Literary Crush – Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf 1 June 1939

Discovering the writing in the shadows of the writer.

I can’t remember when I first heard the name Virginia Woolf; I seem somehow to have always known of her. A tall slim-framed woman, with a long face and a slightly severe expression – set off by sad eyes, heavy lidded with the weight of her convictions.

As a member of the Bloomsbury Set2 of thinkers and artists Woolf was determined to challenge conventional thinking and intelligent enough to find the language to validate her life lived on its own terms.

And it was that life lived on its own terms that I first engaged with. I remember being enthralled by the scandal of her affairs with women, most notably Vita Sackville-West3, who inspired her famous gender-bending novel Orlando.

But here is the problem for me – I was so taken with her that I found I couldn’t see past the woman to find the writing. It was like her work was overshadowed by her infamy. I knew I needed a way into her writing but I just didn’t expect it to come in the form of an essay.

The essay On Being Ill4 was written by Woolf in January 1926 for The New Criterion5 and I was immediately intrigued by this quieter, less celebrated work.

Woolf, like so many creative individuals, infamously struggled to maintain her mental health. She endured terrible bouts of depression which ultimately led to her suicide in 1941, at the age of 59. My sense is that the price of seeking freedom from convention is not measured in sterling or dollars but in the degrees to which the human spirit can be tested and broken. There is nothing ‘free’ about free-thinking.

I wondered whether a hint of regret might emerge of the toll taken upon her by having lived a pioneering life. No, instead Woolf defiantly sets the ‘recumbent’ bed-ridden individual up against the ‘upright’ healthy as she explains that it is the ‘recumbent’, on their back ‘with their face to the sky’ who can see the world with a fresh perspective.

It is a perspective which scrutinises those ‘genial pretences’, such as sympathy:-

“We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown.”6

And there it was – shining, her writing, her beautiful prose, her imagination on the page.

Woolf goes on to explain that her imaginative powers became enhanced with illness.

“In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poem by Mallarme or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils, like some queer odour.”7

With every page I turned, Woolf the celebrity gave way to Woolf the writer. Not only in her lyricism, but as she explored the notion that ill health had given her a unique perspective on life, her way into new levels of creative experience. No famous novel could tell the reader this – no journey To The Lighthouse, no party with Mrs Dalloway, could afford such insight.

And as my snowfield glistens, Virginia Woolf is no longer in the way of Virginia Woolf.

 

Virginia Woolf (25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941)

  1. Photo: Gisèle Freund/IMEC/Fonds MCC, printed in the Telegraph 9 July 2014 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/10914210/The-last-photograph-of-Virginia-Woolf.html
  2. The Bloomsbury Set. http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/bloomsbury-group/introduction/profiles
  3. Vita Sackville-West. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/03/09/a-thing-that-wants-virginia/
  4. ‘On Being Ill’, by Virginia Woolf. The Hogarth Press, 1930. Virginia Woolf The Complete Collection
  5. The New Criterion https://thenewcriterion1926.wordpress.com/
  6. ‘On Being Ill’, by Virginia Woolf. The Hogarth Press, 1930. Virginia Woolf The Complete Collection
  7. ‘On Being Ill’, by Virginia Woolf. The Hogarth Press, 1930. Virginia Woolf The Complete Collection
Advertisements

One thought on “Literary Crush – Virginia Woolf

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s