Doctors’ Orders

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • ‘All that summer she was mad’: Virginia Woolf and Her Doctors by Stephen Trombley
    Junction, 338 pp, £12.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 86245 039 X

In the summer following the death of Leslie Stephen in 1904, his daughter Virginia lay in bed, listening to the birds singing in Greek and imagining King Edward lurking naked in the azaleas, shouting obscenities; that same summer she apparently attempted to kill herself by leaping out of the window. ‘I have never spent such a wretched 8 months in my life,’ she wrote to a friend when the crisis had passed.

And yet that tyrannical, and as I think, shortsighted Savage insists upon another two ... really a doctor is worse than a husband! Oh how thankful I shall be to be my own mistress and throw their silly medicines down the slop pail! I never shall believe, or have believed, in anything any doctor says – I learnt their utter helplessness when Father was ill. They can guess at what’s the matter, but they can’t put it right.

Twenty-one years later, her fictional ex-soldier, Septimus Warren Smith, hears the sparrows sing in Greek, believes that his best friend, killed in the war, speaks to him from behind the trees in Regent’s Park – and prefers death to doctors. Hearing the dreaded Dr Holmes about to burst into the room, Septimus flings himself ‘vigorously, violently’ out of the window, to be fatally impaled on the railings below. ‘It was a subject that I have kept cooling in my mind until I felt I could touch it without bursting into flame all over,’ she wrote to Gwen Raverat. ‘You can’t think what a raging furnace it is still to me – madness and doctors and being forced.’

Stephen Trombley does not quote this letter, but ‘madness and doctors and being forced’ crisply sums up the contents of his own angry book. Much of his study concentrates not on Virginia Woolf herself but on the views of several physicians who were consulted in her case (including the fortuitously named Savage), and who clearly inspired her bitter caricature of the profession in Mrs Dalloway. These were the ‘conventional men’ whom Woolf recalled in a letter to Ethel Smyth of 1930, men whose chief response to their patient’s suffering had been to forbid work and exercise, to insist on isolation, weight gain, and extended rest in bed: ‘ “you shant read this” and “you shant write a word” and “you shall lie still and drink milk.” ’ With its ban on reading and writing, Woolf’s summary of her doctors’ orders constitutes a literary patient’s version of the ‘rest cure’, 19th-century medicine’s fashionable solution to the problems of middle and upper-class women. As feminists have recently argued, it was a method of treatment which was itself pathological, an exaggerated prescription for female passivity and immobility. Trombley has relatively little to say about the implications of such ‘cures’, though he does speculate briefly on the various drugs with which Woolf may have been sedated and the symptoms which they might in turn have produced. While he obviously deplores the handling of her case, the focus of Trombley’s outrage is not the treatment of Woolf’s madness but the diagnosis itself. Arguing that the doctors in question were incapable of distinguishing medical judgments from social and moral ones, that ‘the manner in which Virginia’s madness is discussed by Leonard Woolf, Quentin Bell or the editors of the Letters and Diary shows that their use of the term is at best uncritical, and at worst irresponsible,’ Trombley sets out to show that there is no ‘concrete evidence’ that Virginia Woolf was mad. Or, to quote an early and ringing declaration which in fact claims considerably less than its note of resolute defiance might suggest: ‘As I hope to show by the end of this book, the Virginia Woolf of Three Guineas was perfectly sane.’

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