And so in a few days we mark the anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s suicide, a writer who will always have a special place in the hearts of those who enjoy reading about the lives of posh, mad artists.
Woolf’s novels are so serious and seriously good that they are, somehow, inexplicably bad. It’s a perverse logic. Take Mrs Dalloway: a little novel of 250 pages so ingeniously structured, elegantly grooved, impeccably polished and deftly brought off that it always takes about two months to read. Nothing so short should take so long.
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For a writer so attentive to the twitchy, nervy minutiae of life — she called them “moments of being” — it is amazing how often Woolf died. Not just the watery one eighty years ago, when she left one of the all-time great “I’ve had enough of this nonsense” suicide notes, loaded her pockets with heavy stones and toppled into the River Ouse.
She died first when her mother died in 1895. Julia Stephen was 49, Virginia barely 14. “Nothing was left,” she would later write, “… a dark cloud settled over us; we seemed to sit all together cooped up, solemn, unreal, under a haze of heavy emotion”. Her essayist father, a busy, hill-climbing Victorian scarecrow with a today impossible name (Leslie), was no support to Virginia, her sisters or her brothers.
It was a matter of space as much as anything. After Julia’s death, eleven Stephens’s and seven live-in servants dwelled up, down and under three stories in 22 Hyde Park Gate — like lobsters scuttling about inside a vent. “How,” Virginia wrote in one of her teenage diaries, “is one to live in such a world?” Of course, she would later call for a room of her own; these days she would have justly demanded a Peloton, and a podcast of her own too.
Worse waited outside the house in society, where Virginia would die again. Her priggish cousin George Duckworth, who both sexually assaulted her and published her first novel, started taking her to parties when she was eighteen. She wore long white satin dresses, pinned with three pink carnations.
Other people’s parties are generally much more fun to read about than attend. So it is with the ball at Lady Sligo’s mansion which Virginia was spirited to in June 1900. The solid, rumbling reign of Queen Victoria had just a few months left to run; Victorianism — that thicket of customs, manners and morals — would last a few years longer still. Decades later, Woolf wrote about the party: the vinegary dowager aunts swarming about, the long dining tables plastered with silver, the heavy bachelor colonels exhaling expensive cigar fumes, the walls ringing with complaints about gout and the talk of young men not yet pulled into the whirlpool of the new century.
All this in a world where hansom cabs still waited outside theatres, where turtle soup was what rich people called medicine, where self-care meant reading Homer not downloading a used-once meditation app, where every family had a grandfather who lost an eye during the Indian Mutiny. All this, all around; the exquisite champagne arrogance of power that would soon — sooner than the men in the smoking rooms realised — melt away.
So Virginia blushed, and hid behind a curtain.
She wrote to her sister in the following days: “We are failures. Really, we can’t shine in Society. I don’t know how it’s done. We ain’t popular — we sit in corners and look like mutes who are longing for a funeral.” A funeral: dead again.
The memories — and the resentments — are worked on in the later reminiscences, written in 1920. The fault is not hers; the pink carnations were good. The world was wrong: “I could not get young men to talk… the pressure of society almost forbade any natural feeling… society in those days was a very competent machine. It was convinced that girls must be changed into married women.”
Artists always think the world is wrong. Circumstances are refashioned to fit their ideas. Then they make their own world. Virginia’s was the Bloomsbury group. Bloomsbury was not so different from Lady Sligo’s ballroom. Its members — Virginia, her sister Vanessa, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, and John Maynard Keynes — were part of the owning, quality class. Their ancestors were judges and civil servants, imperial operatives and dons, manufacturers and Quakers; none had been peasants for generations. They were never proletarians.
The difference between Bloomsbury and the other toffs was that all its young men were unhappily homosexual, or like Virginia, too cracked up to enter society on its own terms. They were privileged outcasts. They wanted freedom from the constraints and sanctions of traditional morality; there would be no more hiding behind curtains.
In their world within a world, leisurely Bloomsbury developed into what Raymond Williams called a “dissenting fraction” of the English upper-class. Light, Beauty and Truth were the new values. They believed that if they talked openly about sex they would never be hypocrites. “We were full of experiments and reforms,” Virginia wrote of the group’s early days. “Everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different. Everything was on trial.”
The disastrous First World War confirmed every prejudice the group held about England, and made their work sexy and cool. Christianity, patriotism, well-plotted novels and realistic landscape painting looked like bumbling absurdities. The values of the fathers and grandfathers were laughable and philistine. With flawless timing Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was released in May 1918. Using innuendo rather than invective, Strachey doodled moustaches on the heroic statuary of a fading age.
When the grand Tory historian G.M. Young read the book, he said: “We’re in for a bad time.” “We” meant the old establishment, which preached, as Tennyson had, that “the path of duty was the way to glory”. It turned out that the path of duty was the way to the Somme. Victorianism was punctured for good. The young looked to Bloomsbury for its values in the 1920s — which is probably why so many of them ended up as communist spies in the 1930s.
Woolf’s position in all this, T.S. Eliot said, was “the centre, not merely of an esoteric group, but the literary life of London.” In Jacob’s Room, Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and Orlando, she stirred the heavy dough of English fiction and discovered new forms. Being new was more important than anything else. The aim of her writing, she told Clive Bell, was to “give the feel of running water” — and so each novel is a strange prefiguration of her drowning.
The popular image of Woolf comes from this period. Here she is, the paradigmatic mad lady genius: wronged, misunderstood, impractical, oracular, ahead of her time and consequently not like other people, not quite human at all. Nicole Kidman’s fake nose won an Oscar for playing that Woolf in The Hours (2002), and this caricature was last seen in the grave, trembling lesbian romance movie Vita & Virginia (2019).
It’s the picture postcard version of Woolf — a mannequin on which any number of ideas can be hung, regardless of whether they are true. Those who knew her would be surprised to see her portrayed as a lesbian, or made a hero for the LGBT movement, given that she was terrified of sex. Anything more than holding hands was improbable.
What is true about this image is that Woolf never changes. She writes somewhere that “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living”. Woolf never managed it — just read the Diaries, where page after miserable page shows how stuck she became. Bloomsbury thought there were many ways of living, and many ways of feeling, but they were wrong.
She began work on a new novel in 1932, when she was established as one of the most spectacular writers of the era. It would encompass “everything”. It would be her definitive statement on women and men, politics and society; on art and on life.
Two exacting years produced a useless first draft. In London, Bloomsbury was being attacked with exactly the same weapon — sarcasm — it had buried the Victorians with. Younger writers snapped at her heels. She thought of a provisional title for another book: On Being Despised. This was another kind of death.
Her diary jangled with nerves. Was her “everything” novel merely an essay about herself? (Yes.) When it was finally published in 1936, The Years was an enormous commercial success. Yet it was too detached, too backwards-looking, too voluptuous. Educated taste had moved on. “Live differently,” one character thinks — the same thought Virginia was scribbling in her diary at fifteen.
Once the war began, and Nazi bombs destroyed her London house, Woolf began to change her mind about things. The Bloomsbury judgments about England and the English were evaporating. Always a mega snob, Woolf was amazed to find herself admiring “every sort of person: chars, shopkeepers, even more remarkably… politicians — Winston at least — and the tweed-wearing, sterling dull women here… with their grim good sense.”
The deep conservatism of her country, which she’d disdained all her adult life, proved itself useful in 1940. It was an advantage to be dull, ignorant, sluggish, and unimaginative. The great majority “were hardly able to conceive,” in the words of one historian, “that Britain might lose the war.” It helped to carry them through, but it damaged her.
This is what killed her off one last time. The vast trauma, not only of war, but in discovering, so late in the day, that all her judgments were wrong. Oscar Wilde once said you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop — true, but he didn’t live long enough to see what happened to Virginia Woolf.