Virginia Woolf: Why we’re still afraid to forget the feted writer 80 years after her death
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On March 28, 1941, in the grip of another nervous breakdown, she left their home at Rodmell in Sussex and walked to the nearby River Ouse. There she put a heavy stone in her pocket and, despite being able to swim, allowed herself to drown. Her husband discovered her missing within hours but her body was not found until three weeks later by young people who had been cycling alongside the river.
To me this is an important anniversary, a time to think of my great-aunt Virginia and her untimely death and to wonder what might have been.
But why does it matter? And why is Virginia still a household name, hailed as a feminist icon and literary genius, despite the fact that most people haven’t actually read her books?
Let’s be honest, her writing isn’t an easy read. But the well-known George Beresford profile photograph, a haunting image of her sad face captured in July 1902 when she was 20, adorns T-shirts, posters and tea towels.
It was easy to satirise Virginia and Leonard, from their private pet names (they called each Mandrill and Mongoose) to their angular, physical awkwardness and unconventional domestic arrangements.
Many images capture Virginia’s long, mournful features, not exactly beautiful but somehow compelling.
And she’s eminently quotable: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” from A Room Of One’s Own in 1929 is often repeated.
Several of her books, including Orlando and Mrs Dalloway, have been adapted for the big screen. She was played by Nicole Kidman, on Oscar-winning form in the film The Hours, and achieved iconic status in America, too. I was once on a flight to New York and the man next to me actually jumped up and down on his seat in excitement when he discovered my family connection to Virginia.
And yet one should remember that in her lifetime, and for several decades after, she wasn’t famous. The cult of Virginia – the conferences, guided tours and blue plaques in Bloomsbury Square where she once lived – didn’t begin until some 20 years after her death.
In her own lifetime, she was no literary colossus, and often felt jealous of the success of other writers.
Growing up a Woolf, I’ve come to realise there are many Virginia Woolfs. There is the young girl, experiencing the tragic death of her mother at 13. There is the aspiring writer, drafting and redrafting her first novel, and feeling like a failure. There is the young newlywed, sending childishly loving notes to Leonard with private pet names.
There is the patient who experienced repeated nervous breakdowns, hearing voices on her sickbed, suffering what we might call bipolar disorder today.
There is the observer, living through the First World War, then experiencing the Second World War, the woman who was witty and fun and fantastic company at parties; the loving sister, the fond aunt, the high-brow literary Bloomsbury figure.
What continues to fascinate us about Virginia Woolf is precisely these complex and contradictory aspects. There are endless questions and more than a whiff of scandal: was she sexually abused as a child, was she a lesbian, was that famous Bloomsbury marriage sexless?
She may have had a lesbian relationship with Vita Sackville-West, but she was scathing about many of the homosexuals within her close intellectual circle. And yet two of her closest friends, the artist Duncan Grant and the writer Lytton Strachey, were gay, she enjoyed discussions about same-sex love, and was clearly erotically drawn to women.
She is portrayed as aloof, even superior, but in reality she was subject to deep personal insecurities. In 1912 (before accepting Leonard’s proposal) Virginia wrote: “To be 29 and unmarried – to be a failure – childless – insane too, no writer.”
She was reclusive but also adored the social whirl, and became very depressed during her frequent London exiles due to nervous breakdowns.
These breakdowns were not surprising, the past decade had been full of trauma and bereavement. Following the death of her mother, her father’s death in 1904 triggered her second collapse. Her nephew and biographer Quentin Bell wrote: “All that summer she was mad.” She also endured the death of her half-sister Stella in 1897 and her beloved brother Thoby in 1906. No wonder it took a toll on her mental health.
Virginia’s third breakdown in 1913, aged 31, occurred less than a year after her marriage to Leonard. And yet, despite the crippling depression, hallucinations, and insomnia, her diaries and letters from that time are full of wit and wry humour.
My father Cecil Woolf, who died in 2019 at the age of 92, was the last living person to have known Virginia and Leonard. He remembered her wonderful sense of humour, even in difficult times.
Throughout the very cold winters of 1917 and 1918, the Woolfs spent many nights in their basement during the London Blitz with “clothes, quilts, a watch and a torch”, sitting on wooden boxes in the coal cellar or lying on mattresses.
During these bombardments, the servants complained they couldn’t get to sleep because Mrs Woolf made them laugh so much.
With their reputation for scandal and salacious gossip, there is much juicy material around Virginia and her set, the Bloomsbury Group, hence the quip (attributed to Dorothy Parker) that they “painted in circles, lived in squares, and loved in triangles”.
The Bloomsbury Group was fertile ground for art, literature and plenty of affairs, with their Thursday evening gatherings of artists, writers and philosophers. These were mostly Cambridge friends of Virginia’s brothers, including the economist John Maynard Keynes, the writers EM Forster and Lytton Strachey, the poet Rupert Brooke and the painters Roger Fry and Duncan Grant.
Virginia later remembered: “We were full of experiments and reforms… We were going to paint; to write; to have coffee after dinner instead of tea. Everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different.”
They met constantly, in and around the squares, and unlike these days, everything was written down in endless gossipy letters and private diaries. And yet, despite all the bravado, Virginia couldn’t quite shake off that prudish Victorian upbringing. It’s amusing to think that aged 26 she still “blushed” when she asked Clive Bell “to let me pass to go to the lavatory on the French Express”.
I remember my father telling me how Leonard invited Tom (TS) Eliot for lunch and only gave him a “bag of chips and a bottle of beer”, and how Virginia likened the poet to “a great toad with jewelled eyes”.
Much of the fascination surrounding Virginia are these iconic figures who drift in and out of her life – and even if you can’t face her novels, the diaries and letters are a wonderful read.
Virginia recorded everything, from literary highs to domestic lows, from having Eliot for tea, to the struggles over wartime food rationing.
She can be complaining about the domestic servants, or sitting in the bath and working out the storyline of her latest novel.
For example, in January 1915, she writes to the novelist Thomas Hardy: “I have long wished to tell you how profoundly grateful I am to you for your poems and novels, but naturally it seemed an impertinence to do so.” At the same time she notes at home: “The pipes burst; or got choked; or the roof split asunder…”
From the start there was speculation about Virginia’s marriage, which her sister Vanessa Bell characterised as sexless. In 1967, her friend Gerald Brenan added fuel to the fire, writing: “Leonard told me that when on their honeymoon he had tried to make love to her she had got into such a violent state of excitement that he had had to stop…”
One American journalist wrote of Virginia: “She lives in Tavistock Square with her husband, a large number of cactus plants, a pet monkey and a dog. Her hobby is printing… Tall and thin, with greying hair, she never speaks unless she has something worthwhile to say.”
Yet it is clear that Virginia often felt like a failure. Before her marriage to Leonard, she told him: “I want everything – love, children, adventure, intimacy, work.” But despite never having children, despite her limited readership and despite never writing that breakthrough bestseller, Virginia’s life was undoubtedly rich and full.
Characters like Orlando are wildly experimental, prefiguring our modern debate around transgender issues nearly a century ago.
She was elitist but down-to-earth, unlikeable to some and a committed friend to others, remote, unstable, bitchy but also deeply human.
The questions surrounding her life – and death – remain as intriguing and unanswered today as they were on her suicide, 80 years ago.
• Emma Woolf is Virginia’s great-niece.
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