Lyndall Gordon questions the emphasis on suicide in narratives of Virginia Woolf’s life
Seventy years ago, on Friday 28 March 1941, Virginia Woolf famously weighted her pockets with stones, and waded into the fast-running River Ouse near her home in the village of Rodmell in Sussex. Her body was recovered three weeks later, but in the interim none of her intimates, neither her husband Leonard Woolf nor her sister Vanessa Bell, could doubt that she had drowned herself. For suicide had long been a possibility during crises in Virginia Woolf’s life. After her father’s death in 1904, she had thrown herself out of a window. Then in 1913, following a consultation with Sir Henry Head, a mind doctor who had recently sent Henry James ‘down into hell’, Virginia Woolf had swallowed an overdose of veronal.
‘So we discuss suicide’, she records in her diary at the age of fifty, in March 1932, when the artist Carrington, who loved Lytton Strachey, shot herself after his death. Mary Hutchinson (Clive Bell’s mistress) thought this a great romantic gesture. ‘Nonsense,’ Leonard said, impatient of ‘mausoleum’ talk. Virginia took a different line, ruminating on the mutability of memory and reputation: ‘the ghosts … change so oddly in my mind; like people who live, & are changed by what one hears of them.’ Carrington’s suicide changed her memory of Lytton: ‘he absorbed her[,] made her kill herself.’ This opened him to ‘dislike’.
In a similar way, Virginia Woolf’s suicide clouded her reputation as a leading novelist. It suggested to many that she was unstable, reinforced by memories of her as an uninhibited performer at Bloomsbury parties. These performances were linked with what she and her family called ‘madness’ for want of a better word.* I remember a senior lecturer called Philip Segal at the University of Cape Town, saying to a class in 1963: ‘Shall we do The Waves? No. It makes me seasick.’ The class guffawed on cue. In these decades after her death, when Virginia Woolf’s reputation was at its lowest ebb, she was cast as the invalid lady of Bloomsbury.
As we know, the complete editions of her diaries and letters revealed a different, more political, more feminist Virginia Woolf evident, say, in her correspondence with Dame Ethel Smyth. The ex-suffragist and composer (she had composed ‘The March of the Women’ and conducted it with a toothbrush from her window in Holloway Prison) called out the fighter and reformer who came strongly to the fore in the 1930s. And yet the popular notion of her as a hothouse plant cut off from the normal world persists to this day, most visibly in Stephen Daldry’s film The Hours, closely based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Michael Cunningham. Fictive scenes include a Virginia Woolf who torments poor Leonard, bickers with him on Richmond station and lies eye to eye with a small dead bird – all belittling images that remove a woman from what she was.
Both book and film of The Hours offset a moody, suicide-bent Virginia Woolf against the supposed normality of a sister who shops. This humdrum character is not the artist Vanessa Bell was in actual life, but an obedient consumer loaded with parcels.
A beautiful Hollywood star, Nicole Kidman, with an elongated false nose (playing down the novelist’s more distinguished beauty), admitted in an interview that she had not read Virginia Woolf. The question did not appear to embarrass Kidman, surrounded at the time with praise for her performance as a droopy, dowdy and rather cross writer tugging on her cigarette. Does it matter that this writer’s diary denies gloom, declaring that she enjoys more happiness than nine out of ten people? The real woman was robust enough to tramp for miles each day, as she thought out her next day’s work – and her energy for work was prodigious. Doris Lessing stood almost alone in the sureness of her protest against the image Kidman perpetuates: the writer, Lessing said, is played by a star ‘whose permanent frown shows how many deep and difficult thoughts she is having. Good God! The woman enjoyed life when she wasn’t ill; liked parties, her friends, picnics, excursions, jaunts. How we do love female victims; oh, how we do love them.’
Virginia Woolf’s triumph over family tragedies and illness offers a counter-narrative to the plot of doom and death often imposed on the lives of women – as though genius in a woman were unnatural. The Woolf episode in The Hours opens with jolting retakes of a scene no one actually witnessed: the writer wading into the water. ‘Look at it!’ the camera insists, closing in, ‘Look at it!’ This approach slams home a ready message: be appalled.
Such narratives of women writers invite us to see death as the crucial fact in the life. Will it ever be possible to detach Charlotte Brontë from the brooding tombstones that open Mrs Gaskell’s narrative of her friend’s life? Like The Hours’ insistence on looking, look again: the Brontës’ tombstones are fixed before us at the outset of the story. Mrs Gaskell is intent on presenting a slave to duty in the shadow of tombstones; she has less to say about the burning centre of Charlotte’s existence: the creative fire. The biographer directs our attention away from the exhilaration of writing, stressing in place of genius its obliteration. Such an approach distorts our response. It whips up a dubious blend of sentimentality, pity and prurience.
Sex provides another routine narrative: female wantonness en route to death. In the bio-pic Carrington, our eyes are directed towards her irregular sex-life – the banality of heaving bottoms – followed by the sensationalism of suicide, with only a belated glimpse of Carrington’s prime gift: her paintings. These appear only at the very end, obscured by the credits, as viewers are gathering up their coats to leave the cinema.
A similar narrative prevails in the bio-pic Iris, where we view the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch at two points in her life: a promiscuous young woman alternates with an old woman who is losing her mind – as though nothing of note happened between these scenes. Again, a popular view of an accomplished woman manages to skip all those times when she was immersed in her work.
In the same year as Virginia Woolf published her feminist treatise A Room of One’s Own, in 1929, she wrote a biographical essay, ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’. This succinct piece offers a possible model for a narrative designed to do justice to a great woman, in this case the first to make a systematic case for women’s rights in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Woolf’s focus is on Wollstonecraft’s resilience, instead of stressing her two attempted suicides – both responses to the serial infidelity of her partner, and allying her with the standard pejorative images of unruly womanhood, casting her as a self-indulgent, depressive and licentious termagent. For 200 years Wollstonecraft’s life has been distorted by emphasis on attempted suicide. The image put about in the last years of the eighteenth century has been perpetuated in deprecating biographies published in our time, in 1974 and 2001. The latter has Wollstonecraft behaving badly on her deathbed when all the evidence available tells us that she conducted herself with gratitude to her husband and others. In contrast to a full-scale tome, it took Virginia Woolf only three pages to reveal that what was crucial to this life was not depression, which is common, but political honesty, which is rare: that and Wollstonecraft’s capacity to ‘cut to the quick of life’.
Distortions of Wollstonecraft and Carrington, as well as the popular obsession with Sylvia Plath’s suicide at the expense of her poetry, reveal a wider context for popular fascination with Virginia Woolf’s death. What promotes this? Can it be that pity alleviates envy of greatness? A Room of One’s Own recalls how odd a female writer used to appear to her contemporaries, and how forbidding it would have felt to put pen to paper in times gone by. ‘That singular anomaly the female novelist’, sings the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado. ‘I don’t think she’d be missed. I’m sure she’d not be missed.’ Could there still be a lurking notion that female creativity is of its nature freakish?
If so, it’s open to biography and future bio-pics to select in favour of the creative aspect, as Woolf recommends in ‘The Art of Biography’(1940). The biographer, she says, ‘can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection. He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.’ One such fact is that when German invasion seemed imminent, it was the supremely sane Leonard who proposed suicide to a somewhat reluctant Virginia. Leonard’s apprehension was justified: as a Jew, he and his wife were already on Himmler’s list for immediate arrest.
‘There would be no point in waiting’, Leonard told Virginia. His first idea was that they asphixiate themselves, and he laid by a supply of petrol for that purpose. ‘We would shut the garage door and commit suicide.’ As an alternative in June 1940, he obtained a vial of ‘protective poison’ (a lethal dose of morphia) from Virginia’s brother, Adrian Stephen. ‘No,’ Virginia said to the first suicide pact, ‘I don’t want the garage to see the end of me. I’ve a wish for ten years more, and to write my book [Between the Acts] which as usual darts into my brain.’
Another ‘fertile’ fact: as Nigel Nicolson, the editor of her Letters, noted, Virginia Woolf wasn’t mad when she ended her life; she feared ‘madness’. The letter she left for Leonard expresses a considerate wish to spare him. She assures him of her gratitude for all he did to care for her.
Popular interest in suicide has muffled somewhat the politicised public voice that Virginia Woolf developed in the 1930s, extending the feminism of the 1920s to a confrontation of power in all its manifestations. In her chosen role as ‘Outsider’, calling on like-minded women to form a Society of Outsiders, she speaks out against vainglorious rhetoric, militarism, medals and the strutting aspect of honour. She despised honorary degrees (on offer in 1933 and 1939) as ‘mere baubles distributed by the pimps of the brain-selling trade’. In the same way she refused public honours coming her way (the Clark lectures at Cambridge for 1933 and a Companion of Honour in 1935) because ‘it is an utterly corrupt society’.
This level of integrity reflects on Westminster today. The powerful won’t of course admit that economic unfairness and the demoralisation of unemployment undoes society. In the comparable context of the post-Crash 1930s, Virginia Woolf aligned herself with the disempowered. She was trying out an alternative public voice designed to address a national audience. She wished to become no less than arbiter of the national conscience and preserver of what she judged the national treasure – its civilisation, chiefly its literature.
In ‘The Leaning Tower’ (a talk for the Workers’ Educational Association in Brighton in May 1940) she exhorted workers and women, ‘the commoners’ and ‘the outsiders’, to join forces as critics: ‘we are not going to leave writing to be done for us by a small class of well-to-do young men who have only a pinch, a thimbleful of experience to give us.’
With huge courage she put the case for pacifism in Three Guineas. In the run-up to the Second World War, this position was unwelcome to Maynard Keynes, Quentin Bell and other members of her milieu like Vita Sackville-West. Some friends sent her to Coventry and Leonard was lukewarm. She shrugged off opposition: ‘I do my best work & feel most braced with my back to the wall. It’s an odd feeling though, writing against the current: difficult entirely to disregard the current. Yet of course I shall.’ As it turned out, her pacifism would survive the current of the time, and speak to civilised Americans of the late 1960s during the Vietnam War; the great wave of her posthumous fame would rise there and then.
As German bombers flew nightly over Rodmell in August 1940, she shook free from war propaganda which attributed insane love of power to an occasional madman. Reframing her forebears’ attacks on slavery, she suggested that we are all enslaved, irrespective of nationality, by ‘a sub-conscious Hitlerism in the hearts of men’: the wish to dominate. The word ‘slavery’ reverberates through one of her most original essays, ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’. It warns that ‘Hitlerism’ will not be confined to ‘the enemy’, but will infiltrate the mindset of fighters on one’s own side. This warning speaks to us in an age when Blair and Bush deceived their countries into going to war, and did not care to look too closely at the degradations and torture inflicted in the cause of freedom from tyranny.
In her last years Virginia Woolf conceived a right to vote not for one party or another but against the whole edifice of power. ‘I feel myself enfranchised till death, & quit of all humbug’, she records in her diary. On her long daily walk near Rodmell, a new sense of independence had whirled her ‘like a top miles upon miles over the downs’. The exhilaration of such ‘moments of being’ will surely outlast a stale fixation on the writer’s death.