Virginia Woolf meets Sigmund Freud

Canvas Issue 18 by Julia Briggs

photoThe following is an edited version of the talk given by Julia Briggs at the Charleston Festival in 2006.

My title suggests that old-fashioned game of ‘Consequences’ we used to play as children:

Virginia Woolf met Sigmund Freud on: The 28th of January 1939 at 20 Maresfield Gardens. She said to him: We have often felt guilty – if we had failed to win the Great War, perhaps Hitler would not have been. He said to her: It would have been infinitely worse if you had not won the war. She gave him: Her close attention. He gave her: A narcissus. And the consequence was: She finally read his work. And the whole world said…but no doubt the whole world had other things to worry about in January 1939.

photoSigmund Freud was born on 6 May 1856. Virginia Woolf, born almost a quarter of a century later in 1882, grew up in a world that had not yet changed unrecognisably, and both would draw on their memories of life in nineteenth-century, educated, middle-class, patriarchal families as a way of understanding themselves and their society. But they were also divided — not only by that crucial quarter of a century but also by sexual difference, so that the opportunities available to them were very different, and as a result they held substantially different views. For Freud patriarchy constituted an optimal order, so that the coming of the Second World War was symptomatic of its breakdown; for Woolf, patriarchy was a dangerous system in which the tyrannical father corresponded to the tyrannical ruler: it contributed to wars and had to be left behind. Despite substantial and irreconcilable differences, Freud and Woolf shared many values and some experiences; they belonged to and were the products of the same cultural moment.

Freud’s ideas were experienced as a threat by the novelists who grew up under his shadow, but in particular by Woolf and James Joyce. Both had to find a way of responding to theories that influenced how they represented their characters’ thoughts (at a time when the novel was increasingly concerned with such thoughts); and his theories also interrogated the nature of their creative powers. Both Woolf and Joyce actively resisted the threat that Freud seemed to pose – a resistance that Freud would have predicted.

Freudian psychoanalysis seemed to undermine traditional conceptions of creativity and of the artist’s control over his or her work. Joyce’s vision of the artist was one of transcendent impersonality: he should take a distant and god-like attitude to his own work, sitting back and paring his fingernails. But Freud’s theories questioned notions of creative distance, insisting instead on the pressure of personal history underlying creativity.

He claimed to be able to interpret an artist’s inner drives through surviving accounts of his dreams and other writings, and had done so in his study of Leonardo da Vinci.

Even if it was conceded that artists spun their work out of their own experiences and memories, psychoanalysis threatened to unravel the creative tensions that generated such work by exposing its roots. Alix Strachey, a practising psychoanalyst and an old friend of the Woolfs, discussing why Leonard had not persuaded Virginia to see a psychoanalyst about her mental breakdowns, concluded ‘Virginia’s imagination, apart from her artistic creativeness, was so interwoven with her fantasies – and indeed with her madness – that if you had stopped the madness you might have stopped the creativeness too…

It may be preferable to be mad and be creative than to be treated by analysis and become ordinary.’ So whether art is regarded as transcendental and impersonal or as autobiographical in its genesis, the artist’s integrity seemed threatened by psychoanalysis.

Both Joyce and Woolf resisted reading Freud ? or claimed they did, but the influence of his ideas remained inescapable. Woolf’s greatest representation of family life in To the Lighthouse was shaped by Freud’s insights, even though she later claimed, ‘I have not studied Dr Freud or any psychoanalyst – indeed I think I have never read any of their books: my knowledge is merely from superficial talk. Therefore any use of their methods must be instinctive.’ (Letters v. 36)

What Freud and Woolf had in common was a deep interest in the workings of the human mind, though Freud approached it through observation and analysis, while Woolf apprehended its workings through the very flight of the mind itself, through acts
of re-creation and imagination. For both of them, the nature of memory and its elusive workings were crucial.

The history of Bloomsbury and the development of Freudian psychoanalysis in Britain are closely bound up, and Freud’s work interested Bloomsbury from a comparatively early stage. In 1914, two years after his marriage to Virginia, Leonard reviewed a translation of Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) for the New Weekly. Later he wrote of feeling ‘rather proud of having in 1914 recognised and understood the greatness of Freud and the importance of what he was doing’. In preparation, he had also read The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), and what particularly struck him was Freud’s ‘wide imaginative power’, his ‘great subtlety of mind, a broad and sweeping imagination more characteristic of the poet than the scientist’ ? perhaps one of the qualities that also delighted him in Virginia. Lytton Strachey seems to have come across Freud’s work at about the same time, and would later draw on Freud’s insights to write his subversive biographies, yet it was his younger brother James (husband of Alix) who would play the seminal role in the history of Freud in England and the English language.

Virginia Woolf was particularly irritated by what she considered to be Freud’s bad influence on fiction. In a short story written in January 1920, ‘An Unwritten Novel’, a narrator in a railway carriage imagines a life for the colourless woman sitting opposite her, apparently tormented by an itch between her shoulder blades.

The narrator adopts a ‘Freudian’ explanation: ‘[t]hey would say she kept her sorrow, suppressed her secret – her sex, they’d say ? the scientific people. But what flummery to saddle her with sex!’ (Complete Shorter Fiction, 115) The narrator’s story collapses completely when this supposedly tormented old maid is met by her son at Eastbourne. Woolf intensely disliked such psychological determinism, which she termed ‘Freudian fiction’. In a review written for the TLS a couple of months after this story, she defined exactly what it was that she disliked in such novels. Their simplistic faith in progress was one of her targets. The main problem with ‘Freudian’ explanations was their reductiveness: ‘the new key is a patent key that opens every door. It simplifies rather than complicates, detracts rather than enriches.’ (Essays iii, 197)

During 1924 James Strachey was working with Ernest Jones in the British Psychoanalytical Society, translating Freud’s casebooks and practising as a lay analyst. Early that year he had approached Leonard Woolf with the proposal that the Hogarth Press should become the official English publishers of the International Psychoanalytical Library, the series that published Freud’s work and that of his disciples. Leonard was strongly attracted by the idea, even though it posed obvious problems for the little Hogarth Press: there were difficult negotiations, the risk of prosecution for obscenity and a considerable capital outlay required. Leonard paid £800 for the existing stock of the Library, which he then had to sell, and to a very different market from the existing Hogarth Press readers. This was the biggest financial gamble that the Press had undertaken since its foundation in 1917, a major new commitment.

Virginia was less sanguine than Leonard about the project. She wrote to Roger Fry that she was alarmed at the Press ‘having laid out £800 in the works of Freud’. The stock arrived in July 1924, and was ‘dumped in a fortress the size of Windsor castle in ruins upon the floor’ in the basement at Tavistock Square. The head of their assistant, Miss Higgs, appeared ‘undaunted and garrulous above the battlements’. To her friend Molly MacCarthy, Virginia wrote impatiently ‘we are publishing Dr Freud, and I glance at the proof and read how Mr A. B. threw a bottle of red ink on to the sheets of his marriage bed to excuse his impotence to the housemaid, but threw it in the wrong place, which unhinged his wife’s mind, – and to this day she pours claret on the dinner table. We could all go on like that for hours; and yet these Germans think it proves something ? besides their own gull-like imbecility.’ (Letters iii, 133; 119; 134-5)

Virginia’s impatience can be explained in several ways: she was certainly uneasy about the £800 that the Hogarth Press had laid out, but it may also have been connected with her own experiences of ‘mind’ doctors during her 1913 breakdown, reflected in her sinister portrait of Sir William Bradshaw, the defender of ‘proportion’ in Mrs Dalloway. Her anxieties and inhibitions may have contributed to her resistance, as perhaps did her feelings of guilt towards her younger brother Adrian. Adrian and his wife Karin were both currently being analysed by James Glover, and were simultaneously training to become doctors. Adrian’s analysis put a great strain on his marriage, and for several years he and Karin lived apart. Virginia reported to her sister Vanessa that ‘his tragedy – as the dr calls it – is all our doing.

He was suppressed as a child.’ (Letters iii, 43) Her diary account is scarcely more sympathetic: ‘Adrian is altogether broken up by psychoanalysis … I am probably responsible. I should have paired with him, instead of hanging on to the elders. So he wilted, pale, under a great stone of vivacious brothers and sisters … [Karin] does not fertilise the sunk places in Adrian. Neither did I. Had mother lived, or father been screened off ? well, it puts it too high to call it a tragedy . . . For my part, I doubt if family life has all the power of evil attributed to it, or psycho-analysis of good.’ (Diary ii, 242) Yet less than three years later, the opening scene of her next novel, To the Lighthouse, revealed both imaginative sympathy and an almost Freudian insight into Adrian’s feelings in depicting those of little James Ramsay.

James/Adrian, caught between his over-protective mother and impatient father, led Woolf to ask a series of questions about the role of the father in society, questions that found their first explicit formulation in A Room of One’s Own (1929). Why were men angry with women and how was it that their unexamined anger had become institutionalised and built into the workings of society? And, as Hitler rose to power, what was the connection between men’s anger with women, and war?

Woolf, like the rest of Bloomsbury, was strongly pacifist. In 1938, when Britain was on the brink of war with Germany, she published Three Guineas, a critique of patriarchy implicit in The Years. Its conclusion – that Britain needed to tackle sexism at home before it embarked on Germany’s problems – was high-minded but unrealistic. Maynard Keynes was furious with her and even Leonard, while admiring her arguments, disagreed, though for many women readers Three Guineas seemed to voice their own thoughts. In this work, Woolf uses the term ‘infantile fixation’ to explain patriarchal social prejudice (against women joining the Church ministry). But what precisely was this ‘infantile fixation’ and how had it acquired so much power? At the same time, Freud was tackling equally difficult questions, questions concerning the conflicting feelings from which anger, intolerance and war arose. When Freud and Woolf eventually met in January 1939, he put to her precisely the question that Three Guineas had ducked: would Britain continue appeasing Hitler, or declare war?

Freud, in his eighties and dying of cancer, had finally been forced to leave his famous flat at 19 Berggasse to escape the Nazis, in the wake of the Austrian anschluss. They had publicly burnt his books, destroyed the headquarters of the Psychoanalytical Society and had briefly but alarmingly arrested his beloved daughter Anna. Freud and his family were rescued by a devoted disciple, Marie Bonaparte (Princess George of Greece), who arranged for them to leave Vienna and move to London in the autumn of 1938.

In a house in Hampstead, the famous leather couch and Freud’s collection of Egyptian and Greek treasures were arranged so as to resemble the old flat as much as possible. It was here on a dark, cold day in late January that his English publishers, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, were invited to meet him – the same day that the poet W. B. Yeats died in the South of France.

To Virginia, he seemed ‘A screwed up shrunk very old man: … inarticulate: but alert. … Immense potential, I mean an old fire now flickering.’ (Diary v, 202) For Leonard, Freud had always been ‘an extraordinarily nice man’, one of the few great men who lived up to his greatness, who was neither boring nor boastful. He felt in Freud a great gentleness, and behind it, great strength. If Freud seemed inarticulate, it was because his cancer scarcely allowed him to speak, but he ceremoniously presented Virginia with a narcissus. A quarter of a century earlier he had written a major study of narcissism.

Yet their meeting did not immediately result in Virginia beginning to read his work. During the summer of 1939, she began writing her unfinished memoir, ‘Sketch of the Past’, and as she searched for her earliest memories and considered their significance for
her and their contribution to her fiction, she could not avoid recognising that this was territory that Freud had made his own. Commenting on the composition of To the Lighthouse, she observed that, before writing it, she had been obsessed with her mother. She had written the novel ‘very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her. … I suppose that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.’

Yet having written this, she was still dissatisfied: ‘But what is the meaning of ‘explained’ it? Why, because I described her and my feeling for her in that book, should my vision of her and my feeling for her become so much dimmer and weaker?’ (Moments of Being, 93) She was asking herself how and why the mechanisms of psychoanalysis operated as they did.

Freud died in August 1939. Woolf’s diary entry for 2 December 1939 records that she ‘Began reading Freud last night; to enlarge the circumference. to give my brain a wider scope: to make it objective; to get outside. Thus defeat the shrinkage of age. Always take on new things. Break the rhythm &c.’ On the next page she noted, ‘I’m gulping up Freud’; then, ‘Freud is upsetting: reducing one to whirlpool; & I daresay truly. If we’re all instinct, the unconscious, whats all this about civilisation, the whole man, freedom, &c?’ She was still reading Freud the following summer as the Battle of Britain began, when she ‘tried to center by reading Freud.’ (Diary v, 248, 249, 250, 299) By then, he had become a trusted friend.

Freud’s ideas had evidently become familiar to Woolf from Bloomsbury conversations long before she actually began to read him, since she intuitively understood his account of child-parent tensions and had written them into To the Lighthouse. Now she found the technical term for the divided feelings she had for her father: ‘It was only the other day when I read Freud for the first time, that I discovered that this violently disturbing conflict of love and hate is a common feeling; and is called ambivalence.’ (Moments of Being, 116) In particular she responded to Freud’s sense of the power of the past and of the primitive emotions that lurk beneath the veneer of culture, a recognition that would play a crucial part in her final novel, Between the Acts.

Between them, Freud and Woolf create an ongoing dialogue about the relations between thought, art, and life – a dialogue which can be read into all Woolf’s work, but which finds a particular precision at the end of her life. It is also voiced in her last essay, ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’, written during the Battle of Britain. Here she describes the sense of entrapment that war imposes – the soldiers trapped in their planes, and their victims trapped on the ground – arguing that the only way to achieve freedom is to fight with the mind. The essay draws together Freud’s insights, but now instead of threatening creativity, they open a way out of the trap of war: ‘Let us try to drag up into consciousness the subconscious Hitlerism that holds us down. It is the desire for aggression; the desire to dominate and enslave.’ Men must be given ‘other openings for their creative power. That too must make part of our fight for freedom. … We must compensate the man for the loss of his gun.’ (Collected Essays iv, 174-5) A message as sadly relevant today as when it was first written, sixty-seven years ago.

Julia Briggs

1 Alix Strachey in Recollections of Virginia Woolf by her contemporaries, ed. Joan Russell Noble (1972; Sphere Books, 1989), p.143.

2 See Leonard Woolf, An Autobiography, vol. ii: 1911-1969
(1969; Oxford University Press, 1980), p.120; for his review,
A Bloomsbury Group Reader, ed. S. P. Rosenbaum (Basil Blackwell, 1993), pp.190, 189.

3 Leonard Woolf, An Autobiography ii, pp.310-12.

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