The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Manic Depression and the Life of Virginia Woolf

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Manic Depression and the Life of Virginia Woolf

by Peter Dally

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Combining his knowledge as a doctor and a lifelong fascination with Virginia Woolf's life and work, eminent psychiatrist Peter Dally offers a haunting and compelling look at the depression that tormented Virginia Woolf throughout her adult years, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Manic Depression and the Life of Virginia Woolf.

On three occasions Virginia went mad. Symptoms of these episodes included conversations with her dead mother, and hearing birds speak in Greek. Though a quiet life cushioned her childhood, the renown that Woolf achieved through writing inspired the bouts of depression and elation that she regularly experienced as an adult. This terrified Virginia, and though the experience offered extraordinary insight into her craft, Woolf lived in constant fear of her dreadful affliction.

Virginia's most vital protection from stress was her husband, Leonard. Without his constant vigilance and care, it is doubtful she would have been so creatively productive. Yet, paradoxically, their marriage ultimately precipitated her most dangerous bout of madness. Toward the end of her life, when events outside the couple's control led to Leonard's own depression and gradual withdrawal, Virginia found herself facing madness alone, and with tragic results.

Compassionate and disturbing, this fascinating study is the first to look at Virginia Woolf's life from the perspective of her illness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466885226
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/11/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 425 KB

About the Author

After qualifying from St. Thomas's Hospital in 1953, Peter Dally specialized in psychiatry and was consulted psychiatrist at the Westminster Hospital until his retirement. He lives in England. He is the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Manic Depression and the Life of Virginia Woolf.

Read an Excerpt

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Manic Depression and the Life of Virginia Woolf

By Peter Dally

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1999 Peter Dally
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8522-6


Julia Stephen

Virginia's mother, Julia Stephen, came from a large family renowned for beauty rather than intellect, and although Julia was often gloomy, even melancholic, she was never seriously depressed, and none of her relatives was remotely insane. It is true that Julia's maternal grandfather was a drunk and extravagantly wicked, and that her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, the renowned Victorian photographer, was a notorious eccentric, but not a manic depressive. Virginia's genetic inheritance for cyclothymia came wholly through her father. Nonetheless, Julia contributed a great deal to Virginia's temperamental instability and indirectly therefore to her mood swings.

Julia was adored by her husband and children, friends, and the many lame dogs, sick and deprived, whom she nursed and supported. She appeared to one and all the essence of goodness and beauty, a true angel both in and outside the house, always prepared to give of her time to those in need.

She was the 'darling of darlings' to her mother, who would have only Julia as attendant during her frequent illnesses. Leslie Stephen, her husband, wanted her continually at his beck and call, to mother and encourage him and lift his self-esteem. When the children fell ill Julia insisted on nursing them herself. Her presence filled the home with light and warmth. Virginia could never have enough of her mother, but she had to be ill or noticeably upset to receive Julia's full attention. No sooner was Virginia better than her mother was off on some other mission of mercy. Had she been challenged she would have responded with, 'To serve is the highest expression of your nature'.

There was a disconcerting contradiction in Julia. She gave her time and attention wholly to those in need, yet she gave little of herself and withdrew once her task was done. She was intensely private and it seemed she could not come close to anyone when outside her caring role. Her husband sensed this absence of deep involvement and worried that she did not love him as she had loved her first husband. Julia would never openly admit to loving Leslie after their marriage. He called her a heartless woman and it was only half in jest. Virginia too, fretted: 'I can never remember being alone with her for more than a few minutes.'

Julia never let herself go emotionally. She kept herself and her world under tight control. No one was allowed to take liberties: friends who stepped over the boundary were dropped, an awkward child was despatched to bed and ignored. Her difficult, autistic stepdaughter Laura was sent away to an institution. It was noticeable how much harder Julia was with daughters than with sons.

Beneath Julia's warm and caring exterior was a rigid anxious woman, fearful of exposing her deeper feelings. She never confided. She rarely expressed anger – icy disapproval was her usual reaction – but when it flared up the shock was the greater for being unexpected. It took Leslie by surprise and shook Virginia. 'She would suddenly say something so unexpected, from that Madonna face, one thought it vicious.'

In company Julia could be gay, the life and soul of any party. When she was absent Hyde Park Gate became dark and dull for Virginia, despite the merriment of siblings. Leslie's gloomy mood and the resulting stultifying atmosphere were alleviated by her presence. Julia had a gift for drawing out people of all classes and listening to their troubles. She soothed unhappy children to sleep with her stories. She listened patiently to her husband and gave him the encouragement and assurance he wanted. She laughed and chatted in society. But when not engaged, sitting with a book or sewing, signs of melancholia emerged. Virginia used to watch her and came to recognise her sadness, the gloom and silence within. She did not enjoy her existence. She had no wish to end her life but she believed death would be the greatest boon. Her melancholia distressed Leslie; it was somehow deeper, all-embracing and different from Leslie's histrionic depressions. When he chided her for being 'less happy than I could wish', she answered that her contact with 'sufferers' and the 'terrible havoc made by death' outweighed peace and happiness.

It was a woman's duty, Julia declared, to care for her kith and kin, to devote herself to the happiness of her husband and children, and give any time left to others. Women should never put themselves first. Julia was a powerful personality and she stamped herself and her views firmly on her daughters. Not until she was in her mid-forties, writing To the Lighthouse, did Virginia begin to loosen the ties with her mother.

* * *

Julia's mother, Maria (Mia) Jackson née Pattle, was born in India, the middle of seven sisters, all but one of them renowned for their beauty. Nervous and delicate, she grew up feeling closer to Sara, her next oldest sister, than to her mother. When that sister became engaged, Mia was thrown off balance and lunged headlong into marriage when barely 17 years old.

Her husband was a good-looking Calcutta physician, Dr John Jackson, 14 years her senior. Trained at Westminster Hospital Medical School, he joined the medical services of the Bengal Presidency. He was well regarded professionally, by not only Europeans but 'Indian Ranees and Natives of the highest classes', and lectured at the Medical School of Calcutta. Mia was looking for a prop and perhaps he provided one at first, but before long he began to bore her; she thought him dull, his interests narrow. Like her sister, Mia's main interest lay in the arts, but Dr Jackson was lukewarm. His granddaughter Virginia looked on him in later life as 'a commonplace, prosaic old man', but that was probably pure hearsay, picked up from her parents, for she was only five when he died.

Perhaps another reason for choosing John Jackson as husband was Mia's lifelong valetudinarianism. Nothing pleased her so much as discussing her ailments with a sympathetic, or helpless, listener. Her emotional needs, trivial or otherwise, were transplanted in to bodily discomfort: headaches, indigestion, rheumatic pains, abdominal complaints. Pain was Mia's chief means of communicating boredom, dissatisfactions, and disappointments. Dr Jackson either failed to recognise his wife's signals or, one suspects, turned a blind eye to them. At any rate, the Jacksons' relationship slowly deteriorated.

Mia Jackson produced two daughters and then, after a six-year interval, Julia was born in 1846. Mia at once made Julia the centre of her life to the virtual exclusion of her husband. It is more than likely that Julia's health and, no doubt, her own was the excuse for quitting India when Julia was two and returning to London. Leslie claimed that Julia believed she was her mother's least-loved daughter, although the evidence points to the fact that Mia worshipped Julia.

Dr Jackson stayed on in Calcutta for another seven years after his wife's departure. When he gave up his practice and returned to London, shortly before the Indian Mutiny, he was a stranger in every sense to the nine-year-old Julia. She felt no affection and seems to have been indifferent to his presence, much as her mother was. He set up in medical practice for a time but he had few or no outside interests, and no influence with any of his family. Leslie Stephen observed that 'he did not seem to count as fathers generally count in their families'.

Mia Jackson quickly found her feet in London with the help of her sister Sara and husband Thoby Prinsep. The Prinseps were living in an old converted farmhouse, Little Holland House, in what is now West Kensington. Holland House itself had been the centre of the Whig aristocracy at the beginning of the century and in the 1860s Little Holland House became an 'Aristocracy of Intellect', the 'Temple of the Arts'. Sara Prinsep – known as the 'Principessa' – was the driving force, and the power of her personality, together with the deep interest and involvement she and her husband had in all the arts, attracted painters and writers, and even politicians of the time, to the Sunday afternoon gatherings. Cultural snobs the Prinseps may have been but their home provided a stimulating, Bohemian atmosphere for Mia Jackson and her daughters.

Tall, elegant and handsome, Mia attracted much attention. Thomas Woolner, the pre-Raphaelite sculptor, was loud in his praises for 'the beautiful Mrs Jackson and her three beautiful daughters'. But it was on Julia, as she grew into adolescence, that the painters' eyes became fixed. Burne-Jones took her for his model in The Annunciation. G. F. Watts played with her. Holman Hunt and Thomas Woolner each wanted to marry her. Aunt Sara and Uncle Thoby were proud of her. Her mother was delighted, for looks came a close second to illness in Mia Jackson's book.

Julia's beauty was remote, cold and, from the beginning, touched with melancholia. Men put her on a pedestal and admired her from a distance. Part of her reserve came from shyness and a sense of intellectual inferiority – although she spoke French well and knew enough Latin and History to instruct her children in those subjects – but some of it, perhaps, hid boredom. At a party or a picnic on the river she might be seen standing alone and unattended, her mind apparently elsewhere.

Yet Julia, particularly before her second marriage, possessed a warmth that would emerge when she was at ease and enjoying herself. Then her gaiety was infectious and could spread like fire through a room. Even in later life it would be felt by her children. It was Julia who created 'that crowded merry world which spun so gaily in the centre' of Virginia's childhood and which for Virginia vanished on her death. Many people saw her as 'stern and judgemental'. There was certainly no mistaking her disapproval: 'If she had looked at me as I have seen her look at some people, I would sink into the earth,' Leslie Stephen told his children.

Julia's interest in nursing and 'good works' developed early through her experiences with her mother. Discussion of her mother's symptoms, and those of family and friends, occupied a good slice of the day and when Mia Jackson was particularly troubled Julia would rarely be long away from her side. Not that Mia's ills were entirely psychosomatic for, in her late thirties, when Julia was nine or ten, she developed the first attack of what sounds to have been rheumatoid arthritis. That lasted several months and Julia was closely concerned with looking after her. Although, characteristically, the disease remitted, there were further attacks and in old age she was badly crippled and restricted to spending most of her days in a chair.

Julia's satisfaction was to fetch and carry for her mother, pour out this or that of the numerous medicines – which included morphia and chloral – discuss her condition and make her comfortable. In her mother's eyes, Julia was perfect and indispensable.

Nursing came to be an important way for Julia to express her feelings and be valued. It was always difficult for Julia to show or admit to open affection; she seemed to be afraid of giving too much of herself away. She told her daughters, 'Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anyone guess that you have a mind of your own.' Through nursing she was able to do good and be looked upon as angelic, all the while remaining detached and in control. She occupied the centre of her stage, and yet her real self remained hidden. She kept her thoughts to herself. Years later, she wrote revealingly that 'the relations between the sick and the well are far easier and pleasanter than between the well and the well.'

Mia Jackson occasionally worried that Julia, her 'lamb', was too solemn and secretive for her own good. She had few friends in childhood and none with whom she was intimate. She was not close to either of her sisters, although she was fond of the eldest Adeline and, despite the ten-year gap between them, became the confidante of Adeline's unhappy marital experiences.

Her uncle Thoby Prinsep probably understood Julia better than anyone. She worshipped him and early on in life came to look on him as a father-figure. He was nearly 60 when Julia and her mother arrived in England. A dynamic, extroverted man, he had held high office in the East India Company until retirement some ten years before. Like his wife, he was very involved in the arts and literature and one of his hobbies was to translate Persian poetry. He seems to have taken a close interest in Julia and she responded with a 'simple, uncritical, enthusiastic' hero-worship. Little Holland House was her home of education, where she learnt social ways and acquired many of her attitudes and interests. She spent much of her youth there and was, no doubt, spoilt and allowed to feel important. She became knowledgeable in the arts, learnt 'to listen devoutly' to distinguished men: 'to accept the fact that Watts was a great painter, Tennyson a great poet; and to dance with the Prince of Wales'. Julia became, in other words, a well educated and cultured upper-class young lady. Sometimes she accompanied the Prinseps on their tours abroad, usually, but not always, with her ailing mother. She was invariably extremely anxious at any separation, worrying about her mother's health and comfort and generally fearing the worst. Telegrams and letters of reassurance went backwards and forwards in a steady stream between mother and daughter whenever they were parted.

Separation anxiety can be catching and readily passed on to the next generation. Virginia was similarly affected and, from the age of seven or eight, was intensely anxious when separated for long from her mother and later mother-substitutes. When Julia was late home, even by a few minutes, Virginia would work herself up into a lather of anxiety.

It was during a visit to Venice with her mother and the Prinseps that Julia met Herbert Duckworth and immediately fell in love. Mia Jackson may not have been much surprised but she probably had very mixed feelings over the prospect of losing her lamb. But Uncle Thoby approved, despite Herbert being more hearty than aesthetically minded, and helped to persuade his sister-in-law to agree to the marriage. Julia was married soon after her twenty-first birthday in 1867.

Herbert Duckworth was 13 years older, a barrister with plentiful private means. His family were minor county gentry and, despite their money having come originally from commerce, he was clearly a good catch.

Julia was, she claimed, immensely happy in her marriage to Herbert. Although she never spoke of him to the Stephen children, Virginia came to believe, from what she learnt from her half-sister Stella, that Julia idealised Herbert, 'the perfect man: heroic, handsome, magnanimous, "the great Achilles whom we knew"'. He was certainly different in every way from the intellectual Leslie Stephen, her second husband.

Marriage did not change her controlling nature and from the start she mothered Herbert and fussed over his health. She was fearful she might lose him and was on tenterhooks whenever he was away from home for long. Once, he missed his train home and, when he failed to arrive at the usual time, Julia panicked and nearly collapsed.

Her apprehension turned out to be justified when, after only four years together, Herbert suddenly died of a brain haemorrhage. Julia was inconsolable: a world of pure love and beauty had been taken away. Her anger and despair were immense, but she could not express her feelings. She refused to share her grief and her anger grew. Who could she direct it against other than herself? She could not rage directly against Herbert for leaving her, nor her mother hovering in the background. They were sacrosanct. Instead she made God the target of her anger. From henceforth, she declared, she was an atheist. She would no longer believe in a Christian God who permitted such suffering.

Through her action Julia not only released anger but hurt her mother deeply, for Mia Jackson was a devout Anglican who pleaded and prayed for her daughter to return to the Faith. Julia was stony-hearted. So far as she was concerned, God was dead. Perhaps for the first time in her life she refused to give in to her mother.


Excerpted from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by Peter Dally. Copyright © 1999 Peter Dally. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. Julia Stephen,
2. Leslie Stephen,
3. The Stephen Marriage,
4. Virginia's Early Life and Temperament,
5. Deaths – The First Major Breakdown, 1904,
6. Vanessa's Marriage – Virginia's Instability,
7. Gender and Sexuality,
8. Leonard Woolf and Courtship,
9. Marriage – The Second Major Breakdown, 1913,
10. Inner and Outer Worlds,
11. Creativity,
12. Vita Sackville-West,
13. Threat of War,
14. The Years and Three Guineas,
15. War, Depression and Suicide,
Appendix: Mania, Madness and Creativity,
Family Tree,

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