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 Set of thinkers and artists Virginia 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-West, 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.
On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf
The essay On Being Ill was written by Virginia Woolf in January 1926 for The New Criterion and I was immediately intrigued by this quieter, less celebrated work.
Virginia 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 Virginia 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.On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf
And there it was – shining, her writing, her beautiful prose, her imagination on the page.
Virginia 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.On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf
With every page I turned, Virginia Woolf the celebrity gave way to Virginia 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)
Copyright © 2016 – 2022 Anna Larner.