Virginia Woolf, photo by Barbara Strachey (1938)
Friends and readers,
The second part of Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf takes us through the first years of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s rocky adjustment, her career as a teacher, writer, publisher (with Leonard Woolf, and a lot of help from John Lehman); what was very valuable about Hogarth Press texts; Virginia’s love-affair friendships (from Vita Sackville-West to Ethel Smyth (composer, pianist); her achievements in novel art (The Voyage Out, To the Lighthouse, The Waves); and then, under the onslaught of bombs and terror at what a Nazi state were at a distance and would close-up inflict on her, Leonard, their friends, her feeling of the fragility of her calm about to erupt, she killed herself. No more imposed regimes, no more wretched distress of worrying, no imposed medical regimes which prevented her from writing, her great solace and strength it seems. What is remarkable is how much she accomplished, how much she produced, how she lived as best she could with integrity.
The Hogarth Press
Virginia and Leonard bought, learned to use, and then built a worthy business in the Hogarth Press. They did quarrel sometimes, but mostly they had the same ideals for their press, and they published a remarkable group of books (Forster, TS Eliot, also Vita Sackville-West whose novels sold well). While how this was an absorbing occupation for her to use to remain calm and convalesce when she needed to, obviously it was her way of getting into print too. Lee point out they sold a minuscule number of copies of The Voyage Out the first two years. That they published their friends is par for the course. Until I read Lee’s disapproval (she’s like some tenured person saying your article doesn’t count because it didn’t appear in these journals and so why did you publish there?), I never imagined anyone could criticize this venture. But just not acceptable. Lee says this is after all a vanity press. “Her reputation has been affected by this “in her life-time” and “after it” — says the academic biographer.
Virginia and her circle were attacked virulently by critics on many grounds: Wyndham Lewis was a bully macho male, and what he was doing was simply squashing by sneering and deriding l’ecriture-femme: you can see that in the language he choose. And then like Henry James deriding (to name three on my mind from the other listserv still going) Alcott, Woolson and Oliphant, Constance Fennimore Woolson, Wyndham is listened to — and has been influential: she is neurotic, too feminine, elitist (the pot calling the kettle black there). Virginia became upset because she recognized this hegemonic point of view could and would kill readership, and yet she finds the novel itself a deeply problematic genre which gets in her way. Stael in her one analysis of fiction as such says that the demands of the audience stop her from writing what she wants in her novel: Woolf goes more deeply; it’s the structures and stories that are demanded.
One of publications that emerged just from the existence of the press: The Hogarth Letters: I don’t know how long this book has been on one of my shelves. Introduced by Hermione Lee, it consists of its contemporary introduction by E.M. Forster and then about 11 or 12 “letters:” essays really addressed to an imagined or real interlocutor in which the writer explores some topic of concern, large and small, political and not, social, cultural. They read to me like an oasis of sanity, the “language of rational humanism, deployed on behalf of intellectual tolerance, in opposition to forms of tyranny and reaction” (to quote Lee). Some are snobbish and condescending (advocating a suburban housewife put down her knitting and teaching her to appreciate Poussin) but others have beauty, liberal thought, ideals that are fine and good. Some do sniff out an ominous haunting future not so far off. They were published between 1931 and 33 when the world order (such as it was) was breaking down. It was very much a Lehmann project to begin with and then Virginia joined in.
E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington, 1920 (he was one of Hogarth Press’s authors, the Woolf’s friend
Woolf’s objected to the novel form as such. We talk and critics write about how Woolf overturned novel conventions with the implication that she was not anti-novel in doing this, only stretching the form. Now it is difficult to define novels in any way that limits the form beyond a very long fictional story in prose. But that in itself demands a certain coherence for the story, and the definition ignores expectations even for fantasy books. In the quotations from Woolf about the novel and those Lee has discussed throughout it seems to me in effect Woolf regarded much of the novel conventions as getting in the way of saying deep worthwhile things, especially the novel’s (even in fantasy) concentration on individuals interacting with others in social situations to bring about some resolution. There are novels where the resolution or conclusion can be private and inward; there are forms of the novel which allow the breakdown of chronological coherence and probability, especially the epistolary and journal forms and what’s called magic realism. Women have broken away from probability because that often depends on what is, and what is is what’s allowed and woman want to show we can live another way, have other options. But if you look at what Woolf writes, once she tries to leave conventional novels, she’s not writing to propose other social solutions or individuals finding themselves or tragically failing to.
She prefers the essay, life-writing and prose poems.
From “The Docks of London,”in the London Scene: book of sketches. They are all at most 5-7 pages or so; since Lee tells us how Woolf’s reputation and the way we know much of her work comes from posthumous publication of the non-fiction as staggered/staged in time and packed by Leonard. I have separate thinnish books and for the first time I understand how they came to be and why they are so heterogeneous. The one that differs is The Essays of Virginia Woolf, set up relentlessly by year (not theme, or subject or perspective as the varied others), with dates, only it leaves off the mid 1920s. They seem different laid out this way instead of say The common Reader. Some of the slender volumes were overseen by Virginia or Lehmann. This is book history.
The London scene is different. It is first published in 1975, limited agreement by another press and Hogarth coming in a little later in the year, editors Angelica Garnett and Clive Bell, niece and brother-in-law. These are bright and this first one at least seemingly cheerful excursions – -the sort of thing one sees in a mazagine. I say seeming because the undercurrent is a lighter melancholy than the Waves. Time is here and all is going to rot or was once (so relics, remnants)
What strikes me as I’m reading The Waves, and remember The Voyage Out, how water (as in Shakespeare) is central to Woolf, waterways of the world, oceans, rivers, streams. While the sun controls the seeming 24 hour structure of the Waves, the imagery is watery or about stream, life as ooze. Orlando crosses time as in a reverie: Eva Figes’s greatest novella is The Seven Ages of Women.
Here we have a eye going through the river recording different phase sof English history by different classes at different times – in 8 pages the eye bypasses very different ships and boats, from Liner and streamers with crowds of ordinary people on the shore, to a dingy warehouse area (very Dickensian), to left over village, with a desolate pub (note desolation), church, a cottage or house gone to ruin, trees, bells once rung here. Then barges, rubbish and Indian, next to the Tower of London, commerce, the city, factories with chimnies. On we go to indefatigible cranes unloading and loading according to exquisitely understood plans by mazes of peple. (Le Carre’s Night Manager replaces this with these intensely dull boring containers and very few people employed. I have read the ships which carry these containers can be dangerous for passengers if not enough of them. Jenny Diski traveled on one in one of her books.
Then the beautiful things packed, the oddities, the jewels, sports of nature – she imagines all this. Now we realize if we didn’t before this is a kind dream. Then the wine-vaults –Cask after cask .Customs officers. No smuggling here: stamped out in the mid-19th century by England’s first wide police effort.
The phrase use produces beauty as a bye-product could sum up all jane Austen on the picturesque …
Then words have been invented out of all we see.I don’t understand a couple of them, nor understand why flogging is there but that sailors were once flogged to get them to do this work, flogged if they mutinied and disobeyed. (Will Trump bring flogging back; there is nothing he can do which bothers his followers or the Republicans. I am waiting for him to beat the hell out of his wife, and the tweet: “I lost it – my temper.” ) Last: all we see is the result of us, of our bodies. All the things andanimals that made these products were created and used by us – Australian sheep say
And this rocking rhythm and final peroration. L’ecriture femme with the full stamp of Virginia Woolf
But money and popularity come with telling stories, especially outward social stories – and these two things bring respect.
Monk’s House (where they chose to live) is seen by Lee as a “retreat, a monastery, a monk’s house, and, in that sense, a monastic abode reinforced by separate bedrooms … before buying Monk’s House, Woolf had purchased a small windmill turned into a house that she was afterwards able to sell at a small profit. Interestingly too, it was acceptable in 1919 to buy a house without indoor plumbing, a bath, hot water. This coincides with the practices of Americans buying summer homes in the US in this period” (Diane Reynolds). How Leonard loved to garden.
I took detours
Just released from copyright, new editions with introductions, notes, new pictures are coming out
The Voyage Out
It appears to be focused on a young woman growing up: she is 24 but she is kept as innocent of the world as a 13 year old. She has no close friend nor many friends; belongs only with family which consists of father and aunts. Being on a ship isolates her further. I can see Woolf building up characters for other novels: we have Mr and Mrs Dalloway using their prestige, influence, connections to board the ship at Lisbon. It is very much a novel and a successful one: the social comedy is apt, it makes me smile, and creates the usual conflicts and insights of novels …. this one so comforting right now because it is redolent of a world of decency and intelligence. Our narrator knows this group of people is dependent on vast cruelty to the colonialized peoples of the world. This comes out from the narrator’s comments because this is a boat, a ship which globe-trots for the British, carries natural resources to Britain to be used in factories. The Dalloways can come on “by special arrangement” because he’s this pampered privileged MP — they too are “visiting” parts of the empire or have been.
To the Lighthouse as a sort of ghost story.
In To The Lighthouse house, your mother does not have to give up her house,. is that novel oppositions ail …. “profoundly autobiographical” and a form of therapy for VW, a way to cope with the past. Lee quotes Vanessa noting that in Mrs. Ramsey, VW “raised” the mother “from the dead.” It was, wrote Vanessa, ” a portrait of mother more like her than anything I could ever have conceived possible. … You have made one feel the extraordinary beauty of her character, which must be the most difficult thing in the world to do.” Vanessa also praised Mr. Ramsey as a clear portrait of their father. Lee shows us here the generous, giving side of Vanessa: she calls her sister’s book “a great work of art.”
Behind the Ramsey family, says Lee, is imperialism, particularly Indian imperialism, which she calls “the history of the Stephen family,” another nod to how this family profited from India. But Lee says no more.
More cryptic are the statements about Woolf’s concept for the book, which Lee quotes but doesn’t explain. What, for example, does Woolf mean by Mrs. Ramsay “feels the glow of sensation–and how they are made up of all different things–(what she has just done) and wishes for some bell to strike and say this is it. It does strike. She guards her moment.” Is this Mrs. Ramsay/Julia Stephens or Virginia Woolf? What does she mean by “fluid translucence” and “central transparency?”
On one level it’s an ode to Mrs Ramsay, to mother. The lead-in to the central section is Mr and Mrs Ramsay in bed, he reading The Antiquary to reassure himself his kind of writing and his hegemony with Scott not superseded, but the emphasis is on the death of Steenie – a very moving chapter indeed, many one of the most in Scott, and the sonnet by Shakespeare that Mrs Ramsay quotes is also haunted, as with your shadows I did play – the lover is absent, has gone, and you are left darkling and deeply at a loss. Mr Ramsay apparently doesn’t approve of his wife’s pessimism and it is true that the style Stephens wrote in (as many of his era) is this rotound graceful sure one and no one would go near saying suicide is a good option or anything truly overturning explicitly.
There is something overturning in To the Lighthouse — not just the feminism about the men as tyrants and fools. There is a luxuriating in death as release at last. And we catalogue the dead (for Mr Ramsay goes too) – there’s a futility in all human beings do is one part of the feel.
It took listening to the text read brilliantly allowed (by Frances Jeater): I became hooked into it. Lee says The Waves is six monologues but I think it’s there. They are all a projection of Woolf and in that overt feel this is a more candid novel than most for in all novels most of the characters are on some level as projection of the novelist put together by literary decorums and conventions. It may still be read as her deepest thoughts when “out of her” social mind and into her deep self – rather like Proust only puts this self into long sinuous sentences.
What then paradoxically grips me is identification. She still captures a sense of what it is to be child, adolescent and especially (thus far) have new experiences you’ve never had before. How we grow middle-aged, old, and watch others die (you wouldn’t carry on if I’m in world of semi-stranger neighbors. You were in this cocoon of subjectivity with a nuclear family (at most siblings and one or two servants beyond the father, mother, aunt say, grandmother). I have never forgotten my amazement (the right word) when I first went to kindergarten. There was a small girl my size called Maryann crying as if her heart would break. She couldn’t bear it seemed to leave her mother. I couldn’t get over that, I was so startled by this it has stayed with me all these years – well Woolf would not have been surprised. She here records intense distress on the part of the boy in boys’ school and the girls with their governess. Not going home. How unbelievable, how terrible. How different Woolfs’ home life was from mine. I was cheerful and glad to go. But I’ve cousins who came from a home like mine who tell me they cried.
But I did look askance or in this alienated way at teachers. Woolf captures how children look so coolly at these new beings in charge of them.
The impersonal narrator keeps returning to time across a day, dawn, morning, mid-morning, noon, early afternoon … At each point the natural world returns to record where we are. A larger clock situates through what they saw their stories over the years. Three die before the book closes.
Between the Acts .
With the bombing of her and Leonard’s two houses, the Woolfs are driven to live wholly in the country and Monk’s House. Now she can no longer put barriers between herself and the local people. Written at the end of her life, a time of despair over the war) her experimental historical novel, Between the Acts. The bombing had driven her and Leonard into the country and Woolf tells of a self-reflexive pageant set in three eras, put on by local people. History is conceived as fragments of historical experience recorded in books, scattered relics, local memories and graves within a continuum of time. One detail: she writes about Coleridge in a spirit where she re-engages with her ambivalence over her savage violent bullying and yet ever so civilized father. It’s 21st century like that it should be a group of people putting on a pageant. Themselves all lost, bewildered, often unhappy. Highly original self-reflexive historical novel. Orlando had been her historical romance (time-traveling lesbian classic that it is).
We also see the great troubles she is having with Pargiters trying for a combination of political milieu and family narrative tale (based on her own), rather Tolstoyan. Part of the reason VW killed herself was how she felt she would not stay sane and be a burden; she wouldn’t stay sane because she would not be able to cope — she hates (as I would) the reaction of fellow semi-Nazi citizens around her.
I have read The Years which is almost my favorite, but not this time round.
Roger Frye, a self-portrait
Her biography of Roger Fry
Vanessa liked Woolf’s Roger Fry – Fry was her ex-lover, her artistic mentor, she was much moved and became affectionate towards Virginia for a time. Virginia gave a lecture in Brighton to 200 women, among them Elizabeth Robins, Octavia Wilberforce. Leonard said Angelica should be let to live her own life (Garnett had been Duncan’s Angelica’s father’s lover). It was pretty widely reviewed: Fry was seen as important and he was a kind of symbol of high culture. It was hypocritical of those who hit at him for his background because most of the writers of reviews in England at the same time came from that background, maybe not quite so literary or art-y. Or they personally chose not to become so.
At first silence greeted Roger Fry and then a bitter debate: some praised, EMForster said it was a defence of civilization; Herbert Read (an arch conservative, a fact Lee doesn’t mention) attacked as elitist super-sensitivity – has elitism come to be synonymous with civilized educated behavior? She responded telling of Frye’s social commitment, that her books reach a wider circle than his, and offered to debate “between air raids.”
Kati Horna: Retreat with Wounded Soldier
One could hear the drone of the German planes flying over the channel to drop their bombs, the bombs dropping, the people killed, everything destroyed. As they lay flat on the ground they hear guns overhead
Kent harder hit than Sussex; then Hitler switches to nightly raids on London. I have read some of these moving depictions of the destruction of London – by Elizabeth Bowen in Heat of the Day remains with me – shocked, ragged, rapid, raw – people in shelters killed. Horrifying messes. Mecklenberg smashed – uninhabitable. Leonard: “well really possessions are such a nuisance, perhaps it will be a good thing to start clear again: (the joke that tries for perspective …)
Bomb drops near Vanessa and Duncan’s workshop so Virginia; there were fierce quarrels.
Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant (during the war years)
Where she had written so much, where they had sat so many nights, given so many parties. Loss of possessions they worked so hard to get. 24 volumes of her diaries were salvaged! – but huge destruction of masses of papers and her and other houses – -and deaths. They end up moving what was left to Monks House – grimy, hopelessly jumbled heaps. They acquire a new kitten – from kitten she says “I can’t make a warm hollow for myself”
She did have an English identity, in the culture of that city, Churchill on “our majestic city” Woolf reduced to “a crushed match box”. In the country they began to know many people; watched the ways all sorts of people reacted to the bombing, killing ,and Germans. Leonard and Virginia speak horribly about disabled people but they try to help them. She had the hardest time with local gentry. Bomb explodes on river bank: beautiful looks, deeply destructive literally of countryside.
Walks, writes family memories, and black sardonic story (The Legacy): dark side of her own marriage; husband wrapped up, absorbed in his work, she regrets not having had children; and now that Hogarth Press is gone, she can’t get it published. Another story about suicide, “The Symbol”
Stuck for paper, she uses local library, cheap notebook for diary and she begins to plan for third common reader, Reading at Random, not focused on author or text but cultural. What it meant to be a writer “thwarted by our society:interruptions: conditions.” First chapter begins with “Anon.” Communal pre-audience world. Was to include Goldsmith (very much constrained by literary marketplace), Sevigne (not), Henry James. She writes two more essays: Ellen Terry, Hester Thrale Piozzi. She has to write in same room as Leonard and can’t take it. She accidentally (ha) nearly drowns.
I wonder could they get liquor? Meaning wine, beer, or alcohol, Lee doesn’t cite these as rationed. Sigh. She doesn’t think of it. One article on-line says liquor was not rationed and another it was rationed, that industrial alcohol needed for war effort; whiskey production stopped. What you might get was very expensive and you had to know the grocer, be favored. Pubs carried on (limited how many drinks you might have?). You could make alcohol but then you had to get grain.
Bitterly cold; using bikes, cut off from friends. Painfully thin, it makes you afraid to see her. The war was not being won; invasion thought imminent. She can’t write – ironically she complains of a lack of public, no printer. She goes to London to see ruined city. She writes about sexual shame and sexual abuse in her childhood to Ethel. She argues with Desmond she can speak for workers; some visits but she cannot trust the people to be endurable
She is disgusted by the conversations of women. (All tarts says Virginia: US about to have a whore as First Lady and Trump threatens to sue anyone who says so in public; the inauguration coming up: ought to be deeply shameful spectacle, but is it? An actual whore with the Rockettes in front of them.) She finished Pointz Hall as Between the Acts – surely Leonard now sees. Olivia Wilberforce visits her and she says she’s desperately depressed, Village will not permit her to do fire-watching as Leonard does. Haunted by memories of father. They go to London and lunch with John Lehman and he sees how tense she is
Another attempt at suicide called an accident on Tuesday ,the 18th, her letter dated “Tuesday” Leonard sees her coming and begins to worry yet more. But it seems to me does not recognize this as a second suicide attempt – a signal to him to help her. But he cannot let himself see what is in front of him. It’s probably too much for him. What was he enduring? A jewish man, deeply liberal, his life’s work in politics for nothing.
Lee goes on about how Virginia’s suicide not an act of fear. She is a schmuck here. Yes I agree her suicide not an act of fear – why should people worry that suicide be seen as an act of fear? If some see it so automatically, they are fools. So she overstates and says the act was rational. No it was not. And it was not deliberate in the sense that she could not throw off the depression but wanted to.
Vanessa comes and writes her a letter which is in effect bullying. She must not get sick again. It’s the letter of someone imposing herself on Woolf, yes she thanks Virginia for “saving her,” but it is a she and Leonard know better than Virginia. She needed this like a hole in her head.
She is told by Lehman he has advertised her book (The Years) and its publication cannot be reversed. So now she’s between a rock and a hard place: do not get sick but endure the publication of this book. She did visit a villager, she got letters of praise from Forster on Jacob’s room and Lehman on Between the acts. Leonard tries to tell her she needs a rest cure, tells Octavia how worried he is. Told by them rest not work the only cure. Right.
Leonard can’t be with her every minute and she drowns herself on Friday March 28th. River running fast and high, she puts a large stone in her pocket and lets herself drown.
Close friends told; by April 1 the body had not been found. The Times carried article on 3 April, begins to be reported, River Ouse dragged. Tributes begin. Leonard received over 200 letters, replied to each, to himself. Body found 18 April. Distasteful music; he came alone to her cremation; he hated the pretentious casket. He used quote from Waves; Against you I will fling myself unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!
Leonard carries on business of papers one has to cope with 753. He says he is better off coping alone. The year of 1943 as described in this book and VW’s almost understandable (now to me) suicide. Not quite: as I don’t quite get why Carrington couldn’t live on who had such friends, such worlds to belong to; so why Woolf couldn’t manage with Leonard there. What if she hadn’t had him. I get that. I did read somewhere (maybe this book) that in 1943 Mark Gertler killed himself. He was Jewish.
Leonard was rightly irritated when his choice of “Cavatina” for Virginia’s cremation was replaced by “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s Orfeo. I remember how I had to be alert to every reference to Jim’s actual death: he went to his rest the video had on it at the end; I protested angrily each time. How dare they? And Leonard had no one there with him so no need to worry (for those who do) others will be offended. I am not sure one should make a wild joke about one’s death so when it was said the other day Carrie Fisher chose for her urn a pill box for Prozac I can see the mockery of pretension, and Leonard had only pretentious choices. He did make a plain tablet to put above where he buried the urn.
Some jackass wrote a letter printed by the Times excoriating anyone who kills themselves; we “all take our part nobly in this fight against the devil.” For once Leonard doesn’t heed his own advice and answers the jerk, trying to explain. Carrington better off not having anyone to take her as a symbol.
From their middle years together
For the next 28 years Leonard kept up a campaign to keep Virginia Woolf in the public eye as important, respected, he would bring out the vast amount of unpublished material (not novels you see) at carefully timed intervals. He husbanded the material, edited it (so cut sections of A Writer’s Diary), he controlled the way the texts were presented for better or worse.
From Moments of Being: Woolf repeatedly recurs to the real problems of writing a biography. In a way her real thrust totally undermines the social construction point of view (I use a different term but it was the Foucault argument we got into last fall — that far back): what she wants is to get into a biography the deep self, moments of being innate in use through what we remember. One problem here is to do this you’d have a million word first chapter. I particularly liked her worries about moments of “non-being,” left out by Lee. These are the hours we are alive that we do not remember, that if asked about we cannot account for the next day, when we are not fully there somehow or even much. For myself these occur especially at night ,and blogging is a way of overcoming “non-being,” so the next morning if I try to remember how I spent the night, there’s the blog showing that I did exist, and what I thought and how I lived my life that night. Readers might concentrate on the particular content in the two blogs not supposed to be about me, with other subjects, and even the Sylvia blog does not stress how I’m overcoming non-existence.
Diarist feel they get to exist by recording their intimate lives. With some important exception for women especially of recording sex lives (one’s homosexuality for example for a man), and maybe something they are determined to keep hidden (yet often let out — Toibin says diarists want to be “found out”), in fact they don’t worry about privacy for real except that until the Net when people can blog daily and without an editor, often diarists were much freer by deciding not to publish. This is risky as so often around you are relatives who don’t in the least sympathize with or understand you, especially those who regard writing as something that must be monitored lest it endanger their or a friend’s reputation in whatever way.
Lee says it was first in the 1960s she became an icon, a myth, a literary heroine, texts for feminists. She went on living and changing after her death.
Lee pulls away from the death itself. She is a woman who herself does not care for unpleasantness any more than true non-conformity in social life. But she has gone after Woolf like one would a ghost and re-created or found and presented her fully.
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