In ‘Orlando (1928), Virginia Woolf’s fantasy biography about a hermaphrodite time- traveller, the ‘biographer’ writes: ‘every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works’. Similarly, it was impossible for Woolf to keep her own life out of her fiction, as her life was partly made up by her writing. Woolf is an author who enters her narratives from the inside, disrupting the external narrative voice; there is no authorial commentator, no Dickensian polemic, or George Eliot homilies. It is through the consciousness of her characters that Woolf meditates on issues that concern her. Although Woolf’s characters give the impression of being in the here and now, they are also able to travel across time in their minds. Memories are shown to be unreliable, the self is revealed as complex and elusive, fragmented and fractured by other things always going on beneath the surface. As an experimental Modernist writer, Woolf wanted to transcribe the ‘myriad impressions’ of the mind; E.M. Forster observes that she shares a technique employed by Laurence Sterne1 in the 18th century:
She and Sterne are both fantasists. They start with a little object, take a flutter from it, and settle on it again. They combine a humorous appreciation of the muddle of life with a keen sense of its beauty. There is even the same tone in their voices – a rather deliberate bewilderment, an announcement to all and sundry that they do not know where they are going…their medium is similar, the same odd effects are obtained by it, the parlour door is never mended, the mark on the wall turns out to be a snail, life is such a muddle, oh dear, the will is so weak, the sensations fidgety…philosophy…God…oh dear, look at the mark…listen to the door – existence…is really too…what were we saying?2
Arnold Bennett was more critically harsh; reviewing ‘Orlando’ he argues that Woolf’s prose suffers from ‘an addiction to parenthetical whimsicalities that are not particularly effective.’
Woolf, whose writing career spans the years 1912-41, was a key figure in 20th century literature, particularly in the development of literary style. Her essay ‘Modern Fiction’ (1925) is a manifesto for Modernism, a blueprint for a new type of novelist:
Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration of complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?
Julia Briggs notes that Woolf’s ‘insights usually came in the form of fiction; only later did she extract their theoretical lessons and argue them out as polemics.’ 3 A bluestocking feminist icon, the themes of Woolf’s essays have stood the test of time, even if her writing perhaps seems rather fussy in an age of postmodern soundbites. The clarion call to ‘freedom of mind’ still concerns the 21st century woman, as it did in the first half of the 20th century, when women were struggling to throw off the patriarchal Victorian stranglehold.
In ‘Orlando’ the ambiguity of human memory is linked to sexual ambiguity: the protagonist starts off in the 16th century as a boy and ends up still living in 1928 as a woman of 36, embodying in his/her journey each phase of English literature. Rachel Bowlby writes: ‘Orlando’ was written at a time when ‘the very origins of masculinity and femininity and the forms of sexual interest that might accompany them were being perceived in some quarters as being in need of explanation.’4 The Bloomsbury crowd, of which Woolf’s family were central figures, were breaking boundaries not only with their art and literature, but with their behaviour as well. Virginia herself was aware of equivocal feelings towards both men and women. Her marriage to Leonard Woolf was one of deep affection, although motherhood was kept at bay. She developed a passionate friendship with Vita Sackville-West, who, Briggs notes, ‘was impatient for an intensity that Virginia’s marriage, writing and physical frailty ruled out.’ Briggs writes how Vita, with her androgynous beauty and exotic background,
changed Virginia’s awareness of her own desires, encouraging her to think differently about gender, its nature and meaning, and, in particular, its fluidity, for Vita believed that “as centuries go on…the sexes become more nearly merged.”’ Writing ‘Orlando’ was a way for Woolf to express her love and desire for the uninhibited Vita. ‘She [Orlando] enjoyed the love of both sexes…for her sex changed for more frequently than those who have worn only one set of clothing can conceive.5
‘A Room of One’s Own’ was written hot on the heels of ‘Orlando’. Michèle Barrett observes:
It is not easy to disentangle the author from the text of A Room of One’s Own. …The conversational seductiveness of A Room of One’s Own can be likened to the style of Orlando, and the relationship between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, with the heightening of private emotion and public awareness that the publication of Orlando caused, is an important part of the backdrop to the text. “I am completely dazzled, bewitched, enchanted…’ wrote Vita Sackville-West, ‘Darling, I don’t know how you could have hung so splendid a garment on so poor a peg.” As is often the case with Virginia Woolf, there was ambivalence and contradiction in her sexual and emotional involvement with Vita Sackville-West – and her identification with other women in general.6
Woolf sets up the gender argument in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ by the ambiguity of the title, and ‘One’s Own’ becomes ‘her own’ as she enters the text. She tackles the question of ‘unity of mind’, observing that to think ‘of one sex as distinct from the other is an effort.’ There are echoes of her description of the bi-sexual Orlando: ‘it was this mixture in her of man and woman, one being uppermost and then the other, that often gave her conduct an unexpected turn.’ In ‘A Room of One’s Own’ Woolf asks ‘whether there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness.’ She imagines the soul in which:
two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain, the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain, the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually cooperating. If one is a man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous.7 It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilised and uses all its faculties…He meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.8
Madness and genius jostled for control of Woolf’s consciousness throughout most of her life. Briggs notes: ‘Woolf suffered from madness, as conventionally defined, yet there was also something of poetic frenzy in it, and her art drew on what she found there.’ Some artists, the poet Rimbaud, for example, believed that ‘derangement of the senses’ opened the door to creative genius. Woolf, however, feared her insanity, for it cut her off from her work. ‘If one can’t write…one may as well kill oneself. Such despair comes over me,’ she wrote in September 1939. Reading Woolf’s diaries is evidence of a compulsive writer, watching, analysing, describing, critical of others and equally self-conscious about herself, ‘ashamed’ and apologetic about her lapses into self-indulgence. Writers’ notebooks and diaries are windows into their relentless introspection. A few weeks before she drowned herself, Woolf notes in her diary:
I mark Henry James’s sentence: Observe perpetually. Observe the oncome of age. Observe greed. Observe own despondency. By that means it becomes serviceable. Or I hope so. 9
She is referring to James’s observation on his own descent into ‘nervous illness’: ‘But it has been good…for my genius…Never cease to watch whatever happens to you.’10 Eventually, Woolf could bear to watch herself no longer. Tormented by voices in her head, she put a large stone in her pocket and waded into the fast-flowing river Ouse. For Virginia Woolf, the ‘innumerable threads of life’ had unravelled beyond repair.
1 Tristram Shandy (1760-65):
2 Forster, E.M., 1927. Aspects of the Novel and related writings, Edward Arnold.
3 Briggs, Julia, 2005. Virginia Woolf – An Inner Life, Allen Lane.
4 Bowlby, Rachel, 1998. ‘Introduction’, Orlando. Penguin Classics.
5 Woolf, Virginia, 1998. Orlando, Penguin Classics.
6 Barrett, Michèle, 2000. ‘Introduction’, A Room of One’s Own / Three Guineas, Penguin Classics
7 Coleridge, in his Notebook of 1829, speculates on the way each gender contains elements of the opposite sex, in a way very close to Carl Jung’s theory of Animus and Anima.
8 Woolf, Virginia, 2000. A Room of One’s Own / Three Guineas, Penguin Classics.
9 Woolf, Virginia, 1984. The Diary of Virginia Woolf Vol V 1936-41, The Hogarth Press.
10 ‘Henry James’ in Desmond MacCarthy’s Portraits (1931)