioner of the abuses of power. As Mrs. Gordon demonstrates, Woolf ''wished to expose a woman's point of view and called the autumn of 1932 'a great season of liberation.' '' She had ceased to dread male condemnation.

Mrs. Gordon identifies as the three most significant elements in Woolf's life her marriage to Leonard, her devotion to the dead (''ghostly voices . . . more real for her than were the people who lived by her side'') and her ''move away from the self-conscious superiority of modern writers towards the lives of the obscure, particularly the lives of women.'' Mrs. Gordon's thesis that the dead claimed Woolf more than the living, that she may even have died to join them, necessitates her finding all of Woolf's work essentially autobiographical - the recapturing of youthful ghosts.

Mrs. Gordon understands that Woolf was, like all women, trained to silence, that ''the unlovable woman was always the woman who used words to effect. She was caricatured as a tattle, a scold, a shrew, a witch.'' Women felt ''the pressure to relinquish language, and 'nice' women were quiet. Mrs. Ramsay smiles at her husband silently.'' Finally, Mrs. Gordon refuses to use absurd simplifications like ''madness,'' ''sanity,'' and ''frigidity.'' As she wrote in an essay on Woolf and T. S. Eliot, ''the greater the woman, the less possible it is to slot her feelings, thoughts and relationships into fixed categories.''

Probably Mrs. Gordon's comparison between Woolf and Eliot, about whom she has written the brilliant ''Eliot's Early Years,'' has led her into a certain conservatism that renders this book mildly idiosyncratic. She may well be correct in seeing Woolf's marriage as central to her life. There has been a recent tendency in Woolf studies to bury or condemn Leonard rather than to praise him. Yet if the Woolfs' marriage was necessary to her survival, this was not, as Mrs. Gordon would have it, because it was in any sense conventional. It did not begin in romance, was not celebrated by ceremony or reception and would not, in its personal details, have suited the marital ideals of T. S. Eliot or the Archbishop of Canterbury. A rare marriage, it allowed two unusual people to lead, with the fewest impediments and the largest opportunities, their chosen lives. It is a remarkable fact how few women in lasting marriages have recorded anything about them. The role of the nurturing husband has been one of the better-kept secrets. There is surely no female experience of which so little truth has been told as that of a woman in an ''equal'' marriage.

Mrs. Gordon's emphasis on the centrality of Woolf's marriage is important, therefore, but does raise problems. She simultaneously admits that Woolf wrote little about Leonard Woolf (''If I dared I would investigate my own sensations with regard to him, but out of . . . Idon't know what reticence - refrain. I who am not reticent'') and yet, despite her admission that the diary almost never explores Woolf's attitude to her husband, Mrs. Gordon claims to understand the marriage's success. She doubts the view, now generally accepted, that there was no sex in the marriage - this is a daring guess. Mrs. Gordon adds that in the marital exchanges of Leonard and Virginia ''there is not one note of tepid compromise.'' But a marriage without the occasional ''tepid compromise'' would be shattered in a year.

Lyndall Gordon has given us in this work what is essential to the biography of any writer: an analysis of those experiences about which they were silent. We come away with the sense that, muted by centuries of training, women writers especially have found that when they attempted truthfully to record their own lives, language failed.

·Hermione Lee, a professor of English literature at Liverpool University and the author of a biography of Willa Cather, notes, Virginia Woolf's ''status has grown beyond anything that even she, with her strong sense of her own achievements, might have imagined.'' The greater a writer's status, the more likely he or she will be appropriated by others: given the sheer volume of material that's been produced about Woolf -- all those books, articles and scholarly papers, not to mention memoirs, letters, diaries and psychoanalytic readings -- is there anything vital leto say? This question is raised by Hermione Lee (''periodic attacks of archive-faintness overcame me'') and must inevitably occur to even the most ardent of Bloomsbury/Woolf fans when faced with this rather hevolume. One hesitates to commit oneself, wondering whether the time put in will have been worth it at the end, a bit ashamed of this cost-accounting approach but wary nonetheless.

Ms. Lee documents the evolving perception of her subject from ''the delicate lady authoress of a few experimental novels and sketches, some essays and a 'writer's' diary, to one of the most professional, perfectionist, energetic, courageous and committed writers in the language.'' She does this without recourse to the politicized agendas of the academy or special pleading (all of Woolf's flaws are on display here); this account sets itself above the fray, the better to home in on the glittery and elusive creature at its center -- the prize catch in what one critic has described as the Bloomsbury pond.

From its very first page Ms. Lee's book is informed by current thinking on how to approach the writing of someone's life: ''There is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case. Positions have been taken, myths have been made.'' But it is also infused with a very personal passion for her subject, which enables the author to cut crisply through the labyrinth of theories that have sprung up: there is ''no way of knowing,'' she asserts, whether the teen-age Virginia Stephen was really violated, ''forced to have oral sex'' -- or, indeed, any kind of sex. What we get instead of reductionist speculation -- Virginia Woolf as incest survivor or proto-feminist or trailblazing post-modernist -- is a vivid picture of an age in flux and the pressures, internal as well as external, that it brought to bear upon one particularly sensitive female. When she and her half sister, Stella, took a walk in Kensington Gardens they sometimes bumped into Henry James. As late as 1904, when a 22-year-old Virginia was living with her three siblings in what her parents' generation regarded as a bohemian, if not declasse, setup at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury (''Henry James was particularly aghast''), bathroom references were still cause for embarrassment. In 1917, observing the freedom in matters of attire and sexual preference enjby her new women friends, like Katherine Mansfield and Dora Carrington, she could note, ''It seems to me quite impossible to wear trousers.'' In 1927 a cheroot-smoking Virginia Woolf would shingle her hair, and in the summer of 1934 she switched from an old-fashioned nib to a fountain pen. In 1939, light-years away from her cloistered beginnings, she met Freud, who presented her with a narcissus.

This biographer also makes judicious use of psychological conjecture; by keeping a careful distance from jargon-ridden speculations (''But do we need . . . to put Virginia Woolf on the couch and make more sense of her than she can make of herself?'') and by maintaining a certain modesty before the irreducible nature of her subject, Ms. Lee comes across as immensely insightful without appearing to have all the answers at hand. Of Woolf's parents, for instance, she remarks: ''They both died before she had begun to prove herself as a writer, but it is probable that her writer's life was driven by the desire to say 'look at me!' to those two exceptional and critical parents.''

Ms. Lee is good also on the crucial role of Leonard -- this man who seemed ''so foreign'' to his wife-to-be even as she is only months away from marrying him and who eventually became her truest companion. In the legend that has grown up around Virginia Woolf, Leonard features as a grim head nurse of a husband, ceaselessly gauging his wife's symptoms and doling out the amount of time she may spend chatting with visitors. Ms. Lee does not deny this side of him, conceding that Leonard's vigilant supervision of his wife's social life ''certainly turned him, over the years, into more of a guardian than a lover,'' but he takes on fuller form here than he has elsewhere, exhibiting ambitions and judgments of his own -- not only in the arena of politics, where Virginia favored pacifism in the face of the mounting threat from Hitler and Leonard favored going to war, but also when it came to people and literature. (Leonard was bored by much of Bloomsbury's partying; found Ethel Smyth, the eccentric 72-year-old composer with whom his 48-year-old wife fell briefly in love, ''appalling''; and thought ''Three Guineas'' his wife's worst book.) And although it has become de rigueur to treat the Woolfs' marriage as a sexless union of highbrows, the one sober and the other mad, this is the first biography I have read that succeeds, through a subtle shiin emphasis, in conveying the profoundly intimate quality of their relationship -- the way Virginia felt about Leonard's presence of an evening when they both read quietly, ''L in his stall, I in mine.'' Ms. Lee subverts the established view still further by suggesting that, at least in the beginning, as evidenced by the playful use of pet names (Virginia was o''Mandril'' and Leonard ''Mongoose'') and general indulgence in what Virginia called ''private fun,'' the Woolfs' marriage had a cuddly, even frisky aspect -- ''an erotic secret life.'' (Another recent biography, ''Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf,'' by Panthea Reid, while not nearly as strong as Ms. Lee's, makes fascinating use of documents that are either unfamiliar or heretofore unpublished. So we fall upon a startlingly sexy note written by Virginia to Leonard a year and a half atheir marriage, in which the Mandril ''wishes me to inform you delicately that her flanks and rump are now in finest plumage, and invites you to an exhibition.'' Virginia when she sizzles sounds very hot indeed!)

Of the many original ideas that Ms. Lee takes up, the place of reading in Virginia Woolf's life and the meaning of her madness are especially well developed. Although Woolf's was too mocking a sensibility to give itself over to the Pateresque view of art as a form of religion, she clearly found solace -- a way out from her overwhelming sense of futility, ''the old treadmill feeling of going on and on and on, for no reason'' -- in the ordering properties of reading and writing. Reading became for her, as Ms. Lee describes it, a means ''of transcending the self.'' (She wrote to Ethel Smyth, ''Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.'') As for Woolf's psychological frailty -- ''my own queer, difficult nervous system'' -- Hermione Lee makes a persuasive case for her underlying sanity and for the literary use to which she put the epiphanies revealed to her in her breakdowns. Notwithstanding her ''blue devils,'' which was her term for depression, and the agitations of her manic phases, she nurtured a hard-won affirmative instinct. She admitted to a ''terror of real life'' and a general thin-skinnedness -- ''Cut me anywhere, & I bleed too profusely'' -- and by her own recognition she descended from an overbred, attenuated race: ''such cold fingers, so fastidious, so critical, such taste. My madness has saved me.''

And perhaps, indeed, it did. As she aged, she seems never to have succumbed to middle-aged prejudices; she remained porous in a way creative people are oimagined to be but rarely are. Although it may seem odd to say of someone who killed herself (she put a stone in a pocket and walked into the Ouse River) that she was heroic, it is all the same the word that one most associates with Virginia Woolf areading Ms. Lee's biography. She ceaselessly challenged herself in her art, always giving ''this loose, drimaterial of life'' her best imaginative capacities. Her courage in questioning the manifold smug assumptions of the patriarchal culture in which she lived -- ranging from its educational system (she felt a particular disdain for masculine vanity as personified by dons and turned down several honorary degrees) to the way it waged war -- is easy to overlook because of the subtlety and whimsy of her methods. But it is all the more striking when one considers that she might have comfortably inhabited the privileged niche she had within that culture (T. S. Eliot called it ''a kind of hereditary position in English letters'') without rocking the boat.

·The danger in analyzing lives and literature according to selective evidence or a single set of experiences is that the essential spirit of people and their creative products can suffer severe misinterpretation if tucked neatly into Procrustean beds. Such a reductionist reading is at the heart of Louise DeSalvo's thesis in ''Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work.'' She claims that Woolf's recurrent depressions, breakdowns, and eventual suicide were caused by physical abuses, especially by Woolf's half brothers, and the probable psychic trauma that was triggered by the dysfunctional behavior of almost all Woolf's immediate family; these experiences also provided the central theme for her novels and nonfiction. Although Ms. DeSalvo, who teaches English at Hunter College, presents a thoughtful theory based upon close readings and exhaustive research, speculation about the psyches of the dead can be dangerous. For beyond the fact that, according to Ms. DeSalvo, Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, endured what most analysts would assume to be the damaging effects of Victorian upbringings complete with a raging father, a distant mother and a half sister banished to an institution, assumption can never be proof. The supporting evidence Ms. DeSalvo finds in Woolf's writings for her evolving state of mind deserves consideration. But defining a major author and her work according to current theories on child abuse and feminist psychology alone ignores the miracle of transcendence in life and in art and dismisses the truth that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. bf966s2394rffo

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