One of the strangest things Virginia Woolf ever did was to travel with Leonard to Germany for part of their annual holiday in April 1935. The vigour of German anti-semitism was by this point clear and Hitler’s power and at least some of his worst intentions towards Britain were recorded by Woolf in her diaries (‘There is some reason I suppose to expect that Oxford Street will be flooded with poison gas one of these days’). But it wasn’t uncharacteristic of her to make light of danger. Although in many ways her life seems closeted, guarding its safety till the last, Virginia Woolf took risks with herself. Five years later, caught in an air-raid with Ben Nicolson, who sagely threw himself to the ground, she stood still and lifted her arms to the sky. More sinisterly, caught in the middle of a flag-waving crowd of Nazi supporters shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ in the course of the trip to Germany, she had raised her arm in salute.
As with all moments of excess in the life and writing of Virginia Woolf, these stories present us with a question. What might lead someone, in a position of real danger, to identify with, stretch out – yearn – towards the aggressor? What might lead someone to seem passionately to covet what they most fear? We may be tempted to read the moment in Germany as the most cynical form of self-protection, but the later moment reminds us that the most inappropriate, seemingly irrational forms of behaviour can surface during a war. People can be calm when they should be anxious, excited or inspired when they should be afraid. More simply, as our popular vocabulary attests, danger is something we ‘walk into’ or towards which we ‘turn a blind eye’. Even now business carries on as usual in Oxford Street, though it wouldn’t be altogether unreasonable to expect poison gas, or at any rate a bomb. It is a great strength of Hermione Lee’s major new biography of Virginia Woolf that she never lets us forget just how closely Woolf’s life, and her death, were shadowed by the two wars.
In a moment of extreme depression during the period after the First World War, Woolf wrote: ‘its life itself, I think sometimes, for us in our generation so tragic.’ This was one of many instances when she pulled out of her own darkness towards a collective history that was no less dark. Reading this biography you often get the feeling, not just that the two – inner and outer darkness – were inextricable, but that she made it one of the tasks of her writing life to trace the connections between them (it seems as wrong to see war as the cause of her misery as to treat it as a mere backdrop, something to which, to wrest herself out of the inner turmoil, she could turn). The first version of Mrs Dalloway opened with a procession of the sons of dead officers laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. ‘The vast events now shaping themselves across the Channel,’ she wrote in March 1917, ‘are towering over us too closely and too tremendously to be worked into fiction without a painful jolt in the perspective.’ Writing of her Victorian cousins, she commented: ‘They could not foretell 1914, let alone Hitler. But looking back I think they had premonitions; and that they grasped teapots so hard because they were to be smashed.’
In fact, one of the few limitations E.M. Forster places on Woolf in the lecture he gave in 1941, after her death, was that she would have been unable to take the measure, for her fiction, of London bombed out in the Blitz: ‘The submarine perhaps. But not the flying fortress or the land mine. The idea that all stone is like grass, and like all flesh may vanish in a twinkling, did not enter into her consciousness, and indeed it will be some time before it can be assimilated by literature.’ Or as Woolf herself would put it somewhat minimally in The Years, ‘A little blur had come round the edges of things. It was the wine; it was the war.’ And yet it is still possible to offer an account of Modernist experimentation in terms of the smashing of teapots, the irreparable ‘jolt’ in perspective which Woolf described in 1917. Neither Jacob’s Room, nor The Waste Land nor Ulysses, which also appeared in 1922, can be read without reference to the Great War. As Hermione Lee remarks of the first of these, ‘the novel which celebrates her discovery of new formal possibilities for fiction is also an elegy for the war-dead.’
As the epigraph for her biography, Lee chooses these lines from Woolf’s diary of 1922: ‘I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.’ You could just as well turn this epigraph inside out without in any way detracting from the vital, affirmative spirit in which Lee has chosen to approach her subject. When Virginia Stephen moved with her sister Vanessa and her brother Thoby from Hyde Park Gate to Bloomsbury after their father’s death in 1904, one of the most striking, and freeing, things about the new residence was, as Lee puts it, that ‘no one was dying in this house.’ Within ten years, starting with the death of her mother in 1895, Virginia Stephen had lost both parents and her half-sister Stella (just married, Stella had barely, in the face of violent recriminations from her father, moved out of the home). Two years later, Thoby would die. According to her own now famous account of those early years at Hyde Park Gate, Virginia had been sexually abused by her half-brother, George, while her father had lain dying of cancer ‘three or four storeys lower down’.
You can read Woolf’s life as her attempt to move out of those early deaths (literally from Kensington to Bloomsbury), and then transmute them into art. The implication, as with Lee’s epigraph, is that death is something which, ideally, you get the better of. Alternatively, death can be seen as giving a unique authority to her fiction. In the words of Walter Benjamin, the storyteller used to ‘borrow his authority from death’ (‘there used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not once died’), but in modern times, dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living. ‘Though almost all her novels are dominated by a death,’ Lee writes, ‘in almost all the death is not written in.’ Death is the absent presence which stalks Virginia Woolf’s writing, turning it back as well as forwards through literary and historical time. Private and public trauma, death for Virginia Woolf is more than elegy, more than mourning, more than a fear or pull to which she finally succumbs. Rather it is something through the eyes of which – literally in the case of the dying Rachel Vinrace of her first novel – she sees. More than once, she places death at the source, the life-pulse, of her own artistic vision: ‘examine feelings with the intense microscope that sorrow lends, it is amazing how they stretch, like the finest goldbeater’s skin, over immense tracts of substance’; ‘my mother’s death veiled and intensified, as if a burning glass had been laid over what was shaded and dormant ... as if something were becoming visible without any effort’.
Looking back in 1940 on the losses of those early years, Woolf suggests that they bestowed on her life a sense of its supreme significance (‘the gods were taking us seriously’). This might explain why, in relation to her writing, she fought so fiercely against significance, or meaning: ‘I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. Directly I am told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me.’ One of Hermione Lee’s greatest talents is that she can evoke so vividly the depths of a numbing grief that knows nothing but itself and the suffocating counterweight of the Stephen family’s fussy, decorous, expectant social world. ‘Victorian society,’ Woolf writes, ‘began to exert its pressure at about half past four ... We learnt the rules so thoroughly that we have never forgotten them. We still play the game.’ But in 1940 she could grant a modicum of praise to that world for its civilised qualities (‘restraint, sympathy, usefulness’); she even allows that its surface manner might allow her to slip things into her writing that ‘would be inaudible if one marched straight up and spoke out loud’.
These, you could say, are the contours of a manageable and expressive ambivalence, but it is also clear that death in the Stephen family ushered in a more radical and troubling questioning of the visible, knowable world, an oscillation, which would never stop, between Virginia Woolf’s sense of the world as at once unbearably real – ‘if life were thus made to rear and kick, it was a thing to be ridden. So I came to think of life as something of extreme reality’ – and unreal: ‘the sultry and opaque life which was not felt, had nothing real about it, and yet swam about us and choked us and blinded us’; ‘not many lives were tortured and fretted and made numb with non-being as ours were then.’ All accounts of a life are misleading, Woolf writes on the subject of biography, because states of non-being are impossible to describe (like the invisible third presence which she often felt to be shadowing her life with Leonard). By the time Leslie Stephen has died, less than a third of the way through Lee’s biography, you already have the finest sense of the impossible balancing act that will take up its place at the centre of Woolf’s writing. It is almost as if everything has already happened before the main story, before her life, truly begins.
A problem central to biography is how to evoke the life before the life you have set out to describe. In a sense Woolf makes the task easier because of her own feeling that all lives extend beyond their limits – ‘Virginia Stephen was not born on the 25th January 1882, but was born many thousands of years ago’; her conviction that the boundaries around what we think of as discrete personal egos are arbitrary or even false. Lee makes central to this life Woolf’s desire to create a world free of the ego and its pretensions – ‘Nothing is to be dreaded so much as egotism’ – despite the at once unabashed and apologetic egotism of which Woolf herself alternately boasted and complained. She devotes much space to the intense friendships which Woolf developed with women. When they founder, as more often than not they did, lesbian anxiety, fear of intimacy, clash of egos – the customary readings – all seem to miss the point. If anything, the opposite seems to be the case. If too much presence of another offended Woolf, it is because the idea of two wholly distinct psychic entities was for her a conviction that could not, or rather should not, be sustained. Thus Katherine Mansfield on their last conversation: ‘I said how my own character seemed to cut out a shape like a shadow in front of me ... she thought this was bad: one ought to merge into things.’ Trace this merging back to the dynamics of the family (everything, Lee remarks, can be traced back to the family beginnings), and a question emerges. What exactly is a family? It is a question this biography forces on the reader, the question, we might say, which in the current climate of moral panic about the family, no one is allowed to ask. How intimate, how close, should it get? As the cry goes up for the family to hang and to hold closer and closer together, what exactly do we have in mind? George and Gerald Duckworth’s sexual abuse of Virginia Stephen clearly goes over the limits. But what about telepathy or, say, haunting? Fearful proximity or admirable loyalty, a mildly excessive version of knowing where or to whom you belong?
‘What her mother felt,’ Woolf writes of the relationship between Julia Stephen and Stella, ‘passed almost instantly through Stella’s mind’ (she came rushing home from a holiday having had a premonition of her mother’s imminent death). Woolf describes herself as living so wholly in her mother’s atmosphere ‘that one never got far enough away to see her as a person’. She saw ghosts. She never met anyone who reminded her of Stella or her mother but she was haunted by both. She never let go of her sister Vanessa: ‘I think I’m more nearly attached to you than sisters should be. Why is it I never stop thinking of you?’; ‘I often wake in the night and cry aloud Nessa! Nessa!’ ‘Scene-making’ was how Woolf described the way she wrote, but her relationship to Vanessa was the only one which went too deep for ‘scenes’. ‘A strong part of her impulse in writing fiction,’ Lee comments, ‘would be to take back Vanessa, to re-enter and make her re-enter their past shared life.’ There is a sense in which Virginia Woolf never left home.
It is, we might say, a central paradox of modern family life that its members are required to mould themselves in each other’s image and yet to know, as separate individuals or egos, exactly who they are. (Sanity would then be defined as the ability, against the odds, to establish the requisite boundaries out of the haze.) But we should be wary of dismissing Woolf’s dream of merging as pathological. The perfectly functioning ego which prides itself on its own self-possession, the perfectly functioning family (a type of authorised press-gang, as one recent letter to the Independent put it), is the one that goes to war. This is Woolf in The Years:
This is the conspiracy, he said to himself; this is the steam roller that smoothes and obliterates; rounds into identity; rolls into balls. He listened ... my boy – my girl ... they were saying. But they’re not interested in other people’s children, he observed. Only in their own; their own property; their own flesh and blood, which they would protect with the unsheathed claws of the primeval swamp ... one rip down the belly; or teeth in the soft fur of the throat ... How then can we be civilised.
In this family circle, Leslie Stephen was the most overbearingly close of them all. Perhaps the most deadly of his expectations following the death of his wife was that his daughters should mimic what he felt. ‘When he was sad, he explained, she should be sad; when he was angry ... she should weep’ – the call to identify another curse of intimacy, one might say. But despite the brutality – which is how his daughter comes to define it – the picture that emerges of Leslie Stephen, his family legacy and indeed of most of the men with whom Virginia had dealings during her life, plays havoc with the tropes of sexual difference through which critics have so often read the life and work of Virginia Woolf. ‘It is tempting, though probably too simplifying,’ Lee writes, ‘to find a male and female source of influence in Virginia Stephen’s early writing,’ but the temptation proves too great. ‘One is the authoritative, classical and analytic voice derived from her father’s work, and from her arguments with Thoby. The other is the fluid, whimsical tone which she associates with her friendships with women.’
In fact, one of the most striking things to emerge from this account is the hysterical precariousness, the ranting fragility, of the male line. The Stephens were ‘cold, law-making, rational, depressive’ (which is the odd word out?). The list of colonial administrators and judges also includes its fair share of rebels, renegades and rakes, its night-time terrors, dementias, mental breakdowns and suicides (Leslie Stephen suffered ‘fits of the horrors’). Lee combs the archive and deftly weaves its finest details into Woolf’s story. Detailing this early history so faithfully and minutely, she almost inadvertently throws new light on Woolf’s concept of the ‘great patriarchal machine’. ‘Every one of our male relations was shot into that machine at the age of ten and emerged at sixty a Head Master, an Admiral, a Cabinet Minister or the Warden of a College.’ What interested Woolf, however, was patriarchy not as untrammelled authority, but as a form of raging – authority gone frantic because it is losing its grip.
‘Why,’ Virginia asks of her father, ‘had he no shame in thus indulging his rage before women?’ It is as if she and Vanessa were the mute observers of a ceremony which required them without implicating them, as if they were being asked simply to observe a parody or masquerade of masculinity running rampant – running away with itself. The worst excesses of the patriarchal ego (‘it’s the ego that erects itself like another part of the body I don’t care to name’) emerge from the dissolving, at times dissolute, boundaries of the male self. If, as Lee suggests, Woolf’s analysis of patriarchy begins here, with the victimising relationship she watched between her father and Stella and, later on, with Vanessa, we should also note the element of failure written into the condition she so ruthlessly and brilliantly diagnosed: ‘We must compensate the man for the loss of his gun.’ In The Voyage Out, the writer Hewet says to Rachel Vinrace: ‘I believe we must have the same sort of power over you that we’re said to have over horses. They see us as three times as big as we are or they’d never obey us.’
This gives Woolf’s feminism at once its biting edge and its compassion, her view of men as ‘cripples in a cave’ buckling under the crushing weight of what is required of them; her picture of Hitler as no more or less than a terrifying void: ‘that ridiculous little man. Why ridiculous? Because none of it fits. Encloses no reality.’ Seen in this light, feminism, or at least Woolf’s feminism, is the answer not to unquestioning, unchallenged patriarchy, but to patriarchy as a form of lunacy, known only too well by the men who are meant to embody it: bravura on the verge of collapse.
It is then strange to watch Woolf for the rest of her life so radically reject and yet also repeat the contours of this early world. Lee’s account of the Bloomsbury men carefully sidesteps their own mythology so that they come out looking like the unconscious of the previous generation, less a definitive rupture with Victorian society, as they liked to see themselves, more the pain, hidden pleasures and paradoxes of that society writ large. Not just because of the homosexuality (barely concealed behind the earlier Victorian heterosexual constraint), but because of the strange mixture of opposites in them, which Woolf often found maddening but which she herself sometimes shared: free speech and chronic inhibition, liberal and socialist politics alongside a blinding contempt for the rest of the world. They were not, Lee insists, bohemian; Bloomsbury was not a commune; the image that emerges from Woolf’s own writing is of a group that, for all the talk, could barely communicate with each other. Katherine Mansfield’s pet word for them – tangi – was the Maori word for wailers at a funeral. They compared their nightmares at breakfast. Leonard Woolf, the Jew with trembling hands whom Virginia was eventually, hesitatingly, reluctantly to marry, was the most ‘depressed’ of them all. Why, as Roger Poole asks in The Unknown Virginia Woolf, didn’t he get straight back on the boat to Ceylon after receiving the letter in which she just about accepted his proposal?
In her review of Quentin Bell’s 1972 biography, ‘Mrs Virginia Woolf – a Madwoman and Her Nurse’, Cynthia Ozick reads the Woolf marriage as the story of the Jew desperate for assimilation. Only someone that eager to belong, so ritually and historically excluded from belonging, would be willing to take on board such a burden of caring and would consequently fail to notice that he was in fact marrying a casualty – and indictment – of the very upper-middle-class English social order to which he so fervently aspired. Ozick isn’t cited here, but Leonard Woolf as Jewish victim is just one version of a story which it is almost impossible to tell without someone coming out as done in by somebody else. The opposite version, Roger Poole’s for example, has Leonard responsible for driving Virginia mad; others even less inhibited suggest he drove her to, or even played a part in, her death.
Hermione Lee is determined to be even-handed. Oddly, however, for me the central problem in this otherwise admirable Life starts here. It is as if her main objective is to be reasonable at all costs (a quality for which the book has been much praised); as if only in these terms – on reason’s terms – can Woolf be given her due. The chapter on ‘Madness’ opens: ‘Virginia Woolf was a sane woman with an illness.’ Intended as a defence of Woolf’s reason against the charge of madness, this is disturbingly tidy. The paragraph continues: ‘She was often a patient, but she was not a victim. She was not weak, or hysterical, or self-deluding, or guilty, or oppressed.’ (Do mad people have to be one or several or all of these?)
It is always worth asking of any biography, with whom in the story, if anyone, does the biographer identify? Whose side does she take? In this case, the answer would have to be not exactly Woolf but a part of her, the one that managed over and over again, throughout the mental anguish, to write. ‘To keep her sane,’ Ozick writes of Leonard, ‘was to keep her writing.’ Lee keeps Woolf sane, therefore, as her gift and tribute to Woolf’s writing life. To save Woolf as a woman from the charge of (female) unreason is also to make a crucial political point: no weakness, no guilt, no blame. But if you champion Woolf in this way, write her story as a tale of triumph over adversity – which may seem honourable enough in itself – madness gets marginalised. It becomes an aside, the great spoiler, the rude interrupter of her life. Woolf once said that biographies fail because the subject of the biography always goes missing (lost under the welter of the life). In this case, it is madness that goes missing because Woolf is never allowed to go missing from herself. The dominant rhetorical trope here is the ‘Yes, but ...’, the trope of disavowal, according to Freud. I finally lost count of the number of times madness is raced past as if it was not just Woolf but the reader who had to be saved:
On the whole – though there were phases of illness and depression too – the confidence and energy were sustained throughout the writing of Jacob’s Room ...
‘dreading the madness rather’. But she did not break down ...
There were moments of depression, of shaking hands, and ‘fritter to my nerves’ (‘Cut me anywhere, & I bleed too profusely. Life has bred too much “feeling” of a kind in me’). But there was also a sense of power and achievement ...
She was unwell again, and fainted twice ... And yet, on a good day she could be enchanting ...
What exactly, we might ask, is being required of Virginia Woolf? And what sequence of psychic events? You could equally argue that the movement was not from illness to writing, but that the temporary mastery required for the writing, the illusion of holding it all in balance, was what invariably precipitated the subsequent collapse. One effect, among others, is that Woolf’s own death comes stalking. Even though everyone who knows this story, knows the end, it comes to seem genuinely baffling that this woman – so endlessly resourceful and canny in driving away her own demons – will eventually kill herself.
A key footnote, which bears all the signs of having been pushed into the notes under editorial pressure, gives some indication of what is at stake:
If, like Kate Millett, you believe that it is an abuse of scientific language to apply the terms of ‘illness’ to mental states then the use of the word ‘illness’ for Virginia Woolf will offend you. But if resisting the definition of illness necessitates attributing her ‘depressions’ or ‘breakdowns’ to repressed sexual guilt or to the trauma of sexual violation, then she is imprisoned in a deterministic reading which makes her a lifelong victim of oppression. Arguments will continue over whether her breakdowns were caused by ‘life-events’ whose effects might be slow to manifest themselves, or whether she suffered from an illness for which the predisposition could have been inherited.
But to suggest that Woolf was either ill or abused and then, recasting that first opposition, either suffering from predisposition or life events, seriously limits the field. In both cases, mental anguish happens to you, it descends on you from your congenital prehistory or out of the cruel blue of your life. In neither case is madness seen – as it was simultaneously being defined by Freud – as something to which we all have a relation. You might say that there are two ways of dealing with the label of ‘madness’: one is to refuse it (which is to buy into the view that it is pure insult); the other is to see it, closer, it seems, to the spirit of Woolf, as a form of vision, ‘moments of vision’, which – this is no idealisation – excruciatingly strips the dross off the madness of what characteristically passes for sane. Or, to put it more in the language of Modernism, madness – nowhere more so than in terms of our cherished distinctions between reason and unreason – is something which blurs the lines (unlike illness, which is something which can be extirpated or taken away). ‘The insane view of life has much to be said for it,’ Woolf wrote to Emma Vaughan in 1901, ‘perhaps its the sane one after all; and we, the sad sober respectable citizens really rave every moment of our lives.’ (Later she would describe Vivienne Eliot as ‘insane, yet sane to the point of insanity’.) Of the cold-fingered, fastidious, tasteful, critical legacy of the Stephens, she wrote: ‘My madness saved me.’ All these quotations are taken from the book, but they seem to rest on the surface, as if they (like madness) must never be allowed to get a grip.
Insisting on Woolf’s sanity would then be a way of missing the point. How can you write on behalf of someone else’s reason unless you are unerringly sure of your own? It might be more apposite to see the problem, for anyone approaching the issue of madness, as the reverse. How to do justice to madness? How to write a ‘faithful’ history of madness without subordinating it to reason’s unerring (fastidious, crippling) control? In relation to Woolf, we might then ask: what does reading her demand of us? In order to participate in her aesthetic vision, what do we have to relinquish, what enter into, with what identify? ‘How far,’ Lee questions, observing the failure of all those surrounding Woolf to understand her suffering, ‘can an onlooker, however closely related, go into the mind of an ill person?’ But Woolf was deeply suspicious of such forms of distancing and self-protection; she believed fervently that you could go into other people’s minds – it would be one account of her writing. To protect Woolf in this way would then be to produce an oxymoron, best captured by E.M. Forster’s apparently unselfconscious remark: ‘In her work, as in her private problems, she was always civilised and sane on the subject of madness.’
If, finally, there is a guilty party in this biography, a type of self-incriminating uninvited guest, it seems to be Freud. Not just because of the rejection of his vision in favour of more psychiatric forms of classification (rejecting the diagnosis of madness does not stop Lee from stating categorically that ‘manic depression’ is what Woolf suffered from). But because, in one of the most bizarre moments of the book, Lee seems to suggest that reading Freud played its part in driving Woolf over the edge: ‘Just as civilisation (Freud told her) could not get rid of its aggression, so the individual may not be able to avoid regression into mental illness or self-destruction. It may have been this fear which made her stop writing her autobiography shortly before her suicide.’ Another footnote glosses: ‘de Salvo argues that what drove VW to suicide in her reading of Freud was the possibility of “false memory”.’ (‘What drove VW to suicide in her reading of Freud’ suggests that de Salvo may be wrong in specifics but not in his drift.)
In 1939, in a passage given in part, Woolf wrote in her diary: ‘Began reading Freud last night; to enlarge the circumference, to give my brain wider scope, to make it objective; to get outside. Thus defeat the shrinkage of age.’ Although his complete works filled the basement of her house for many years – the Hogarth Press is famous today for, among other things, publishing the Standard Edition of Freud – Virginia Woolf did not in fact start to read Freud until 1939. The books she read were his writings on the insanity of civilised life and the collective madness of the times (Group Psychology, Moses and Monotheism, ‘Thoughts for the Time on War and Death’, ‘Why War?’). In 1928, her fellow Modernist, HD, wrote: ‘One of the most distinguished women of the political non-militant suffragette period said to me (in 1914) “I have studied the problem from every angle, but I can dare not question [sic] our cause for going to war. If I questioned it for one moment, I should go mad.” I did not say to her then: “well, go mad.” I would now.’