Virginia Woolf - Life

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Virginia Woolf - Life

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Edited: Oct 23, 2009, 6:56am

Sculptures of Virginia and Leonard Woolf - these sculptures are in the garden at Monks House, over the places which were once occupied by the trees over their ashes. Photographs by Caroline J McElwee

Photograph: Monks House, Rodmell, Sussex, taken by Caroline J McElwee

Edited: Oct 29, 2009, 10:55am


I have been glutting somewhat on Virginia and her mind this year. Reading Hermione Lee’s biography, the five volumes of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, and Virginia’s diaries, essays, and so far re-reading To the Lighthouse, and thinking about her suicide.

I’m two-thirds through 'A Writer’s Diary' and get a strong sense of the importance of Virginia’s creative writing to her. Her novels. In Leonard’s autobiography he mentions that there is a different level of mental exertion used by Virginia for her novels and for her criticism or other non-fiction writing. The latter doesn’t cause her so much effort of mental exertion. Yet for the novels he says she is in them all the time, there is never a time when they are not taking up her mind, conscious and unconscious. I can feel this now in the part of the diary I am reading as she talks, as she has for each novel, about the energy and stress and later, fear. She is writing The Years (what at the point she is writing is either to be called ‘The Pargiters’ or ‘Here and Now’). When I talk of fear, I mean fear in the effort required to complete the polishing of the work, and dealing with the proofs etc. Areas that take as much effort if not more than the original drafting. She seems to hold the great pleasure she has for creative writing in the same palm as she holds the fear of the exertion required to complete a fiction. In my minds eye it is the shape of a flame, with two entwined pieces, like the symbol for ying and yang.

I begin to wonder whether her reason for committing suicide was that she knew she could not live without creative writing, writing novels; could not live on criticism alone, and yet the fear of the mental exertion and ill health that would follow committing to each novel was suddenly more than she could tolerate. It was as if the pain of breathing (writing) had become too much. And yet without breath, one cannot live.

Oct 29, 2009, 11:00am

That is a wonderful way of putting it.

Coming from a much more clinical side, Caroline, I thought Virginia was a manic depressive (Bipolar) and her suicide was a result of one of her cycles (similar to Janet Frame and many other great creative thinkers).

Deep depression can often make a person unable to physically act on suicidal thoughts, but that feeling of overwhelming fatigue and effort required in life is such a typical symptoms of BP, combined with great bursts of creative output. However, the cycles of writing and finishing works seem to have been a great torment. In fact, her life seems a huge torment.

I wonder where VIrginia was at in her writing when she committed suicide. Was she starting, finishing or part-way through a work? I guess, without knowing, that her family closed ranks on her activities and any precipitants around her death??

Oct 29, 2009, 12:42pm

I think she had just finished Between the Acts, so after a high creative period K.

Interestingly, reading her diaries, and reading others' experiences with her I don't think she was as tortured as some of the literature (and media) might have us believe. I think she was more fun than most people would expect. She liked parties and people, loved nature and music. Loved to travel. And of course loved to read. She and Leonard quite often looked after their nieces and nephews, and occasionally friends' children (for several days at a time).

I think you are right with the BP diagnosis, and she certainly had what we would now call a compromised immune system as she was often ill with flu and other ailments, but I don't think she felt tortured outside those periods of deep depression caused by exhaustive work. Thats my impression from my reading of her own words anyway.

Feb 3, 2010, 1:15pm

Keep in mind too that the war caused her much grief and torment which I believe added to depression.

I agree with Caroline that Virginia was a fun person to be around and very much enjoyed being with people even though in her diary she wailed because her calendar was always full.

Her ambivalent yet somewhat abrasive discriptions of her visitors are hilarious. For instance when she met Freud in 1939 she writes ""A screwed up shrunk very old man: with a monkey’s light eyes, paralyzed spasmodic movements, inarticulate: but alert".

Remember , she struggled too writing "Roger Fry" while writing 'Between The Acts" , that with war I believed added to her growing disconnect with reality.

Jun 13, 2010, 11:55pm

Just watched The Hours in movie format, which is a creative look at Virginia Woolf's tormented life, Mrs Dalloway being the book that it draws upon. Nicole Kidman plays Virginia to great effect, complete with enlarged nose and no make-up.

Jun 20, 2010, 7:22am

My therapist, believe it or not, recommended this one to me; both the book & the movie. I took her up on it but have not read nor viewed either yet as I am attempting to catch up on some of my group reads. My nanny-day-care duties & mother duties have caused me to fall sadly behind. But I am excited to get to them. I didn't realize that there had been a book take-off on Mrs. Dalloway. Of course I have heard about The Hours but didn't realize what it was about.

Jun 22, 2010, 11:18am

I loved Cunningham's book - a great homage to Mrs Dalloway, and thought the movie did it justice. I believed Nicole Kidman's performance, she became Virginia for me, except I think Virginia did actually have more humour (her diaries imply so, as do some of the memories of those who knew her).

Have you seen the film they made of Mrs Dalloway with Vanessa Redgrave playing Mrs D.

Jun 26, 2010, 7:50am

I've not. Is it entitled simply: Mrs. Dalloway?

Jun 28, 2010, 12:27pm

Yes it is rainpebble.

May 14, 2014, 11:07pm

Caroline, you have a very fine sense of her. Thank you.

Virginia Woolf was more than the fine sensibilities she displayed at her best. The wonder is she bore difficulties with equanimity -- and the sexual predotiriness of her half-brothers every night. She had no sense of her person, at times, as neither did her sister Vanessa, it seemed. The parents never dreamed any of it could happen? They too were sheltered in their minds, so they never knew the Duckworth boys as anything but what they saw. With servants and a cook, they (she, her sister Vanessa, her father, her step-mother once Mrs. Duckworth) were innured? . . .protected from the actual worldʻs "natural" impulses? Sounds like film material for a dream world, against which the depression rises over and over again, and perhaps the memory of the sibling who was finally put away, despite the financial cost? A privileged life. And yet so troubled/ Leaves one, perhaps like Virginia, feeling somewhat overwhelmed, helpless, sad, unsatisfied, denying, but welling up with the need to write, make something beautiful, despite all of the strangeness that keeps recurring like the headaches and questions never asked, really, so never answered. and therefore shadowed, dark, beside the good of the writing writhing in her mind?