VIRGINIA WOOLF (1882-1941)

Virginia Woolf was one of the most important novelists of early modern Age. She was a woman of great learning because she was born of a family in which, thanks to her father standards of culture, intelligence and artistic taste were of the highest. She wrote in an era in which women were fighting for their emancipation and Virginia was considered one of the most influential literary voices of the women’s movement.

LIFE: She was born in London in 1832 of a well-to-do family. Her father was a well-known essayist, Sir Leslie Stephen.Virginia was the third of four children. They all received their elementary education at home from their parents or from Swiss and French governesses. Virginia was extremely sensitive and not an easy child to deal with. Both parents were very strong personalities. By them,Virginia would feel overshadowed for years.

She had difficulties in learning and began to speak properly at an early age. Her adolescence was marked as well by a sequence of deaths: her mother died in 1895; her half-sister Stella, who served as mother-substitute, in 1897; her father in 1904 and her brother Thoby in 1906. Virginia would suffer through three major mental breakdowns during her lifetime. Her first breakdown was suffered shortly following the death of her mother in 1895, which Virginia later described as “the greatest disaster that could have happened”. Some have suggested thatVirginia may have felt guilt over choosing her father as the favorite parent.  When she lost her mother,Virginia was only 13. By that time she became obsessed with terrible misterious voices, underwent swift changes of mood and began to suffer from depression. Aware of her mental illness, she became very shy and scared of people and spent much of her time reading books from her father’s library. Stella Duckworth,Virginia’s stepsister, had assumed charge of the household duties   causing a rift between her and Virginia. When she died two years later,Virginia fell sick. She developed her closest attachment to her sister Vanessa. Vanessa likewise served as surrogate mother, by taking over the maternal function after Stella’s death.

Over the next seven years, Virginia decided to turn to writing. Her admiration for women grew. She educated herself and greatly admired women such as Madge Vaughan, daughter of John Addington Symonds, who wrote novels and would later be illustrated as Sally Seton in Mrs. Dalloway. Her admiration for strong women was coupled with a growing dislike for the male domination in society. Virginia’s feelings were likely affected by her relationship to her stepbrother, George Duckworth, who was already fourteen when Virginia was born. In the last year of her life, Virginia wrote to a friend regarding the shame she felt when, at the age of six, she was molested by George. Similar incidents reoccurred throughout her childhood until Virginia was in her early twenties. Her mental instability increased when her father died in 1904. She was terribly upset with this and felt isolated and afraid. Later in 1913, to try to diminish her growing mental anguish, she planned a trip to Italy, which, however, did not help her much because, soon back to England, she attempted suicide for the first time jumping from a window. In the years between 1905 and 1914 she joined the Suffragette Movement claiming for women’s emancipation. She felt different from the other feminists who were only concerned with eliminating specific abuses; on the contrary she wanted to discover the causes of sexual tyranny and the intellectual discrimination of women in her contemporary society, which confined them into a limited position. In 1912, she married Leonard Woolf, “a penniless Jew,” also a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a political writer. This marriage is considered to have been a supportive although passionless one. In 1917 she founded together with her husband The Hogarth Press as an attempt to engage her in more practical work in the hope of avoiding further bouts of mental illness. The Press published works of great authors including K.Mansfield, T.S.Eliot and Virginia Woolf herself. It also published the works of several lesbian and gay writers, including E. M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, and Vita Sackville-West.

 Virginia was overcome by anxiety and insecurity. The Second World War increased her terrors; in a London devastated by the bombs she saw the disintegration of her world. She was also afraid of going mad. The final breakdown brought to her suicide into the river Ouse on 28th March, 1941, leaving a note for her husband to explain her decision : “My Dearest, I feel certain I’m going mad again …..I shan’t recover this time; I begin to hear voices. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. I know that I’m spoiling your life….I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer”. Then she went to her death, ‘the one experience I shall never describe’.

THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP: After Father’s death, the four brothers moved to Bloomsbury, a section of London that would eventually give name to a group of artists and intellectuals, the Bloomsbury Group. This group began when Thoby and his Cambridge friends moved back to Londonand met every Thursday evening to discuss art and Literature, as well as pressing political issues such as pacifism and socialism. Initially, Virginia and Vanessa were the only two women present, as Thoby’s sisters but also as intellectuals and artists. In the famous literary group there were many famous people; among them we can mention T.S. Eliot, the economist Keynes and the novelist Forster. Several of the male participants were avowed homosexuals.

The group met in Virginia’s house in the area of Bloomsburyin London at the weekend to discuss about their ideas and had an enormous influence on Virginia’s literary formation. They revolted against Victorianism,   claimed intellectual freedom, rejected conventions and fashions and felt that there was no moral obligation to conform to them. They called themselves apostles and were anti-monarchist in politics. Listening to them,Virginia’s early strict Victorian morality was replaced by a new vision of the world.

WORKS: Virginia began her writing career in literary journals. She also cooperated her husband in the activities of The Hogarth Press. She had a certain reputation as a critic before becoming a novelist herself. She wrote 9 novels, many short stories, critical essays and note books of Diary. Her first novel appeared in 1915 but she had popular success only in 1928 with the publication of Orlando: A Biography. A collection of short stories followed: Monday and Tuesday, Night and Day and Jacob’s Room. With this latter she rejected traditional techniques and began to experiment with a new one starting to abandon chronological sequences and linear plots, following the flow of the characters’ thoughts. Mrs Dalloway, published in 1925, has no real plot in the traditional sense and it is set entirely in one day: a Wednesday in June, 1923. A series of successful novels followed; among them we can quote To The Lighthouse and The Waves. One of her minor works, A Room of One’s Own, an account of why a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction, has become a feminist classic.

FEATURES: Virginia Woolf’s name is often associated with Joyce because they experimented with the Stream of Consciousness technique but, despite that, they are different. Woolf didn’t like Joyce’s Ulysses; she wrote about it: “it fails because of the comparative poverty of the writer’s mind “.

In Ulysses Joyce works through an accumulation of physical linguistic and stylistic detail because he was also an experimenter with the language.Virginia’s works instead eliminate superfluity of details because she was more interested in thoughts; they   are centred on the contrast of inner and outer selves, time on the clock and time in the mind.

Virginia was concerned with the realities of life, not the outer realities but the inward and spiritual ones, and the allusiveness of these inner realities is the recurrent theme of her novels. She did not solve the problem of the ultimate meaning of life because she didn’t give us any solution in her novels.

In her stories, there is very little plot and the readers follow the thoughts of the various characters learning indirectly about their relationships and past which gradually accumulate to form the body of the novel.

CHARACTERS:  they are either modelled on her or on people who lived close to her; they all belong to the upper-middle class and share the same way of thinking. They are not real characters but projections of Virginia’s mind seen in their moments of being. All of her characters are seen in search of their spiritual being; they are analyzed from their inside through their interior monologues.Virginia manages to enter the inner depths of a character, so the reader feels he can see inside his mind.

ROLE OF THE NOVELIST: it was to try to describe the way people are inside not just their lives and external facts. He had to capture their inner selves and immerse the reader in them to make them understand their inner life and their moment by moment responses to sensations.

USE OF TIME:Virginia was aware that her ideas on the novel needed different methods of narration. The mind had a different time and space, then she couldn’t use the time of the clock, which might be used to describe external events, but the time of the mind, since internal events can cover in a few seconds years and centuries, ranging through past, present and future. Like Joyce, she used two methods:

– The subject can remain fixed in space and his consciousness can move in Time;

– Time remains fixed and the spatial element changes.

In her first novels she used short time units: one day (Mrs Dalloway), a few hours (Between the acts). In Orlando instead she got rid of time and Orlando’s life spans over four centuries: he is at first a nobleman at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, he becomes a woman during the reign of Queen Anne and, when the book ends, he is doing some shopping in the West End  in Virginia’s contemporary time.

LESBIANISM: Virginia has often been charged with being a lesbian. She has been named “the Invalid Lady of Bloomsbury” (E. M. Forster), a “sexless Sappho” (nephew and biographer Quentin Bell), and “a guerilla fighter in a Victorian skirt” (Jane Marcus, feminist literary critic).

Most recently, she has been described,   as a “married lesbian” (Suzanne Raitt), someone for whom lesbianism was an emotional, even a sexual orientation, not necessarily incompatible with or even disruptive of marriage. This charge probably comes from the fact that she had many gay men and lesbians as close friends. Actually Woolf had with women several intense friendships throughout her life. These affairs of the heart left their traces in passionate letters and diary entries characterized by a mutual attraction and a desire for emotional intimacy expressed in highly eroticized language. They often resulted in literary works, not always published, written as tribute to friendships   but   ultimately confined to ­writing. Often these women were older, unmarried, more masculine in appearance, and highly successful artists; often they offered Woolf some form of maternal protection as she struggled with another incident of physical or mental illness. All of them shared with Woolf an interest in art and provided critical readings of her work. None of these relationships is known to have had a sexual component, apart, perhaps, the one with Vita Sackville-West.

Woolf’s relationship to gay men remained an ambivalent one. On the one hand, she appreciated a lack of sexual interest that made it possible for her to have access to an intellectual environment based on an indifference to her gender; on the other hand, the absence of women meant a lacking female eroticism that for her prohibited creativity. In 1930, she wrote in a Letter to Ethel Smyth: “It is true that I only want to show off to women. Women alone stir my imagination.” The eroticized relationships between women remains fundamental to Woolf’s thinking about the connection between women and creativity.

Her works do not contain explicitly lesbian characters, and yet Woolf is also considered to be the author of the first positive “Sapphic” portrait in the form of “the longest and most charming love letter in literature, Orlando.

As far as female homoeroticism, Woolf repeatedly describes the nature of female homoeroticism in terms of “that vast chamber where nobody has yet been,” (from A Room of One’s Own).

HER RELATIONSHIPS WITH WOMEN: Woolf’s first passionate friendship was with Madge Vaughan, the daughter of the well-known writer and sexologist, John Addington Symonds, whom Woolf met at the age of sixteen and who was to serve as a model for Sally Seton in Mrs. Dalloway (1925).

Violet Dickinson, almost twice Woolf’s age when she nursed her during the mental breakdown following the death of her father, was an unmarried Quaker for whom she wrote “Friendship Gallery” (1907). It describes a utopian community of women inspired and led by Dickinson with Woolf as the artist figure, a model for other women writers and recorder of the community’s development. Much later Woolf looked back on this friendship as the one that enabled her to say for the first time with confidence, “I am a writer.”

The final of such friendships was with Ethel Smyth, a well-known composer, whom Virginia met in 1930, when she was forty-eight and Smyth seventy years old. Woolf named her in the  her essay “Professions for Women” as the model for the professional woman but also, once again, as the artist who engages in a different artistic medium, a more public and therefore more ambitious one for women than that of the writer.

Their friendship was also based on a bond over the loss of the mother; Smyth wrote in a letter to Woolf: “Now you can imagine how much sexual feeling has to do with an emotion for one’s mother.”

As said before, the only intense friendship to include a physical relationship was the one with Vita Sackville-West to whom she dedicated Orlando.Virginia met Vita Sackville-West in 1922. In this case, the age difference was reversed,Virginia was forty and Vita thirty years old and Virginia was the more confident and recognized of the two writers.   The affair began in 1925 and it is thought to have lasted until 1928. During that time, Vita had other affairs which began to create a rift as Virginia was intolerant with that.  By then, the affair had ended but a strong friendship continued. Their emotional attachment to each other was completely severed only by Woolf’s death.

MRS  DALLOWAY: The first and only novel to deal explicitly with both female eroticism and the figure of the lesbian is Mrs  Dalloway, a novel about a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. The novel contains a subplot, Clarissa’s memories of Sally Seton, with whom she fell in love as a young girl, and a parallel plot, that of Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked veteran who commits suicide during Clarissa’s party.

Although Clarissa and Septimus never meet, they are connected by the importance of and yet impossibility of the same sex desire: for Clarissa because she and Sally both chose marriage to rich  respectable men, for Septimus because his love object was killed during the war.

By choosing Richard Dalloway over Peter Walsh, who intercepted the kiss from Sally that marks “the most exquisite moment of her whole Life,” Clarissa is allowed to retreat to the virginal bed in the attic that preserves the memory of a pastoral and premarital homoeroticism.

Sally represents the beautiful adolescent given to self-abandonment who has a way with flowers and a passion for envisioning the abolition of private property and the attainment of equal rights for women. She is the one through whom Woolf represents lesbianism as an erotic attachment brought to a dose by marriage but also as the occasion for a highly eroticized language.

Mrs. Dalloway’s love for Sally is described as follows: “Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over the moment.”

Although Sally inspires in Clarissa identification with the desire men must feel for women, she herself remains at a far remove from the masculinized lesbian, Miss Killman, the tutor of Mrs  Dalloway’s daughter, Elizabeth.

Miss Killman is described as poor, clumsy, over forty; she works for a living, is prone to religious fervor and pro-German sympathies, and always wears the same mackintosh. At the same time, she is a highly knowledgeable historian and economically independent. Her attraction to Elizabethis presented as a sexual orientation rather than a passing phase.


About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

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