Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf #

Virginia Woolf 1882 - 1941

Virginia Woolf was born Virginia Stephen in 1882 into a prominent and intellectually well-connected family. Her formal education was limited, but she grew up reading voraciously from the vast library of her father, the critic Leslie Stephen. Her youth was a traumatic one, including the early deaths of her mother and brother, a history of sexual abuse, and the beginnings of a depressive mental illness that plagued her intermittently throughout her life and eventually led to her suicide in 1941.

When she was 22, her father died, so with her sister (the painter Vanessa Bell) they joined the Bloomsbury group, class of artists, writers, and professional people established by Lady Ottoline, a great lady who has become discontented with her own class, finding what she wanted in a bohemian lifestyle.

Here she met many leading intellectuals, including T.S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, E.M. Forster and in 1912, Virginia married Leonard Woolf, with whom she ran a small but influential printing press.

The Bloomsbury Group rejected Victorian authoritarian strictures in favor of liberal French impressionism advocating for free speech and libertarian sexual mores and homo-sexuality. Yet Belle epoch was just as pretentious and detached from reality as the Bourbon Age.

Virginia Woolf is perhaps best known for her novels, but W. H. Auden argued that it was in her diary that she left behind the most truthful record of a writer’s life and mind.

Critical Philosophies: #

T.S. Eliot, the doyen of modern criticism maintains

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

Virginia Woolf:

“anyone who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, and with extravagant enthusiasm.”

While W.H. Auden maintains chief criterion for reviewing poetry - “Pleasure, he said, is not an infallible guide but it is the least fallible."

Bob Dylan: Art can be appreciated or interpreted but there is seldom anything to understand.

Woolf once observed,

“One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes; but look at the ceiling, at Grizzle, at the cheaper beasts in the Zoo which are exposed to walkers in Regent’s Park, and the soul slips in”.

She interweaves her journeys with her own theories about the world—including the principle of “incandescence.” Woolf defines incandescence as the state in which everything that is personal burns away and what is left is the “nugget of pure truth” in the art.

“Fiction is likely to contain more truth than fact.” Reality is not objective: rather, it is contingent upon the circumstances of one’s world.

She adopted a prose style completely expressive of her state of mind. She resists coercion and tyranny of old rules and rigid traditions.

How Virginia Woolf imagined the art of biography:

“subtle and bold enough to present that queer amalgamation of dream and reality, that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow,” by which she meant the elusive combination of fact and imagination that brings a life to life on the page.

Of course, she was writing about an ideal form of biography that did not yet exist. Does it now? I find that experimental approaches to biography that are written outside the discipline of history come closest to Woolf’s vision. Erin Maglaque

On T.S, Eliot:

“As I sun myself upon the intense and ravishing beauty of one of his lines, and reflect that I must make a dizzy and dangerous leap to the next, and so on from line to line, like an acrobat flying precariously form bar to bar, I cry out for the old decorums….”.

She predicted that Eliot would arrive at a function in his four piece suit.

But she wished that “poor dear Tom had more spunk in him, less need to let drop by drop of his agonized perplexities fall ever so finely through pure cambric. One waits; one sympathizes, but it is dreary work.”

Mental health issues #

She suffered sexual abuse by her half-brother George at six and then again at 15. In 1910 she was committed to Burley asylum for two months.

Woolf dared to expose the fragility of the human mind and its susceptibility to madness.

“I want Mrs Dalloway to be a study of insanity and suicide. A world seen by the sane and the insane side by side. It becomes the internal meanderings of an ordinary day by an ordinary mind examining the unusual.

Septimus Warren Smith’s appalling spectre of war results in hallucinations where he talks to dead comrades – casualties. There are insights only madness can illuminate.

T.S. Eliot had his own mental issues and it was Ottoline Morell who advised psychotherapy in Lausanne, Switzerland.

His doctor, Roger Vittoz. Vittoz practiced a precursor of cognitive behavioral therapy, teaching his patients to redirect compulsive thoughts. It worked for Eliot.

Feminism #

The scholar Alex Zwerdling observes, Woolf used her fiction to satirize Britain’s “hierarchies of class and sex, its complacency, its moral obtuseness.” The stifling oppressiveness of the Victorian patriarchal home with its lack of opportunity for females.

Men are thrilled by war, while women by feelings in drawing rooms. The parties have a hollowness to them. (Mrs Dalloway) Yet women should courageously acknowledge the limitations of their sex. Illustrated by Tolstoy’s War and Peace or by The Battle of Waterloo and lampooned by Eliot’s Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.