Who's Afraid of Leonard Woolf?: A case for the sanity of Virginia Woolf

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Was Virginia Woolf suicidal, or was she betrayed and driven to taking her own life? Irene Coates argues, with forensic precision, that Leonard Woolf was responsible for the unraveling of his wife's sanity and her subsequent suicide. These two people were at the heart of the Bloomsbury Group; one a mad genius, the other a so-called selfless husband. But underneath that caring veneer beat the heart of a pessimistic, repressed, bullying, and hypocritical man, one who may have been ...
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New York, New York, U.S.A. 2002 Soft Cover New 5 x 8. New with minor shelfwear. Explores the life of Virginia Woolf and argues that her husband of thirty years, Leonard Woolf, ... was responsible for the unraveling of her sanity and her subsequent death. Read more Show Less

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Overview

Was Virginia Woolf suicidal, or was she betrayed and driven to taking her own life? Irene Coates argues, with forensic precision, that Leonard Woolf was responsible for the unraveling of his wife's sanity and her subsequent suicide. These two people were at the heart of the Bloomsbury Group; one a mad genius, the other a so-called selfless husband. But underneath that caring veneer beat the heart of a pessimistic, repressed, bullying, and hypocritical man, one who may have been responsible for the death of Virginia Woolf
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Although Leonard Woolf's reputation has fluctuated even more than that of his wife, Virginia, no biographer has shown as much animus toward him as Australian poet and playwright Coates (Poems of Change; Sweet Fanny Adams, etc.) in this paranoid and disappointing book. In the authorized biography of Virginia by her nephew Quentin Bell, Leonard is portrayed as a selflessly devoted helpmate, but in Hermione Lee's recent, authoritative life, he comes across as an overly serious control freak. For Coates, he is a villain out of a George du Maurier thriller: a domineering hypocrite who jealously oppresses his artist wife until he can engineer her suicide. Coates does not have any new evidence for this theory, only her obsessive readings of the familiar documents, diaries and letters, and a penchant for melodrama. Early on in the Woolfs' marriage (they wed in 1912), Coates compares Leonard to "a parasite" and suggests that he subconsciously set up Virginia's first suicide attempt in 1913 by leaving her sleeping pills conveniently at hand. When Virginia succeeds in killing herself in 1941, Coates imagines Leonard scheming to get rid of her out of envy of her artistic accomplishments and greed for her royalties, going so far as to picture him dictating her last suicide note. This American edition's misleading subtitle (the subtitle of the original Australian edition was "Getting Away with Murder") implies that Coates actually offers an assessment of Virginia's mental condition. Unfortunately, her evidence amounts only to clich d assertions about Virginia's creativity being a magnificent by-product of her lapses into madness "from which she brought back insights that have inspired her greatest books." Even devotees of Woolf's writings, who may seek this out, will find it hard to follow Coates fully into her portrait of Leonard as a fiend. (Dec.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
As the volumes of Virginia Woolf scholarship continue to multiply, literary detectives are beginning to grasp at straws. Recent studies have blamed the tragic circumstances of Woolf's life on childhood trauma and sexual abuse (Peter Dally's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, LJ 11/1/99) and even eating disorders (Allie Glenny's Ravenous Identity, LJ 2/1/00). Given that Woolf herself left behind perhaps one of the most complete and insightful diaries ever written by a novelist, all the fuss seems speculative at best, condescending at worst. The latest twist is Coates's theory that Leonard Woolf was responsible for his wife's insanity and suicide. Coates, a playwright, arrogantly presumes to know why Woolf behaved the way she did, writing, for instance, with cloying certainty: "Mental breakdown was her method of freeing herself from other people's attitudes." Leonard's apologists, Coates notes, credit him with his unflinching support of his wife during 30 years of creativity interspersed with bouts of terrifying madness (posthumously diagnosed as manic depression). Coates has Leonard "gaslighting" Virginia (driving her insane), disregarding the fact that she suffered her first breakdown years before she met Leonard. Buy only for larger literature collections. In contrast, the newest addition to the excellent "Penguin Lives" series is by Nicholson (Portrait of a Marriage), the son of Vita Sackville-West, one of Woolf's lovers. In this beautifully written literary biography, Nicholson interweaves childhood memories of time spent with Woolf with in-depth analyses of her novels, showing, for instance, how he may have been a model for the character of James in Mrs. Dalloway. While Nicholson's personal stake in Woolf's memory lends an intimate quality to his portrait, he does not allow his fond recollections to cloud his view of his subject's troubled life. He describes Leonard as an imperfect man perpetually walking on eggshells. Nicholson does what Coates does not: pay tribute to a great artist by showing that her work gave her whatever fleeting peace she may have experienced in her lifetime: "Pain was relieved, and pleasure doubled, by recording it." His effort is highly recommended for all libraries. [Nicholson's work was previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/00.]--Diane Gardner Premo, Rochester P.L., NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Usually portrayed as a martyr who sacrificed his life of happiness and ease to tend to his wife's madness, Leonard Woolf is depicted here as Charles Boyer in Gaslight<-->driving his wife mad<-->a view that has received little scholarly attention before this text. The author spent 12 years researching the relationship between Virginia and Leonard and concludes that Leonard was not his wife's saving grace, but in fact on the winning end of an abusive relationship<-->using her supposed madness as a means of controlling his brilliant wife, spending her money on himself but giving her little, and keeping her out of the way while he had affairs<-->and that it was his behavior that ultimately led Virginia to suicide in 1941. Includes about 30 black and white photographs. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781569472941
  • Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 7/1/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 458
  • Product dimensions: 5.09 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

VIRGINIA'S NEED FOR SUPPORT


`Hold yourself straight, my little Goat.'


These were her mother's last words to the thirteen-year-old Virginia Stephen before she died of rheumatic fever at the age of forty-nine, having borne three children to her first husband Herbert Duckworth and then, after his death and a lengthy period of grief, a further four children to Leslie Stephen: writer, biographer and a most demanding husband and father. Altogether there were eight children in their large London house since Leslie, too, had been previously married and was a widower with one daughter, Laura.

    Virginia was the second to youngest child of the entire brood. She did not hold herself straight. All her life, she needed someone to support her: someone with an extraordinary capacity for loyalty and concern for her welfare, who would be rewarded by the quality of her mind — sensitive, bright, original. There was also a mordant side to her personality, to which was given various animal names: during her childhood she was Goat, and from this Billy; later, she called her other self a number of different names, such as the apes, Mandrill, and, with her friend Vita Sackville-West, Potto.

    Virginia began to perceive her world over a hundred years ago, at the end of the nineteenth century. That time may seem distant to us, who have entered the twenty-first. Yet her work continues to live, her books are in print and she is surrounded by an ever-growing penumbra of commentators. We need to perform an act ofimagination to realise that Virginia had to fight hard for her very survival in that large family home where she was born at Number 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington. London, on 25 January, 1882.

    My daughter and I went and stood outside this solid, tall house which is in a cul de sac. As we mentally placed the Stephen family and their seven live-in servants behind the windows, from basement to attic, one of the windows opened and a scroll of paper dropped to the pavement: it was a photostat copy of an article by Richard Brunner on some of the famous who had lived in Hyde Park Gate, including Sir Leslie Stephen of No. 22, `the preeminent 19th-century man of English letters. His two daughters, Virginia and Vanessa (better known as Virginia Woolf, the novelist, and Vanessa Bell, the painter) were born here.' After a brief wave to the now-shut window we drove away, Sophia both impressed and amused at this evidence of living history.

    In that great London house the four younger children, Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian, formed a separate group from their older half-brothers and sisters. Within this group Virginia tried to keep up with her elder sister Vanessa and brother Thoby, while distancing herself from Adrian, the baby of the family. During their years in the nursery Vanessa and Thoby found a way of infuriating Virginia. In his authorised biography of Virginia, Quentin Bell says:

    "There was some technique for making her turn `purple with rage'. What it was we do not know, but Thoby and Vanessa knew and there were terrible occasions when she did turn a colour which her sister described as `the most lovely flaming red'. It would be interesting to know how this was done, still more interesting to know whether, as Vanessa surmised, these paroxysms were not wholly painful to Virginia herself."

    Here we get a glimpse of Vanessa and Thoby tormenting their younger sister. We don't know what they did to upset her so profoundly but we can be sure that they were repulsing her need to be close to them. We should not assume that this rejection was anything but extremely painful to Virginia who, being younger and weaker, must have done all she could to minimise the damage so that they would once more accept her. If Vanessa remembered these occasions as not being `wholly painful' to her sister, then we can assume that she herself was ambivalent. Indeed, it was probably Vanessa's game, perhaps played to keep control when she feared Thoby was getting too close to Virginia. We can guess this because a similar game was played after Vanessa married Clive Bell, with Clive taking the place of Thoby.

    Virginia needed to relate closely to her sister, given that her beautiful mother Julia was a busy and mostly distant figure who escaped as often as she could from the overheated family atmosphere by taking up charitable work, visiting the poor and sick. When she did turn her attention to her children it was her youngest child, Adrian, to whom she gave most of her affection.

    Unable to rely on her mother, Virginia turned to Vanessa for support in a house where their father set the emotional tone, alternating between bouts of maudlin self-pity and the rages of a frustrated tyrant. Such scenes were extremely upsetting to his young daughter who could only watch, shocked, and wait for them to end. She had no other world to enter, since she never went to school, spending her time at home where she received occasional tuition and had the run of her father's library: here, early in life she decided to become a writer.

     As a child, Virginia was the live wire behind a home newspaper, the Hyde Park Gate News, written mainly by herself but contributed to by all the younger Stephens. She would recount the doings of the Stephen family, changing their names but retaining factual details so that each person was identifiable, while the story was entertaining. In a state of suppressed excitement, she would place the newly-written newspaper near her mother, and wait. When Julia gave it a casual look and said `rather good, I think,' she made her youngest daughter's day. From her early years, Virginia told stories in the evening, listened to by both Vanessa and Thoby.

    By the time Virginia became aware, her father's first daughter Laura was in trouble. Laura's mother, Minnie, was the younger daughter of the novelist Thackeray. Minnie had had a sheltered upbringing protected by her sister Annie, and she could not cope with being Leslie Stephen's wife. Neither could Minnie's daughter, Laura, cope with her father. Through some dramatic episodes of breakdown and Leslie's misguided efforts to teach her through strict discipline, Laura deteriorated. She had to dress and attend for tea every day, where the whole family was assembled, until she was removed first to her own quarters and then to a mental home where, in seclusion, she outlived Virginia and most of her half-siblings.

    The children's only escape from the hot-house atmosphere of the big London house was during the long summer months, when the entire family migrated to Talland House, at St. Ives in Cornwall. Here they played in the garden, within sight of the lighthouse, and explored the beach. Throughout her life, the sound and rhythm of the waves along the shore were ever-present to Virginia and return again and again in her writing. Yet as soon as Julia died in 1896, Leslie gave up Talland House, the one place that could have helped Virginia who was so overwhelmed by the burden of adult grief, her father's in particular, that she herself could not grieve for the loss of her mother. The shock was such that she became numb in a household that expressed its grief extravagantly, her father weeping and wailing surrounded by numerous mainly female relations dressed from head to foot in black. Suddenly her life was changed, she was, literally, living a nightmare.

    Standing at a window after that last scene with Julia, ignored and isolated, she watched the doctor walk away down the street with a sense of desolation. Utterly oppressed by a grief that she could not herself feel, Virginia had her first mental breakdown. For years she was obsessed by her beautiful mother's face and form, her presence, and was only relieved of this burden after writing To the Lighthouse, in which both her parents were brought back to life.

    The list of female casualties lengthened. After Julia's death Virginia's elder half-sister, Stella, aged twenty-six, took over the management of the household. Stella had always lived in the shadow of her mother and seemed like a pale reflection of Julia. However, she was being passionately wooed by the ardent Jack Hills and soon there was the excitement of their marriage. But Stella returned from their honeymoon exhausted and ill. She died in 1897, only two years after her mother's death. Whereupon Vanessa and Virginia tried to cope with Jack's inordinate grief, a major ingredient of which was the sexual deprivation he suffered from the loss of his partner. There was a very close link between sex and death that burnt into Virginia's being.

    The existence of the deranged Laura could not be ignored; nor could the message she represented, that another in that family could go the same way. Yet so far from having a personal fear of madness, Virginia could write to Emma Vaughan, her `dearest Toad', in 1901, when she was nineteen:

    "This world of human beings grows too complicated, my only wonder is that we don't fill more madhouses: the insane view of life has much to be said for it — perhaps its the sane one after all: and we the sad sober respectable citizens really rave every moment of our lives and deserve to be shut up perpetually. My spring melancholy is developing in these hot days into summer madness."


After Stella's death Vanessa, the next oldest woman in the house, aged sixteen, had to take on the burden of managing the household although she had decided to be a painter and wanted to continue her studies at Art School. Vanessa proved to be a tower of strength, coping with their father's tantrums by using the most effective of all weapons — silence and stillness. She not only ran the house but got onto her bicycle and took art lessons as often as she could. This was the time that the two sisters formed a close conspiracy to continue their work at all costs, even though their world seemed to be tumbling about their ears.

    The young Vanessa and Virginia were now the only two surviving women in a family of five males. It was a dangerous imbalance between the sexes. This was particularly so given the characters of the three older men: Leslie himself, in many ways the Victorian patriarch, continuing to indulge in extravagant paroxysms of grief for the loss of his wife; and George and Gerald Duckworth, Julia's two eldest sons.

    Some of the complications of Virginia's early life were caused by George and Gerald. At this time George, the elder, was trying to make his mark in conventional society. To help him, he insisted on one or the other of his half-sisters accompanying him when he paid formal visits and attended dinners and dances; they must be dressed suitably, behave becomingly and be a credit to him. From his point of view, those two young, beautiful women were a social asset and he thought he was doing the right thing by trying to `bring them out'. But neither Vanessa nor Virginia had any desire, or aptitude, for making their way in conventional society. They were already committed, Vanessa to art and Virginia to writing. They caused him much embarrassment when they refused to dress correctly, refused to dance, and finally refused to accompany him. George, all his life, remained a snob and eventually married a titled lady; but not before he had managed to damage Virginia by molesting her.

    The activities of George and Gerald in relation to the two girls are well documented. Louise DeSalvo has researched this aspect of Virginia's life in Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work (1989). Virginia herself discussed it later in her life in Moments of Being; and there are also contemporary accounts in letters between the two sisters. In 1911, Virginia wrote to Vanessa about an intimate conversation she held with Janet Case, with whom she had studied Greek. Janet Case was a spinster who visited Virginia in her first rented house in Firle, Sussex. Sitting demurely with a piece of embroidery in her hand, Virginia writes of her:

    "She is a woman of great magnanimity ... She sat stitching ... and listened to a magnificent tirade which I delivered upon life in general. She has a calm interest in copulation ... and this led us to the revelation of all Georges malefactions. To my surprise she has always had an intense dislike of him; and used to say `Whew — you nasty creature', when he came in and began fondling me over my Greek. When I got to the bedroom scenes, she dropped her lace, and gasped like a benevolent gudgeon. By bedtime she said she was feeling quite sick, and did go to the W.C., which, needless to say, had no water in it."

    When Virginia was about six, her younger half-brother Gerald sat her on a ledge and explored her genitals. This was apparently the only time he molested her. Virginia was surprised at the depth of shame she felt and attributes her dislike of her own body to this event.

    That there was sexual abuse as we understand the term now, there can be no doubt, although occasionally one meets a commentator such as Peter Alexander, in Leonard and Virginia Woolf: A Literary Partnership, who is at some pains to condone George's behaviour, preferring to see any damage that might have been done as being due to Virginia's sensitivity:

    "George Duckworth ... fourteen years older than she, was a deeply affectionate young man who expressed his fondness for his sister and half-sisters in rather extravagant endearments and embraces, both in private and in public. He had the habit of kissing and caressing Virginia as she sat at her lessons ... and he would also kiss her at night before she went to bed ... A good many, perhaps most, children have sexual experiences and come to no harm from them; but Virginia was not one of these ... No one seems to have reproached him or even spoken to him of his behaviour until Virginia's physician, Dr Savage, warned him to be careful during Virginia's second spell of madness in 1904 ... George Duckworth was by no means the monster of Virginia's imagination."

    Leonard Woolf, in his autobiography, ignored the possibility that Virginia had been damaged by her half-brothers. He offered Virginia's first novel The Voyage Out to Gerald Duckworth for publication and went out of his way to praise George without, apparently, a hint of irony: `He was an extremely kind man and, I think, very fond of Vanessa and Virginia.'; although he does describe him as a snob.

    Thus two men — Leonard Woolf in the 1960's and Peter Alexander in the 1990's — have taken it upon themselves to condone the impact of George's sexual intrusions on his defenceless young half-sister. Neither of them considered Virginia's reference to `bedroom scenes' that she discussed with Janet Case making her feel sick. That is their truth, the patriarchal truth, which essentially assumes that a man's freedom of action is more important than a woman's reactions. But Virginia knew herself to have been abused; she was shocked and frightened and her body shamed at the invasion of her private space. The younger of the two brothers, Gerald, was the first perpetrator, followed by George after their mother's death. This is her truth and it needs to be recognised as such. She never forgot the harm they did to her and wrote about it until the end of her life.

    George `comforted' her during the years when Leslie Stephen was dying downstairs. He not only interrupted her lessons and fondled her. He entered her room at night, kissed, cuddled, and (presumably) worked himself up sexually while she felt utterly powerless. This type of abuse within a family would have been allowable by Victorian standards, so long as the girl's virginity remained intact, an essential requirement for marriage. Virginia said she lost her virginity on her honeymoon. The seven live-in maids provided alternatives for the sex-starved young men, apart from whatever liaisons they formed outside the home.

    The question of whether George also visited the room of Virginia's elder sister Vanessa at night, during this time, has not been so amply discussed. Vanessa certainly had a very different approach to sex. Before world war one she wrote gloriously indiscreet letters to other members of the Bloomsbury Group in which sex was a frequent topic for discussion; she certainly had an open-minded, not to say Bohemian approach towards sexual activity. In 1912, when Virginia's honeymoon had gone horribly wrong, Vanessa wrote to her husband Clive Bell with frank bewilderment:

    "Apparently [Virginia] still gets no pleasure at all from the act, which I think is curious. They [Leonard and Virginia] were very anxious to know when I first had an orgasm. I couldn't remember. Do you? But no doubt I sympathised with such things if I didn't have them from the time I was 2."

    To judge from the sisters' contrasting attitudes to sex, I suspect that if George did enter Vanessa's room at night (and why wouldn't he?), she would have welcomed him with open arms. Vanessa's problem in later life was that she couldn't get enough of it. The man who became her working companion and, after some persuasion, fathered her youngest child Angelica, was the artist Duncan Grant, who was gay.

    Vanessa managed to escape from the close family environment for hours each day when she was accepted into the Royal Academy Schools, where she learned her craft as a painter. But Virginia, who envied her sister this freedom, was more or less imprisoned in the big, tall house in the cul de sac of Hyde Park Gate. She stayed upstairs in her room that was divided, with her bed and clothes cupboard on one side; and, on the other, her tall desk at which she stood up to write, and her books; she conscientiously set herself to learn the difficult skill of composition. There were to be no half-measures, she must learn to use words selectively so that they were able to bear the wealth of feeling within her; she must find the sentence that was right for her — and it was different from the type of sentence used by men. These words, these sentences of hers must take on the shape of her own brain, her female brain. This is the task she set herself, as she was to recount later in A Room of One's Own. Only at tea time did the family gather round the table in the living room, often receiving older relatives or family friends. A certain `tea-table manner' was necessary to carry off these visits, when conversation had to be made even in the most trying of circumstances. Being the hostess was a social skill that Virginia learnt thoroughly, as did Vanessa.


The third death in that claustrophobic family was that of Sir Leslie Stephen who died of cancer aged seventy-two, in February 1904 after a long illness. During those years Virginia saw a great deal of her father and in doing so gained an understanding of his character which was in some ways like her own; she learned to have some sympathy for him despite his temperamental outbursts. He had edited, and written large parts of, a Dictionary of National Biography, and was engaged in a series, English Men of Letters. He also left his unpublished Mausoleum Book, in which he recounted his life, for the sake of his children. She knew him from the books in his library, well stocked with the work of English writers from the age of Chaucer, both suitable and unsuitable for the eyes of a young woman; also the major French authors. Virginia devoured these books with much greater depth of attention than most casual readers, for she was training herself to be one of them, a descendant of the English literary tradition in her own generation. Later, she said that if her father had not died when he did, she would never have written.

    Among the many changes that took place in 1904, during that same year of her father's death, Virginia's first piece of writing was published. It was an unsigned review in the Guardian, and she was paid for it. Virginia from the first valued the money she earned from her work: it gave her an objective yardstick with which to measure her achievements and she needed this, as she had no school record with which to monitor her progress. And so began her most productive writing career.


After their father's funeral the four younger Stephens, together with Gerald Duckworth, went first to Manorbier on the Pembroke coast and then to Venice where they were joined by Violet Dickinson, a very tall, thin woman who had been Virginia's chief correspondent during Sir Leslie's illness and remained a true all-weather supporter until 1912. On their return through Paris Virginia met Clive Bell, one of Thoby's University friends, and realised the conversations she had with him were what she really enjoyed. She was distrustful of men and Clive with his urbane manner and country background was the friend she needed. But much as he enjoyed talking with Virginia, he began wooing Vanessa.

    On their return to England, Virginia suffered her second nervous breakdown. She stayed with Violet Dickinson and was looked after by three nurses. For the first time, she heard horrible voices. In her ravings, she distrusted Vanessa and made a token gesture at committing suicide by jumping out of a low window; she was not hurt. Fortunately Violet proved to be a loyal, trustworthy and benign support.

    Only during an episode of so-called madness, which was heralded by bad headaches, tension and insomnia, could her pent-up rage break through the cheerful `tea-table manner' with which she normally related to other people. Mental breakdown was her method of freeing herself from other people's attitudes and regaining her intimate connection with the present moment, which was essential for her writing: then, she was in touch with her vision, with her inner sense of truth, exalted, the words coming to her as though from another source.

    We should ask ourselves whether Virginia was justified in distrusting her sister. This episode, three months after her father's death, may be a later version of the `game' Vanessa and Thoby played on her in the nursery, which was capable of reducing her to impotent fury: a game in which Vanessa distanced herself from Virginia and used Thoby as an emotional buffer, getting him on her side. If so, this is the second recorded instance. There is a third such episode in 1910 when Virginia once more distrusted her sister and Clive Bell, having married Vanessa, became the emotional buffer. Did Virginia's pleasure in meeting and talking with Clive, when she met him in Paris, arouse Vanessa's jealousy?

    I am arguing that an important factor in Virginia's mental instability was an underlying tension between Vanessa and herself. Virginia always maintained that she loved Vanessa more than Vanessa loved her, and this may have been true. Vanessa liked to keep her sister in her orbit, so long as she did not get too close. This co-dependence which could reduce Virginia to mental breakdown when the game was played against her and she, feeling entirely innocent, was rejected, was never resolved by either of them. Hence, neither was able to break away. And Virginia was unable to form satisfying relationships with anyone else.

    Virginia's love for Vanessa was the love of the younger for the older, of the almost supernaturally sensitive and aware for the strong, of the vine for the tree. Her breakdown in 1904 may have been not only her desperate reaction to her father's death, although she undoubtedly missed him and felt the loss of his support, but to Vanessa's rejection as she once again tried to cling to her, in the life-long battle between the two sisters. Each time Virginia was doomed to lose, but in the losing she rediscovered new-born within her, her creativity, her song.

    If we accept that there was a down-side to the close relationship between these two sisters, then we will recognise a repeating pattern when Leonard Woolf enters the equation. With the publication of a selection of Vanessa's letters in 1993, we have a much clearer idea of their relationship. It is surprising how early the pattern was set. Many of the themes that run through Virginia's life are present well before her marriage, to the extent that we can see Leonard taking over many aspects of Vanessa's attitude towards her sister.

    On her recovery Virginia went to stay with her aunt in Cambridge. Sir Leslie Stephen's sister, Caroline Emelia Stephen, was a Quaker and was often called `the Nun'. The Nun sympathised with Virginia and provided the very environment she needed to complete her convalescence.


Whilst Virginia was away Vanessa, Thoby and Adrian moved house. This signalled a complete change in life-style for the four younger Stephens. They simply had to escape from the gloomy No. 22 Hyde Park Gate, haunted by memories of death and grieving. The stalwart Vanessa, assisted by Thoby, rented a house in Bloomsbury, an area of London located behind the British Museum which was at that time unfashionable and therefore cheaper. To make this fundamental break with the past was a brave and remarkable decision on Vanessa's part. By doing so, the four siblings were able to shrug off the Victorian age, the deaths of both parents and generations of relatives. With no elders to make the rules, they were able to begin a different life. And they moved not only into a new house but a new century.

    Vanessa, the young artist, celebrated by painting all the rooms white, so that pictures could be hung on them, and installed a minimum amount of furniture. She was once again firmly in control and she blossomed. Restored to health, Virginia left Cambridge and joined Vanessa and Adrian to live at No. 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.


As an undergraduate at Cambridge, Thoby spent the term up at University and the holidays with his siblings. He was in the habit of telling Virginia highly-coloured stories about his friends, so that she had a fanciful idea of them before she met them. Among these were the tall, thin eccentric Lytton Strachey, the pink and rather tubby Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes (later, the economist), and the silent Sydney Saxon-Turner. He invited them to their new London house, where they soon held regular meetings on Thursday evenings — and thus began what became known as the Bloomsbury Group. Although Leonard Woolf was part of the circle of young men at Cambridge, he was not apparently one of those invited by Thoby to meet his sisters in London.


What do we make of Virginia's early years? It dangerously lacked any possibility for her to build up a self-image, by which she could have seen herself through others' eyes. She, as it were, lacked a layer of skin. She had a negative attitude to mirrors all her life and hated anyone looking at her. She was afraid of her body and of all bodily sensations including, during her breakdowns, eating; and was always morbidly self-conscious about her clothes. Buying clothes, especially underwear, was a major ordeal. That she was beautiful to look at, slim and ethereal with abundant hair and large eyes, did not help her. She thought she was unattractive. Her times of pleasure were perceived as escapes, her first and most satisfying being the annual exodus of the Stephen family from London to Talland House in Cornwall. There were also escapes when the `cotton-wool' of everyday existence was torn asunder by a flash of extreme clarity, a shock of realisation, a flood of light, of awareness, which resulted in an intense experience of the present moment. Virginia, lacking a sense of the security of continued existence — the deaths of her parents and Stella had seen to that — relied on her intuition and the presence of Vanessa, with whom she felt an almost mystical sense of closeness. In her last diary entry she wrote `if only we could infuse souls.' But they never could. Vanessa would not permit that and perhaps it was essential for her own well-being that she had the strength to resist.

    We hear too little about Virginia's physical health. She was weaned at three months to make way for her younger brother Adrian — he had his own severe problems after Julia died. When she was six years old, all four of them fell ill with whooping cough from which her brothers and sister recovered unscathed, but not Virginia: afterwards she was noticeably thinner and more shadowy than the others. This may have left her with a permanently damaged heart; in any case a heart murmur was diagnosed years later, and she became exhausted easily. Thus, over-tiredness was one trigger for her headaches and instability. With few reserves of energy, she did not have the stamina to fight back directly; instead, she absorbed and forgave.

    In the same year as that attack of whooping-cough, her half-brother Gerald interfered with her, his explorations accompanied by the sound of laughter ringing in her ears. These two events must have combined to induce in her a feeling of helplessness and panic, to which she would fall victim whenever she was under particular strain and felt she was at risk of losing autonomy. Although she could make cutting, even malicious, remarks Virginia never learnt to play power games; she may not have consciously realised when they were being played against her, until accumulated rage was released during a breakdown. Concentrating on her writing, the lambent and ever more accurate vision that she was able to transmit to paper enabled her not only to survive but to emerge triumphant. But, as she often felt, she was balancing on a narrow pavement with a dangerous drop on either side.

    Together the stronger and more judgmental Vanessa, and Virginia with her far greater quicksilver imagination, challenged the patriarchal world which had to be conquered through their arts. But their turbulent upbringing left deeper scars on Virginia. She was younger and had to fight harder for survival.

    By January 1905, when she was just twenty-three, Virginia's nerve doctor Dr. Savage, on the whole a sensible and kindly man despite his name, pronounced her cured and she accepted a part-time job teaching English Literature at Morley College in the East end of London, an evening institute for working people. She was also writing her recollections of her father for a Life of Sir Leslie Stephen and contributed articles and reviews to magazines, experiencing the mixed fortunes of any aspiring author.

    It seemed that Virginia Stephen, the intelligent and gifted writer, was well and truly on her way. It also seemed, in that age brought up on the Greek classics, to be an excellent plan, in the summer of 1906, for Virginia, Vanessa and Violet Dickinson to go to Greece, where they met Thoby and Adrian. Together they visited a number of cities, including Athens. However the entire party, with the exception of Virginia, fell ill. Vanessa apparently had appendicitis, while Violet Dickinson, Thoby and Adrian went down with typhoid.

    On their return, Virginia had the responsibility of running a house full of sick people. Her correspondence with Violet Dickinson, who was critically ill in her own home, was aimed at helping her friend recover; and she sent the latest bulletins to friends and relatives. During that month of illness at 46 Gordon Square, Clive Bell became a frequent visitor. He read to the invalids and his visits were increasingly welcome to Vanessa, who had previously rejected his proposal of marriage.

    Their doctor was slow to diagnose Thoby's life-threatening illness. Vanessa and Adrian recovered, but Thoby died. We can understand what may have contributed to his death from a letter written by Vanessa to Duncan Grant, who was about to visit Greece in 1910:

    "When I think how everybody refrained from giving us advice before we set out for the East [in 1906] because they thought somebody else would do so, I make bold to be superfluous and officious. I thought last night that the word diarrhea would shock Philip [Morrell] too much ... but what I wanted to say was that if you do get it, as everyone does, don't at once stop it with chlorodyne, as Thoby and Adrian did, but take castor oil and rest and feed on sloppy foods. Also take a supply of Bromo [toilet paper]. Don't wash your teeth in ordinary water, but get some mineral water. It doesn't really cost much and it's quite as bad to wash your teeth in plain water as to drink it."

    So Thoby and Adrian took chlorodyne, which prevented the body evacuating and thus put a greater strain on it. Adrian survived, but Thoby did not. That is evidently the reality. If Thoby had not died, Virginia's achievement in being the mainstay of the family would have been recognised and would no doubt have led to a different perception of her abilities which would have helped give her the necessary confidence to `stand up straight', as an independent woman and writer.

    For nearly a month after her brother's death Virginia continued to write affectionate letters to Violet, pretending that he was still alive, for fear the news would make her friend worse. Virginia's preoccupation with keeping Violet Dickinson cheerful probably helped her cope with Thoby's death. This time she did not suffer a nervous breakdown. Part of the explanation may be found in the words she wrote to Violet when she did feel able to tell her: `You are part of all that is best and happiest in our lives ... I know you loved him, and he loved you ... I can feel happy about him; he was so brave and strong, and his life was perfect.'

    Soon the news of Thoby's death spread to other members of the Bloomsbury Group. Lytton Strachey wrote to Leonard Woolf who, on leaving Cambridge, had had to take a job in the Colonial Service; he was an administrator in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), then part of the British Empire, where he worked very hard while, according to himself, leading a `degraded' life, on occasion getting drunk, hiring prostitutes and then falling into a depression on the rebound.

    Before he left England Leonard had hardly met the Stephen sisters. When they attended a May Ball at Trinity College, he saw them as a radiant vision in long white dresses, carrying parasols. At once, he decided that he was in love with Vanessa. Just before leaving the country, he had been to dinner with Thoby but Vanessa was not there and Virginia remained silent; nevertheless, he took his vision of those two sisters of the admired Thoby Stephen, whom they called the Goth because of his handsome physique, to Ceylon with him.

    Lytton and Leonard corresponded regularly, Lytton's letters being Leonard's main link with Britain. Their letters were sexually explicit, partly because Lytton believed that total sexual freedom was a means of blowing away the cobwebs of the Victorian age. That autumn of 1906, Lytton and Leonard were deep in correspondence about the sexual preferences of their Cambridge friends, most of whom were homosexual. Leonard wrote, having torn up Lytton's previous letter through fear of its falling into the wrong hands, and then proceeded to describe what was in it:

    "Pure fright, it is not safe to keep, once opened, for a week in this place. It was a description of the intrigues ending in Keynes. It made me feel a little sick, as I see it did you ... The Congolese contagion seems to spread in Cambridge not but what these young fellows are all humbugs. He [Thoby] stands, doesn't he?"

    Clive Bell and Leonard were exceptions. Leonard saw Thoby as an `anchor' in a sea of sodomy, as his letters make clear. Lytton wrote to him: `I can only hope that you may know the dreadful thing that has happened, from other letters or papers, for I feel that to break it to you is almost beyond my force. You must be prepared for something terrible. You will never see the Goth again. He died yesterday.' To which Leonard replied:

    "I have just got your letter. I knew nothing before. The last I had heard was from [Saxon Sydney-] Turner that he had seen him & he was recovering. I am overwhelmed, crushed ... It was only a week or two ago that I wrote to you what we had so often written & said, that he was an anchor. He was above everyone in his nobility. God! what an accursed thing life is, great stretches of dull insensibility & then these unbearable bitternesses. If I could only see you & talk to you!"

    A few days later he wrote to Saxon Sydney-Turner: `What can we say? Life can be no blacker than it is now.' But for Leonard, almost immediately, it did get a great deal blacker as he heard that, only two days after Thoby's death, Vanessa had agreed to marry Clive Bell, whom he despised: `I seem to see & hear the Goth all day. It is appalling to think that it is only death that makes it altogether clear what he was to us ... And Bell? & Vanessa? I am too weary to mind the mockery of it all.'

    Virginia did not correspond directly with Leonard but, through Lytton, she offered him one of Thoby's books; he accepted a volume of John Milton's poems.

    Vanessa's hasty acceptance of Clive Bell's offer of marriage drew an agonised response from Virginia to Violet: `I shall want all my sweetness to gild Nessa's happiness. It does seem strange and intolerable sometimes. When I think of father and Thoby and then see that funny little creature twitching his pink skin and jerking out his little spasm of laughter I wonder what odd freak there is in Nessa's eyesight. But I dont say this, and I wont say it, except to you.'

    She wrote this from Hampshire, where she and Adrian spent Christmas: it snowed with a picture postcard perfection. This freedom to get away from horror was very important to Virginia. `I have to tune myself into a good temper with something musical, and I run to a book as a child to its mother.' By early January 1907, she was able to tell Violet of seeing Vanessa and Clive together at his family's large country house, Cleeve House in Wiltshire: `I feel very calm and domestic. Clive certainly is an interesting person, and I really feel happier, and get some glimpse of what Nessa means by marrying him. She is as happy as anyone can be; and more like herself than she was. She seems to have taken her bearings, and to see her life ahead of her in her own clear and reasonable way.'

    The day before their wedding she wrote congratulating Vanessa: `We the undersigned Apes and a Wombat [herself and her dog] wish to make known to you our great grief and joy at the news that you intend to marry ... [Clive] is better than all other apes because he can both talk and marry you: from which we are debarred.' Thus Virginia accepted their marriage, while Vanessa once more felt secure behind her new emotional buffer.

    Clive and Vanessa Bell remained at 46 Gordon Square, while Virginia and Adrian moved to 29 Fitzroy Square, also in Bloomsbury. The Thursday evenings were continued there.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations 9
Prologue 13
Pt. 1 Aboard the See-Saw 23
1 Virginia's Need for Support 25
2 Leonard Tells His Story 51
3 Tying the Knot 80
Pt. 2 The Servile State of Marriage 113
4 Leonard Takes Over 115
5 Leonard Exposes Himself 146
6 Beginning and End of the Good Wife 171
Pt. 3 Virginia Learns to Ride the See-Saw 195
7 Bringing the Dead to Life 197
8 A Breath of Vita 219
9 Watershed 253
Pt. 4 The Coming of Mabel and Louise 285
10 Towards the Death Pole 287
11 Virginia Exposes Leonard 318
Pt. 5 Make Believe 361
12 Dwindling Island of Insecurity 363
13 Untying the Knot 391
Appendices 431
Select Bibliography 443
References 447
Index 455
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