Imagining Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf lives in my imagination as if she was someone I’ve met. She died sixteen years before I was born and forty years before I first read a book by her. Yet she’s a writer that I’ve kept bumping into over the years, the way I might briefly see an acquaintance while at an airport or when I’m about to leave a favourite Café. Short encounters that are just long enough to remind me that the person exists and which occasionally make me reflect on how we’ve both changed since we last met.

‘How can Virginia Woolf have changed?’ you ask, not unreasonably, given that she’s dead. Well, my Virginia Woolf lives only in my imagination. She’s a sort of papier-mâché persona, built up layer by layer from my encounters with her books, her biography, the books of people she knew, some lectures and discussions, time spent in the same places that she spent time in, and the occasional news item about her. This process of crafting an image from scraps of information reminds me of how Woolf built up Jacob’s character in ‘Jacob’s Room’, focusing on the space Jacob occupied and the things he left behind him, to generate a character from fragments, like reassembling a pot from shards.

The most recent encounter was facilitated by my wife, who showed me a BBC news report entitled: ‘Virginia Woolf: Book of literary confessions sells for £21k’ The book, ‘Really and Truly: A Book of Literary Confessions’ is the kind of thing that might now appear today as answer to a Facebook quiz. It has Virginia Woolf’s handwritten answers to questions about who are the best and worst writers and critics in the literary world.

Here’s a facsimile from the book:

It was fun to see something so light-hearted from Virginia Woolf and it gives lots of statements to enjoy agreeing or disagreeing with. It added another layer to my imaginary Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf was also in my mind because she and I share a birthday. She’d have been 139 this month. When I first met her, she was much younger than that. It was the early Eighties. I was newly arrived in London and looking for things to do. With all of London laid out before me, I decided to go to an Adult Education Centre in Camden and take a course on The Bloomsbury Group. In those better-funded days, Adult Education didn’t require you to work towards a qualification. You could just turn up and learn things. My tutor turned out to be related to Virginia Woolf, via Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell, so we paid scant attention to the Forster or Elliot (the only two members of the Bloomsbury Group that I was familiar with) and dived into the life and works of Virginia Woolf.

It was a heady ride. In a few weeks, I gobbled up ‘Jacob’s Room’ and ‘Mrs Dalloway’, was surprised by the imagination in ‘Orlando’ and yawned my way through ‘To The Lighthouse’ (seriously that ‘Time Passes’ stuff got old really quickly). My excitement rose with ‘The Voyage Out’ and waned with ‘The Waves’. I read ‘A Room Of One’s Own’ which I thought a modest aspiration but which was being cited as a feminist manifesto back in those boiler-suited Bananarama days.

At this point, the Virginia Woolf in my head was the product only of the impressions her novels and small pieces of her literary criticism made on me, uncontaminated by any biographical data, I saw her as a cerebral writer, prone to experimentation with high concepts and innovative forms of story-telling. Someone who was consciously breaking away from the detailed, three-paragraphs-to-describe-buttoning-his-waistcoat style of the previous generation like Arnold Bennet. She was also someone who seemed to eschew the physical and the passionate (although with ‘Orlando’ she let herself go a bit more). I knew from her criticism that she hated D H Lawrence’s novels. I read ‘Sons and Lovers’ and ‘Women In Love’ and understood how Woolf might find his content vulgar and self-congratulatory and his use of form unimaginative but I suspected there was more too it than that.

Normally, I’d have stopped there. I don’t often read biography. I’m usually more interested in an author’s text than the details of their lives. I changed my mind when my tutor pointed us at ‘Virginia Woolf: a Biography‘ written by Virginia Woolf’s nephew, Quentin Bell in 1972. It was a pretty good read. Here’s the publisher’s summary:

‘As the nephew of Virginia Woolf, Quentin Bell enjoyed an intimacy with his subject granted to few biographers. Originally published in two volumes in 1972, his acclaimed biography describes Virginia Woolf’s family and childhood; her earliest writings; the formation of the Bloomsbury Group; her marriage to Leonard Woolf; the mental breakdown of the years 1912-15; the origins and growth of the Hogarth Press; her friendships with T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Vita Sackvill-West; her struggles to write The Waves and The Years; and the political and personal distresses of her last decade.’

My imaginary Virginia gained a few layers. I saw her now as having lived a life where she was closely connected with some of the ‘great minds’ of the literary world and some truly eccentric and deeply privileged people who lived outside the mores of the time. I also saw three new things: an abusive childhood, the strong presence of her husband Leonard Woolf, and a persistent depression that stalked her at intervals and ended with her suicide.

Time passes.

Virginia Woolf lay largely undisturbed in my imagination, except when I found myself walking around Bloomsbury or reading T. S, Eliot and wondering whether Woolf was included in ‘women come and go / talking of Michelangelo.’

Then I found a copy of Leonard Woolf’s novel ‘The Village In The Jungle’ and the Virginia Woolf in my head stirred and told me that I’d missed something fundamental.

‘The Village In The Jungle’ was a startling read. Here’s the publisher’s summary:

‘This novel set in Ceylon follows the lives of a handful of villagers hacking out a fragile existence in a jungle where indiscriminate growth, indifferent fate and malevolent neighbours constantly threaten to overwhelm them. It is as if Thomas Hardy were immersed in the heat, scent, sensuality and pungent mystery of the tropics. Seven years as a colonial administrator gave Woolf first-hand knowledge of the injustice of colonial rule, and an acute psychological sympathy with the villagers. He skilfully incorporates local story-telling traditions and beliefs into his chilling narrative, to create a book which remains one of the best-loved in Sri Lanka to this day.’

This book took an unblinking look at the Colonial Civil Service and what British rule really meant. It also seemed to look deeply into the lives of the people living under that rule. It’s engaging, lyrical and hard to forget.

I looked up Leonard Woolf who, until then, I’d thought of as Virginia Woolf’s husband and learned something of the man he was. At Trinity College, Cambridge he was elected to the Cambridge Apostles which at that time included Lytton StracheyJohn Maynard KeynesG. E. Moore and E. M. Forster. So he wasn’t a man who met the people his wife knew. He was an establishment figure who was a peer with some of Virginia Woolf’s circle. His novel made it clear that he didn’t approve of what the Colonial Civil Service was doing. To his credit, I think, after seven years in Ceylon, he resigned from the Service. He married Virginia the same year. He was subsequently influential in the Labour Party and the Fabian Society and campaigned for the idea of an agency to fulfil the role currently played by the United Nations.

I imagined this widely-travelled man, used to wielding power and with strong political views, living his life with Virginia and I rethought both of them.

The latest and most dramatic shift in the Virginia Woolf in my head came this month when my wife showed me the text of Virginia Woolf’s suicide note. I knew that Virginia Woolf had killed herself by filling her pockets with stones, walking into the river near her house and letting herself drown, but I’d never seen the suicide note before. The text is below. It made me cry. For the first time, I really looked at the Virginia Woolf in my imagination and saw a woman who had loved and been loved but whose mind was in such turmoil that she couldn’t continue. Here’s the note she left for her husband:


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. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

I wrote this post to help Virginia Woolf reposition herself in my imagination. I hope she’ll be comfortable there. As I wrote this I realised that it’s been a long time since I read any of her novels. Maybe it’s time to start again, perhaps with ‘The Voyage Out’.

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