Virginia Woolf: Becoming a Writer

Virginia Woolf: Becoming a Writer

by Katherine Dalsimer

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By the time she was twenty-four, Virginia Woolf had suffered a series of devastating losses that later she would describe as "sledge-hammer blows," beginning with the death of her mother when she was thirteen years old and followed by those of her half-sister, father, and brother. Yet vulnerable as she was ("skinless" was her word) she began,


By the time she was twenty-four, Virginia Woolf had suffered a series of devastating losses that later she would describe as "sledge-hammer blows," beginning with the death of her mother when she was thirteen years old and followed by those of her half-sister, father, and brother. Yet vulnerable as she was ("skinless" was her word) she began, through these years, to practice her art-and to discover how it could serve her. Ultimately, she came to feel that it was her "shock-receiving capacity" that had made her a writer.
Astonishingly gifted from the start, Woolf learned to be attentive to the movements of her own mind. Through self-reflection she found a language for the ebb and flow of thought, fantasy, feeling, and memory, for the shifts of light and dark. And in her writing she preserved, recreated, and altered the dead, altering in the process her internal relationship with their "invisible presences." "I will go backwards & forwards" she remarked in her diary, a comment on both her imaginative and writerly practice.
Following Woolf's lead, psychologist Katherine Dalsimer moves backward and forward between the work of Woolf's maturity and her early journals, letters, and unpublished juvenilia to illuminate the process by which Woolf became a writer. Drawing on psychoanalytic theory as well as on Woolf's life and work, and trusting Woolf's own self-observations, Dalsimer offers a compelling account of a young artist's voyage out-a voyage that Virginia Woolf began by looking inward and completed by looking back.

Editorial Reviews

The Harvard Crimson
[G]ives us a thoughtful, nuanced picture of the connection between Woolf's illness and her extraordinary artistic talent.
[An] original and readable study. . . . The discussion focuses on the origins, development, and purpose of [Woolf's] writing.
Robert Michels
Dalsimer’s literary sensitivity,psychoanalytic sophistication,and expert understanding of female development enrich our appreciation of Virginia Woolf and her work. Dalsimer weaves together Woolf’s fiction,letters,and diaries,giving new meaning to each. The result makes for wonderful reading.
Paul Schwaber
This astute study is written with eloquence, clarity, and tact. A wonderful contribution."
Publishers Weekly
As the daughter of archetypal Victorian parents and Freud's first English publisher, Woolf has often been a posthumous analysand; but among her chroniclers, Dalsimer, a clinical psychologist and faculty member of two Ivy League universities, may have the best credentials for putting her on the couch. "This is not a biography," Dalsimer warns; it is, instead, an exploration of "the ways that writing served Virginia Woolf" throughout her difficult life, and particularly in her "adolescence and young womanhood." Approaching Woolf through her juvenilia, diaries, letters, criticism and novels, Dalsimer (Female Adolescence: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Literature) traces both her artistic apprenticeship and her psychological narrative, placing Woolf's introspective observations alongside her early work from Jacob's Room to A Room of One's Own and amid plenty of analytical commentary. While Woolf claimed that in her autobiographical To the Lighthouse she had "done what psychoanalysts do for their patients," Dalsimer draws out the book's psychology and Woolf's relationship to her deceased parents, and shows the matter to be much more complicated. Dalsimer also demonstrates, through Woolf's later letters and essays, that her affectionate, influential and overbearing father and her self-sacrificing, distant and tragic mother were instrumental in forming her creative character. Woolf's mental illness (which ultimately led to suicide) also receives understated, careful consideration. Dalsimer's clinical objectivity may be more notable than her line-by-line literary criticism, but she elegantly explains how Woolf's imagination, often subsumed in tragedy, could still find pleasure in life's daily rhythms, and how writing "consoled and sustained her as much as it was possible for her to be consoled or sustained." (Mar. 26) Forecast: The close textual reading targets this for serious students of Woolf and for those interested in the links between literature and psychology. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Columbia University psychologist Dalsimer (Female Adolescence: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Literature) here uses Virginia Woolf's early writing to analyze how she overcame the loss of her parents and siblings to death and marriage by "becoming a writer." Taking a psychoanalytic approach, Dalsimer focuses on the journals, letters, and reviews Woolf wrote between the ages of nine and 25 to explicate this process. She also incorporates Woolf's first published book, The Voyage Out, the essay "On Being Ill," later journal entries, and To the Lighthouse into her study. Dalsimer interprets the role of Woolf's journals during her developmental years, taking an interest, as Woolf did, in the contrast between current impressions of an event and the memory of it. She focuses on Woolf's relationships with her mother and father as depicted in her early writings and on the sometimes hostile impressions she gave of them as an adult. While this well-written work will be of interest to fans of Woolf's work, it ultimately provides only a superficial literary analysis. Thus, it is more appropriate for general-interest collections than for academic libraries. Readers looking for an excellent, current biography should stick with Nigel Nicolson's Virginia Woolf. Paolina Taglienti, Long Island Univ., Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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Yale University Press
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

To the Lighthouse

"We think back through our mothers if we are women," Virginia Woolf declared in A Room of One's Own. Her observation is one that lodges in the imagination and takes root there, deepening through time. Woolf was referring to literary tradition. Where, she asked, could Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot turn for precedent as they set pen to paper? What tradition did the great women novelists of the nineteenth century have to draw upon? But her metaphor reaches further and deeper than questions of literary antecedents. In the years since she wrote those words, Virginia Woolf herself has become one of those "mothers" we think back through. And in the work that many consider her finest, the novel To the Lighthouse, she has given readers another in the fictional character of Mrs. Ramsay.

    What I wish to do in this chapter is to think back through Mrs. Ramsay, a mother who is a creation of the imagination, to Virginia Woolf herself and to her own mother. Toward the end of her life, looking back, she stated that in writing To the Lighthouse she had "ceased to be obsessed" by her mother, who had died many years earlier. I want to consider the relationship of a daughter who is a grown woman with the mother who died when she was a girl—in Woolf's own words, with the "invisible presence" of her mother. Centering my discussion on the novel, I shall also draw upon Woolf's memoirs, diaries and letters, and an essay. Taken together, they allow one to explore the relationship of Virginia Woolf in her maturitywith a mother long dead—and the ways in which the writing of her autobiographical novel both reflected and revised that internal relationship.

    Her diaries and letters make clear that Woolf intended To the Lighthouse to be autobiographical, a portrait in fiction of her parents and of childhood summers at St. Ives in Cornwall. What makes her memoir especially rich in relation to my concerns is that she looks back not only to her early years and to the family life she represented fictionally in To the Lighthouse, but also to the writing of the novel—and the profound impact it had upon her.

    Here is her account:

Until I was in the 40's ... the presence of my mother obsessed me. I could hear her voice, see her, imagine what she would do or say as I went about my day's doings. She was one of the invisible presences who after all play so important a part in every life.... she obsessed me, in spite of the fact that she died when I was thirteen, until I was forty-four. Then one day I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse; in a great, apparently involuntary, rush. One thing burst into another. Blowing bubbles out of a pipe gives the feeling of the rapid crowd of ideas and scenes which blew out of my mind, so that my lips seemed syllabling of their own accord as I walked. What blew the bubbles? Why then? I have no notion. But I wrote the book 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. ("A Sketch of the Past," 80-81)

    How did the writing of the book have this impact? Here Woolf's language subsides, most uncharacteristically, into banality, and slides past the very question one wants to see engaged. She continues, "I suppose that I did for myself what psychoanalysts 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."

    To my mind, this passage raises more questions than it answers. To say that she "expressed" a deeply felt emotion does not in itself account for the magnitude of the effect. How does expressing it constitute an explanation? Why should an explanation lay the feeling to rest? And what, precisely, is laid to rest? I should like to press the matter further. For much of her life her mother, long dead, was a constant "invisible presence"; after writing To the Lighthouse Woolf no longer felt haunted by her. Why?

Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 into a large and very interesting family—born, as she wrote, "not of rich parents, but of well-to-do parents, born into a very communicative, literate, letter-writing, articulate late 19th century world." Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an eminent Victorian man of letters, author of A History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, The Science of Ethics, and Social Rights and Duties, among many books, and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Her mother, Julia Duckworth Stephen, was considered by her contemporaries an exceptionally beautiful woman and still seems so today in the well-known portrait of her by her aunt, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. The relatives and friends of the large extended family included many leading figures of the intellectual, literary, and artistic worlds of the late Victorian era.

    Both of Virginia Woolf's parents had been married previously, and both had been widowed. Leslie Stephen's first wife, Minny Thackeray, was a daughter of the novelist. When she died, he was left with a five-year-old daughter, Laura, who was considered mentally deficient. Julia Stephen's previous marriage was to a barrister, Herbert Duckworth. When he died, she was left with two young children, George and Stella, and a third, Gerald, was born six weeks after the death of his father. Julia Duckworth was a widow at twenty-four and remained a widow for eight years. As a close friend of the Thackeray sisters, she knew Leslie Stephen and was a sympathetic friend to him in his bereavement. Two and a half years after the death of his first wife, Leslie Stephen and Julia Duckworth were married. He was forty-six and she was thirty-two.

    There were four children born of this marriage within four and a half years: Vanessa, born on May 30, 1879; Thoby, on September 8, 1880; Virginia, on January 25, 1882; and Adrian, on October 27, 1883. Thus there were eight children altogether, including the half-sisters and half-brothers, and in addition there were always relatives and visitors. Julia Stephen, besides managing this crowded and complicated household, took on other responsibilities, visiting the needy and the sick. Woolf conveyed the press of competing demands upon her mother in a description of the contents of Julia's desk on the day she died. In that morning's mail "there was a letter from a woman whose daughter had been betrayed and [who] asked for help; a letter from George, from Aunt Mary, from a nurse who was out of work, some bills, some begging letters, and many sheets from a girl who had quarrelled with her parents and must reveal her soul" ("Reminiscences," 38). Julia's husband was a difficult, demanding man; there were eight children, of different ages, with different needs. The household was large; and moreover there were the strangers to whom she gave her care. Years later her daughter would reach back in memory toward her mother and find little to hold onto: "Can I remember ever being alone with her for more than a few minutes? Someone was always interrupting. When I think of her spontaneously she is always in a room full of people ... What a jumble of things I can remember, if I let my mind run, about my mother; but they are all of her in company; of her surrounded; of her generalised; dispersed" ("A Sketch of the Past," 83-84).

    Woolf's earliest memory of her mother, she wrote, was "of her lap; the scratch of some beads on her dress comes back to me as I pressed my cheek against it." This sense memory that "comes back" to her, whose importance she underscores by designating it her earliest memory, compresses into a single moment a poignant theme that threads itself through these memoirs. Beads on a mother's dress seem glittering and glamorous to a young girl—but are best admired from a distance.

    Woolf does describe a moment of having her mother's full Attention. Significantly, she won it with her writing: "How excited I used to be when the 'Hyde Park Gate News' was laid on her plate on Monday morning, and she liked something I had written! Never shall I forget my extremity of pleasure—it was like being a violin and being played upon—when I found that she had sent a story of mine to Madge Symonds; it was so imaginative, she said." For four years the "Hyde Park Gate News" appeared weekly, with news of the Stephen family often humorously embroidered by the young Virginia. This chronicle stopped abruptly when her mother died.

    The death of Julia Stephen, who died of rheumatic fever after an eight-week illness, was shattering. Soon afterward, Virginia had her first breakdown. She became painfully excitable and nervous, then severely depressed and morbidly self-critical, blaming herself for being vain and egotistical. She was intensely irritable, "terrified of people, blushed scarlet if spoke to and was unable to face a stranger in the street" (Bell 1972, 45). She heard for the first time then what she was later to call "those horrible voices." She would hear them for the last time in the weeks before her death: "It is just as it was the first time.... I have fought against it, but I cant any longer," she wrote in her suicide note to her sister.

    The death of her mother, devastating in itself, was not all that Virginia suffered at this time: with the death of his wife, Leslie Stephen went into a period of pathological mourning, punctuated by bellowings of grief. It was a time Woolf would describe as "a period of Oriental gloom, for surely there was something in the darkened rooms, the groans, the passionate lamentations that passed the normal limits of sorrow, and hung about the genuine tragedy with folds of Eastern drapery" ("Reminiscences," 40). As he yielded to self-dramatizing self-pity, the children who had themselves lost their mother were enlisted to comfort their bereaved father. Looking back many years later, Woolf wrote, "The tragedy of her death was not that it made one, now and then and very intensely, unhappy. It was that it made her unreal; and us solemn, and self-conscious. We were made to act parts that we did not feel; to fumble for words that we did not know. It obscured, it dulled. It made one hypocritical and immeshed in the conventions of sorrow" ("A Sketch of the Past," 95).

    The death of her mother was the first in a series of losses. Virginia Woolf was early acquainted with grief—and grief is, I think, at the heart of her autobiographical novel.

    This sketch of the Stephen family—a beautiful wife and mother, an intellectual husband, eight children, a household crowded with guests, summers at the sea, all brought to an end by the death of the mother—will seem familiar to readers of To the Lighthouse. And an entry in her diary, written as she conceived the novel, makes the connection explicit. Here is what she envisioned: "This is going to be fairly short: to have father's character done complete in it; & mothers; & St. Ives; & childhood; & all the usual things I try to put in—life, death, &c. But the centre is father's character, sitting in a boat, reciting We perished, each alone, while he crushes a dying mackerel" (Diary 3: 18-19). This plan must seem surprising to readers of the novel, for its center is unquestionably not father's character, but mother's. It is she who exerts a hold over the imaginations of the other characters; it is she about whom their thoughts circle again and again without coming to rest. We see her through the eyes, the thoughts, the memories of each of the characters by turns. In the words of one of those characters, "Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with." The movement of the narrative, with its continually shifting point of view, may itself be seen as an effort to "get round" Mrs. Ramsay, if not with fifty pairs of eyes, then with more than any one person can possess. In writing To the Lighthouse Woolf was "thinking back through" Mrs. Ramsay to her own mother, and it is for this reason that this fictional presence came to command the center of the imaginative world of the novel—for the other characters, for readers and critics, and for Woolf herself—regardless of her conscious intention when she began to write.

    In the first part of the novel, quite near the beginning, there is an explicit image of a girl who is grieving, but it is very easy to read past. It is hidden within the folds of a long, convoluted sentence:

Disappearing as stealthily as stags from the dinnertable directly the meal was over, the eight sons and daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay sought their bedrooms, their fastnesses in a house where there was no other privacy to debate anything, everything; Tansley's tie; the passing of the Reform Bill; sea birds and butterflies; people; while the sun poured into those attics, which a plank alone separated from each other so that every footstep could be plainly heard and the Swiss girl sobbing for her father who was dying of cancer in a valley of the Grisons, and lit up bats, flannels, straw hats, inkpots, beetles, and the skulls of small birds, while it drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds, which was in the towels too, gritty with sand from bathing. (16-17)

The sobbing girl is alluded to in the second part of a subordinate clause within a subordinate clause; the complex syntax of the sentence requires that the reader connect a subject ("the sun") with a verb ("lit up") that is located fully four lines later, so that the reader is forced to move quickly past what intervenes, the sobbing girl, in order to make sense of the sentence. When the verb finally appears, it is immediately followed by a list, an itemization of the clutter of an attic, so that the sobbing of the girl becomes merely an item of that clutter—both of the attic, and of the sentence. Amid this clutter, the sobs of the girl are given equal weight with the sound of passing footsteps: everything in the structure of the sentence contrives to muffle her sobs, to silence her grief. The fierce submersion of grief, enacted briefly here, is central to this text.

The opening line of the novel is Mrs. Ramsay's; hers is the first voice we hear:

"Yes, of course, if it's fine tomorrow," said Mrs. Ramsay. "But you'll have to be up with the lark," she added.

To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night's darkness and a day's sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy. (9)

What Woolf conveys here is not simply the point of view of a young child, but a child's mode of experience. James is given to great sweeps of feeling, and whatever the mood of the present moment, it takes over the whole of his emotional life. The hedges, the qualifications of adult thought (his mother's "if") disappear: it is settled, the expedition is certain to take place. The categories of adult thought are not yet in place; past, present, and future swirl into one another and are indistinguishable. The joy that James anticipates in the future expedition suffuses the present with its radiance. And it suffuses the present in the particular, in the concrete details of his activity. There is an immediacy to his sense impressions: one must be small in stature to hear, as James does, the knocking of brooms, the rustling of dresses. This is where Woolf places the reader at the very outset. It is significant that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, unlike the other characters, are not given first names. The reader is positioned to look up at them, as a child would.


Excerpted from Virginia Woolf by Katherine Dalsimer. Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are saying about this

Robert Michels
Dalsimer's literary sensitivity, psychoanalytic sophistication, and expert understanding of female development enrich our appreciation of Virginia Woolf and her work. Dalsimer weaves together Woolf's fiction, letters, and diaries, giving new meaning to each. The result makes for wonderful reading.
(— Robert Michels, M.D., Cornell University)
Paul Schwaber
This astute study is written with eloquence, clarity, and tact. A wonderful contribution.
(— Paul Schwaber, Wesleyan University)

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