Tom Shakespeare

“As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets as sanity does.”

I never thought I would like Virginia Woolf: I thought of her novels as modernist and difficult, and probably depressing, and kept as far away from them as I did from those of her near contemporary, DH Lawrence. It was cinema which made me realise my error: first the Jane Campion film of Orlando, and then Stephen Daldry’s film of Michael Cunningham’s book The Hours, for which her novel Mrs Dalloway provides the structure and in which Woolf herself is a key character.

While the first book is a fabulously entertaining conceit, the second takes you inside the characters’ thought processes, just as cinema sometimes does with an interior monologue: while a party is being planned by the title character, Septimus a shell-shocked war veteran has suicidal thoughts as he walks the streets of London. Later I read To The Lighthouse, in which even less actually happens, but there is a powerful sense of time passing, of the way that thoughts come and go, together with insights into family relationships, and an underlying theme exploring the nature of artistic creation.

The central characters in that novel were based on Woolf’s own parents, Leslie Stephen and Julia Jackson, the former a scholar and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, the latter a noted beauty and niece of the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Although there was obviously great joy in Virginia’s childhood – such as the family holidays in St Ives, Cornwall, on which To The Lighthouse is based – Woolf’s early life was marked by trauma and loss. She described the death of her mother, when she was thirteen, as “the greatest disaster that could happen”. Virginia was then sexually abused by her step-brother George. While she was a teenager, her much loved step-sister Stella died of peritonitis; finally, her brother Thoby died in his late twenties.

Whereas Thoby had attended Cambridge University, Woolf and her sister Veronica, who was later to achieve distinction as a painter, were educated at home, as was customary for girls. As well as the agonies of learning feminine skills such as music, Virginia read avidly, drew, collected butterflies, wrote stories and produced a regular family newspaper.Although she attended courses in the Ladies Department of King’s College London, Woolf’s sense of injustice over being excluded from a proper university education was to fuel her feminism, and result in hugely influential non-fiction books such as A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas.

The friends whom Thoby brought home from Cambridge – such as Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf – would form the nucleus of the famous Bloomsbury group. This unconventional social network of upper middle class intellectuals was influenced by the philosopher G.E.Moore, who stated “one’s prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge”‘. While people like Maynard Keynes and Leonard Woolf were active in public life, most of the group were more interested in culture than politics. They reacted against stuffy Victorian values, promoting the pursuit of enjoyment and becoming entangled in complicated romantic relationships. While Clive Bell married Vanessa in 1906, Leonard eventually persuaded Virginia to marry him in 1912, on his return from colonial service in Hambantota, Ceylon (a district where my grandfather was to live a few decades later).

Woolf had begun her career as a professional writer by reviewing for The Times Literary Supplement in 1900 ; she published The Voyage Out, her first novel, in 1905. Although her innovative writing style was very well received, she was extremely sensitive to criticism, and found the process of completing and publishing each of her books work emotionally draining.

Mental illness had affected several members of the Stephens family in earlier generations, and was to haunt Virginia Woolf throughout her life: it seems most likely that she had a form of manic depression. She had her first nervous breakdown when she was 13, after her mother died, and another after the death of her father in 1904. Her symptoms included insomnia, eating disorders, mania and despair, yet she lacked insight into her condition and resisted treatment. At various periods she required constant care and spent time in nursing homes, In 1913 she attempted suicide by overdose, and was only saved by Geoffrey Keynes, then a medical student living on the top floor of their Bloomsbury home, who pumped her stomach.

Although some critics have seen him as the cause of her difficulties, Woolf received very loyal and patient support from her husband Leonard, who thought that the only solution to her vulnerability was to seclude her from the excitement of London society. He also believed that it would be ill-advised for her to have children. Although he may have been right, this was a great source of sadness to her. Together, and partly as a form of occupational therapy, they founded Hogarth Press, with both of them setting type and printing themselves, before later handing most of the work over to assistants and later professional printers.

So far, so interesting. With her passionate friendships with women – including an affair with Vita Sackville-West – and her beautiful novels, and her mental frailty, Virginia Woolf appears a sympathetic person. Her nephew Quentin records how she was particularly popular with children. Yet Woolf’s novels have been criticised for being snobbish and limited in their focus. She also had some nasty attitudes, which in her defence were perhaps typical of her class and time. For example, she described her then fiancé as a “penniless Jew” and wrote anti-semitic things about his family. In her novels too, the epithet “Jew” is used perjoratively. However, when Hitler came to prominence, Woolf was actively anti-fascist, and fear of the outcome of the war was a factor in her final depression.

People with disabilities are also referred to negatively in her fiction. In her diary for 1915, Virginia Woolf described a walk on which she met “a long line of imbeciles”. She wrote that “everyone in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead or no chin & and an imbecile grin, or a wild, suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.” The critic Donald Child argues that A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas and Mrs Dalloway are all suffused by eugenics, which he speculates Woolf might have imbibed from the prominant London doctors she consulted, several of whom were undoubted eugenicists. However, I think this is an exaggeration.

Representations such as The Hours portray Woolf as a tragic and romantic figure. It is impossible not to be moved by the suicide note which she left for Leonard, before walking into the River Ouse with a heavy stone in the pocket of her coat on the morning of March 28 1941, “a bright, clear, cold day”.

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

Anyone who thinks that manic depression or other mental illnesses are a myth, or who blame the medical profession and modern pharmaceuticals for creating all the difficulties of people with psychosis, should read Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt. While clear-eyed about Virginia’s faults, such as her arrogance and her habit of emotional manipulation, Bell’s portrait is very positive. When I was at Kings, I remember meeting Dadie Rylands, one of the last surviving members of the Bloomsbury Group, who was another fan. In a letter to her he wrote “The style makes me hold my breath – everything conjured up in a crystal: shining, clear and a little remote”. From this distance, I find it impossible not to remain ambivalent about Woolf as a person, although I have come to love her novels for their poetic vision and sparkling prose.