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The many deaths of Virginia Woolf The Bloomsbury genius discovered too late that she was wrong about everything

She was probably thinking about how ugly the photographer was. Credit: Getty

She was probably thinking about how ugly the photographer was. Credit: Getty


March 26, 2021   6 mins

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.

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.


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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

A beautifully written article.

I think her life circle is one most intellectual butterflies ultimately undergo. They are so distant from actually Making and producing goods and business they look down on the real world of doings, till finally they realize that all this doing is what made it all possible, all that is great exists because those stuffy old men were shipping things around the world, and selling shipping insurance to the freight steamers, and loaning the money to buy the cargoes, and being the Captain of the Regiment in far away lands, and on and on. And the looking down and arguing against it all, that it is ungrateful and misses the point.

Richard E
Richard E
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Great comment. So true.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

But what else could any of them do? Artists or shopkeepers or insurance men, it is our fate to be wrong or ignorant. We still have to go forward.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I think you put this wonderfully well. Have an upvote with my compliments.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

You are too generous, an interesting critique but somewhat flawed, but sadly UnHerd is not the forum for further discussion.

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Just have to point out that Virginia and Leonard set up The Hogarth Press in 1917, publishing and hand-printing books. Virginia was fully involved in running the business and literally printing books with her hands using a press for over 20 years from 1917 till 1938.
It was a successful business and went on to become Chatto & Windus.
I’m sorry, but I think you have made some mistaken and untoward assumptions in your comment.

Last edited 3 years ago by Claire D
Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

But they produced too much CO2 so now we must eat bugs, Bill Gates’s frankenmeat, Wear our tracking devices everywhere so our betters know how much CO2 we use. Gates has a good thing going. He’ll own massive forests and algae CO2 absorbing ponds so he will have a CO2 negative balance, use as much fossil fuel as he wants, eat grass feed beef raised on his pristine farmland. Poor people living in apartments can grow a few potted plants I suppose but they’ll have to get Bill Gates’s vaccines to slow their metabolism to a crawl. Can’t be a useless breather anymore. The world can’t afford it! Thank God Bill Gates is here to save us.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Boylon

Yep Bill ”Gates of Hell,” only has Two Private Jets & 24 Sports GT cars mostly porsches, and doesn’t affect climate,ONLY , Ordinary Folk like you &I do that….Gates,Bezos,Soros All Globalist hypocrites…funding non-Scientific data, Zero Carbon (No Life on Earth) Zero SARS2 etc…

Colin Brewer
Colin Brewer
3 years ago

Virginia Woolf was a classic case of real manic-depressive illness – the most illness-like of the common psychiatric disorders. It also has one of the highest rates of suicide, even now when there are reasonably effective medications. It seems to be more common in creative artists and perhaps the more creative and unconventional, the more common. Poets are especially prone. Mania brings energy and weird ideas (and rhymes). Depression brings tales from the abyss if they survive the journey
As she herself recognised in correspondence with Ethel Smythe, it both helped and hindered her own writing. “And then I married, and then my brains went up in a shower of fireworks. As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets as sanity does.”
She also shared her thoughts on suicide with Smythe. In 1930, she asked: “By the way, what are the arguments against suicide? You know what a flibberti-gibbet I am: well there suddenly comes in a thunderclap a sense of the complete uselessness of my life. It’s like suddenly running one’s head against a wall at the end of a blind alley. Now what are the arguments against that sense – “Oh, it would be better to end it”? I need not say that I have no sort of intention of taking any steps: I simply want to know.”
Both the depressive and and manic phases can arrive quite rapidly. Some people even have a regular 48 hour cycle of manic and depressive moods. One day, they sit silent and miserable; the next they are cracking jokes or going on a shopping spree. Try explaining that by reference to Freudian (or R D Laingian) theories. Manic-depressive illness is almost certainly an overwhelmingly biochemical brain disorder, though like most illnesses,it may be triggered or aggravated by stress and distress. It also has a large genetic component. In a piece for The Times decades ago, I described is ‘the achiever’s insanity’ and got a nice letter from a manic-depressive support group for the description.

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Colin Brewer

You are wasted on here.
Literally and figuratively

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Colin Brewer

I would describe it as the under-achiever’s insanity. I agree with most of the rest of your comment.

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago

Poor Virginia Woolf, it’s a long time since I read her books. I’m the opposite to Fraser Bailey in that The Waves was the only one I could not cope with at all.

For me, as just another human being, I feel sorry for her; genius combined with intermittantly severe mental illness, and the crude treatments she had to undergo for that at the time, was a heavy cross to bear. No wonder when she felt another psychotic episode was about to begin she could’nt face it again aged 60.
I detest sneering criticism of anyone because they were born into wealth, all that talk of “toffs” etc, as if somehow they are less deserving of sympathy in their suffering, that is just ug ly, resentful Marxism. That just undermines the article’s worth for me.

Peter de Barra
Peter de Barra
3 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

… indeed … while struggling through this piece with it’s rebarbative, unsavoury tone, [extended click bait presumably] one waited for the concerns of the racial/industrial complex to be deployed – perhaps they were.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago

A nice article. I’m not sure Virginia Woolf died many times. Rather, I think the experience of death so early on in her life (when her mother and half-sister Stella died within a fairly short space of time) impressed on her how close to life death was. During her life, it must have felt like a constant presence, closer at some points than others, like a cliff edge she was pulled towards.
Being a writer and a deep thinker living through the times that she did couldn’t really have resulted in any other conclusion than having been mistaken about some things – if not everything. The world order was shattered twice during her lifetime. After WWI, she and the others from the Bloomsbury set were still young and idealistic enough to think that the world could be completely remade into something better and set off to achieve that with tremendous Ă©lan and creative energy.
By the time 1939 arrived, everybody was a bit older, a little more jaded. It’s the natural way of life to look back on your youthful ideals and shake your head at how silly some of them were. To Virginia, another war must have seemed like the final proof that the project of building the brave new world had failed and that all that creative endeavour and all that giving of herself had been for nought.

Last edited 3 years ago by Katharine Eyre
J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

A very interesting article on the life and beliefs of Virginia Woolf. It presents her as a more rounded, flawed and relatable human being rather than the sanitized feminist icon she’s become.
The article does, however, seem to end with its most important question unanswered: “… discovering, so late in the day, that all her judgments were wrong.
What judgments, exactly, were wrong? Her whole world view? And why were they wrong? Were they wrong or did time and events simply pass them by?
Anyone care to enlighten me?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It’s complicated.

D3 SH
D3 SH
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Read, man!

Conservatism, Victorianism, and “Christianity, patriotism, well-plotted novels and realistic landscape painting”, which looked like “bumbling absurdities” to Woolf’s clique.

That aside, I never really enjoyed Woolf’s writing. She always seemed like she was striving to be as good as her superior contemporaries, Proust and Joyce, and came up short.

Simon Baseley
Simon Baseley
3 years ago
Reply to  D3 SH

Spot on.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  D3 SH

I sort of agree. Mrs Dalloway really is very good though.

George Bruce
George Bruce
3 years ago

 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 three years to run; 

No it didn`t – she died six or seven months later. Strange mistake to make – I had it quite firmly in my head that this monarch personifying the 19th century only just managed to make it into the 20th century. She died on 22 January 1901.

Barry Coombes
Barry Coombes
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, maybe he got confused with the other long lasting Queen who only just made it into the next century.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
3 years ago

I remember my father’s comment on reading ‘To the Lighthouse’: “I couldn’t help wondering, as I turned each page, ‘are we there yet?'”

Mary McFarlane
Mary McFarlane
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

Lordy, I studied it for O Level and hated it.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Mary McFarlane

I wasn’t so keen on ‘To The Lighthouse’ myself, and it seems a little unfair to inflict it on 15 year olds. But I do like some of her other work.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

I had a similar experience with Mrs Dalloway

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

I had a similar experience with a lot of her work, but rate Mrs Dalloway very hjghly indeed.

Jennifer Britton
Jennifer Britton
3 years ago

Woolf’s essays, especially “A Room of One’s Own” and “Three Guineas,” are some of her best writing and thinking about the world she lived in. Her fiction attempts to deal with the issues set out in her essays. Does her fiction succeed as great literature? The verdict is still out: in the academy she is celebrated; outside the academy she is not read. But the same could be said if Joyce, Proust, and others who pushed the literary envelope.

However, the mind that produced the level of analysis evident in her essays is first rate. Her essays, like those of Montaigne, luminate the mind. In light of the restricted education she received, her highly analytical observations and mastery of the essay form make me wonder whether the deficits in Woolf’s fiction that Mr Lloyd attends to are reflections of her mind and its experiences: her essays reveal a great mind; her fiction reveals her milieu as socially stifling, emotionally stunted, egoistic. For all intellectually snobbery, of the upper class, it was utterly materialistic. Her father fretted over money often. Her fiction is all of the above. Hence, it captures the essence of her world. When I read her fiction, I never emotionally affected. But I think that is how her world affected her creation of characters. Her fiction can feel lifeless (dead) but in that lifelessness lies the verisimilitude to the world she inhabited. In that, her work succeeds.

Just using new techniques, such as using multiple perspectives to tell a story or compressing the events of a novel into one day, doesn’t necessarily lead to the production of great literature. New techniques must be in service of the artistic vision. The quality of the vision is a function of the writer’s genius and experience, including education. Woolf herself expressed regret at not having had the classical education her step-brother had. I think her genius was always cramped by the feeling of a haunting inadequacy, not to mention cramped emotions and mental illness.

In short, don’t dismiss Woolf’s fiction. First, read her essays. Then read her fiction. Taken together, they illuminate each other and the reader.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I loved The Waves, which Malcolm Bradbury considers to be the culmination and high point of her oeuvre in his study of 20th century English fiction. I have not enjoyed her other books quite so much. Perhaps I should have read some of the others first, and built up to The Waves.

David James
David James
3 years ago

What a pity Virginia wasn’t fortunate enough to have been born black, poor and disabled; then, writers of such tosh, would be lauding her to the skies. 
As a student – of music – a friend of mine mentioned he’d just read The Waves. Over the subsequent 50 years, I’ve felt eternally grateful to him for his glowing introduction. In my [modest] opinion, this work represents the greatest novel ever to be written in the English language. To the Lighthouse runs it a close second. 
I must have read both works dozens of times – you should see how tatty both my copies now are.

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  David James

Right that’s it, I’m going to give The Waves another go.
I agree,To the Lighthouse is wonderful, and I really enjoyed Orlando, which is a romp in comparison.

David James
David James
3 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Have you read Jacob’s Room? It’s her first mature novel yet, for some strange reasons, is hardly ever mentioned.

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  David James

Good reminder, no, I have’nt, it’s the only one I think (apart from The Waves), something to look forward to. I had a craze for reading her in my early twenties, but I left a few out and have gradually got round to them over the years.
By the way, there’s an interesting essay on The Conversation about Virginia Woolf and how music influenced her writing.

Last edited 3 years ago by Claire D
David James
David James
3 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Like all great literature, hers needs constantly revisiting. Imagine, for instance, only hearing the ‘Eroica’ once!

Thanks for the lead on ‘The Conversation’.

[craterlake@btinternet.com]

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Upon comparing Woolf’s death to that of Sylvia Plath, a friend and I decided that Woolf’s was more ‘sustainable’.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Because it didn’t cause a sub-nuclear gas explosion perhaps?

Or rather Mr Pike and friends had 21 days to feast on her putrefying corpse, as it languished in the Ouse?

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Stanhope
mottershead.d
mottershead.d
3 years ago

Woolf was an incredible writer. That doesn’t need revision.

ltarget.esq
ltarget.esq
3 years ago
Reply to  mottershead.d

Incredible. I don’t believe it.

Diana Durham
Diana Durham
3 years ago

This article is pathetic. Full of innuendo, cliche, lack of precision. I can’t stand this kind of lazy, slipshod spilling out of words in a pretence of having actually something valuable to contribute. Please can I have my money back?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Diana Durham

Apposite, but still a little cruel.

Ingrid Nozahic
Ingrid Nozahic
3 years ago

A question. ‘Too cracked up to enter’ society. Cracked in what sense?
Interesting article.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Ingrid Nozahic

Severe mental illness.

Ingrid Nozahic
Ingrid Nozahic
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Thankyou

Simon Baseley
Simon Baseley
3 years ago

“…like lobsters scuttling about inside a vent”
What a great simile. Your very own, Will?

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago

Didn’t realise her eyes had strabismus
No wonder she was shy

Mark Hussey
Mark Hussey
3 years ago

New to UnHerd. There doesn’t seem much of value in people’s pronouncements about fiction here. I hated it/I loved it doesn’t really get us anywhere does it? And what a load of tired canards about Woolf-‘terrified of sex’ is so utterly debunked now. This writer needs to get beyond his A level notes.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

She was just a terrible writer.