The Great Writers: Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is an icon with a shaky reputation. She is known as depressed—a novelist who, at age 59, drowned herself in the River Ouse outside her weekend home. She also stands as that prototypical female figure whose face we put on mugs, t-shirts, and greeting cards to cover—with one sweeping gesture—women’s contribution to literary history.

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But behind the public gloss, Woolf was probably the best writer in English for describing our minds without the jargon of clinical psychology. She could ride the journey of our thinking through its smallest bends and mood shifts. 

She helped develop what is now called the Modernist aesthetic. The generation before her, the Victorians, wrote novels that focused on the external details of our lives—on city scenes, marriages, wills, and other social contracts. Woolf envisioned a new form of expression that would focus our attention on the mind—on how it feels, inside the brain, to know ourselves and other people. 

She defended the voices that live under the surface, that go unnoticed in public places. Because she was a woman, she did not get a formal education like her brothers did at Cambridge, and she tried to give voice to her emergent ideas. She also suffered with what we would now diagnose as bipolar disorder, working through bouts of intense productivity and debilitating depression, during which she could barely eat and hallucinated birds talking Greek outside her window. She felt that doctors around her were quick to pathologize but badly attuned to the life inside her mind, and so she worked to build a language for what she called the “Outsiders’ Society,” those people who had no literature.

In 1941, with Hitler invading London, Woolf, a lifetime pacifist, ended her life by putting rocks in her pockets and walking into the river outside her summer home. But if you can’t take a lesson from someone who committed suicide, then you’d also have to call Socrates, Van Gogh, and Hemingway people that have nothing to teach us.

Woolf had brilliant things to teach us.

1. Rethink your gender

Gender is a role we play that is shaped by culture. Woolf said that men and women take roles that work in a sort of reciprocal relationship—and, in that way, allow a culture to function. Think of a ladder and its base which prevents it from slipping. For one person to be a ladder, another needs to be a base. 

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But as we fit ourselves into our roles, we overlook parts of our fuller personalities. If we want to reencounter our fullest selves, we need to do some gender-bending; we need to seek experiences that blur what it means to be “a real man” or “a real woman.”

Woolf had a few lesbian affairs in her life (with Ethel Smyth, with Vita Sackville-West), and she wrote a magnificently bold queer text, Orlando: A Biography, which was essentially a portrait of her lover Vita, portrayed as a nobleman who becomes a woman. 

Woolf encouraged social interactions that can at least suggest the androgyny within us: “It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. … Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated” (A Room of One’s Own). 

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Virginia Woolf in Dreadnought Hoax

Gender was also a crucial political issue for Woolf. Because we live in a culture in which the male sex is raised, from the days of the nursery, to think of himself as dominant—as stronger or smarter or more emotionally stable than the other gender—the culture at large is geared towards a cult of dominance. If one half of the population is reared to see its self-actualisation as the realisation of power, this brings an ethic of aggression, of possession, of war.

In her anti-war tract Three Guineas, Woolf argued that we will only ever end war by rethinking this habit of “pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, [these roles that] belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are ‘sides,’ and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the Headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot.”

For the largess of ourselves and for our culture, we need to rethink what it means to “be a man” or “a woman.” 

2. Empathise, with distance

Woolf’s primary attachment to the world was one of empathy. But what does empathy mean?

Empathy, she said, is the drive to understand a person’s “character”; it’s a grasping toward another inner life that makes our relationships possible.

 “It would be impossible to live for a year without disaster unless one practised character-reading and had some skill in the art. Our marriages, our friendships depend on it; our business largely depends on it; every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help” (“Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”).

But understanding another person is a delicate task—because when we try to know another person too completely, we risk shrinking that other person into what we want her to be, rather than what she is.

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A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry, 1917

In her novel To the Lighthouse, a married couple sits in their living room, reading silently side by side, observing and thinking of each other but pained by a gap that exists between them. They cannot tell each other everything, and that gap will always exist. 

We ache to know each other’s minds, but knowing must include some waiting, some refusal to possess. It makes us safe to feel like we know things, like we can always predict the other; but we must live through the discomfort of unknowing to achieve real intimacy with someone else.

“We pin them down to one meaning…. And when words are pinned down they fold their wings and die” (“On Craftsmanship”). 

In A Room Of One’s Own, she describes a rigid academic sitting at his desk, trying to define someone else exhaustively, completely, with written words. “He was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing it; and even so, some cause for anger and irritation remained.” 

Every effort to know is haunted by an effort to possess. But knowing someone else also means allowing for their otherness to exist—unknown and respected—beside us.

3. Give yourself space and time alone

Woolf was an avid diary-keeper. Daily routines can tend to sweep us away in a fast pace of obligation—to bosses, to family, to lovers. In turn, Woolf believed in having some activity in your day in which you escape the pace of public life and, there, observe your thoughts in some reverie or silence. We need a retreat, a place without usefulness.

“The test [is to] make a space in which, quite naturally, you can say what you want to say, [a space that] has not crushed the thing I wanted to say, but allowed me to slip it in, without any compression or alteration,” Woolf wrote one day in her diary. “Nobody shall come here on their terms; or haul me off to them on theirs.” This space can only happen under the auspices of privacy you stake for seeming uselessness. This space might be therapy, or yoga, or diary writing, or long walks.

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Roger Fry, River with Poplars, 1912

Part of the reason why we need privacy is that natural beauty often gets covered up by a world that’s angled for efficiency, for work. In her essay “On Being Ill,” a character who gets the flu is finally forced to simply lie in bed and, “for the first time in years, to look round, to look up—to look, for example, at the sky…  Now, lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky is discovered to be something so different from this that really it is a little shocking. This then has been going on all the time without our knowing it!”—the sky! The sky!

To see things new, we need to steal time from the day for the mind to be odd and on its own.

4. Feminism

Virginia Woolf began A Room of One’s Own (1929) by describing a visit she had made to Cambridge University, where she had decided to take a look around Trinity College Library in order to consult the manuscripts of Milton’s Lycidas and Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond. As she was about to step inside the library, however, “a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman” had appeared and “regretted in a low voice that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.” In a minor key, Woolf had come up against one of the great stately pillars upon which the inferior status of women was founded; their disenfranchisement from equal rights to higher education.

Most women would have been offended by the incident, but few were likely to have responded to the offence politically; few were likely to have done anything other than blame themselves or nature or God for it. After all, never in history had women had the same rights as men to education. And had not many of the most important doctors in Britain and certain politicians in Parliament too made reference to women’s biologically inferior minds, which stemmed from the smaller size of their skulls? What right, then, did any one woman have to doubt the motives of a gentleman who turned her away from a library, especially if he had silvery hair and delivered his message with apologies and a polite smile?

Woolf was less easily silenced. Performing the quintessential political manoeuvre, rather than asking herself, “What is wrong with me for not being allowed into a library?”, she asked, “What is wrong with the keepers of the library for not allowing me in?” When ideas and institutions are held to be merely ‘natural,’ responsibility for suffering must necessarily lie either with no one in particular or else with the pained parties themselves. But a political perspective alters the understanding of blame. Rather than being forced to feel ashamed for not measuring up to a status ideal, we are given leave to imagine that it might be the ideal, rather than something in our character, that is at fault. Rather than wondering in disgrace, “What is wrong with me (for being a woman, having dark skin or no money)?”, we are encouraged to ask, “What might be wrong, unjust or illogical about others for reproving of us?” – a question asked not from any conviction that we must be innocent (the stance of those who use political radicalism as a paranoid way of avoiding self-criticism), but asked because there is more folly and partisanship in institutions, ideas and laws than a naturalistic perspective usually allows us to imagine.

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Edward Burne-Jones, Princess Sabra Led to the Dragon, 1866

On her way back to her Cambridge hotel, Woolf therefore moved outwards from her own hurt to consider the position of women generally; “I pondered what effect poverty has on the mind; and what effect wealth has on the mind and I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out and of the safety and prosperity of the one sex and the poverty and insecurity of the other.” She reflected upon, and felt doubts about, the fashionable views of what a decent woman should be like; namely, a creature who was always “intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught, she sat in it – in short, she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathise always with the minds and wishes of others.”

On returning to London, the questions continued: “Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?” Wanting to “strain off what was personal and accidental in these impressions” of female subjugation, Woolf went to the British Library (a building into which women had been allowed for the previous two decades) and investigated the history of men’s attitudes to women down the ages. She found a stream of extraordinary prejudice and half-baked truth delivered with authority by priests, scientists and philosophers. Women were, it was said, ordained by God to be inferior, they were constitutionally unable to govern or run a business, they were too weak to be doctors, they couldn’t be trusted to handle machinery when they had their periods, nor could they remain impartial during trial cases. Next to her in the library, Woolf observed an aged academic engaged in research. The sight of this timid mollusc prompted thoughts of how much of what men wrote about women might be motivated by sexual fear. She thought also of the casual chauvinism of many of her male friends, who sneeringly referred to any woman who defended her opinions as a ‘feminist’ or a ‘suffragette’. And behind this abuse, Woolf recognised that the problem was money. Women didn’t have freedom, especially freedom of the spirit, because they didn’t control their own income: “Women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry.”

Woolf’s book culminated in a specific, political demand: in order to stand on the same intellectual footing as men, women needed not only dignity, but also equal rights to education, an income of “five hundred pounds a year’ and ‘a room of one’s own.”

5. The Everyday

Woolf also matters not just because of the formal impressive reasons often cited by historians (that she was an innovative early 20th-century novelist who played a major role in the development of the modernist novel and was a central figure in the Bloomsbury Group). She matters because, in her essay, “The Death of the Moth”, she devoted five pages of exquisite prose to her observations of the life and sad end of one of the smallest, least glamorous and most overlooked creatures on the earth: the common moth.

The move was characteristic, because above all else, Woolf was an observer of the everyday. She noticed everything that you and I tend to walk past: the sky, the pain in others’ eyes, the games of children, the stoicism of wives, the pleasures of department stores, the interest of harbours and docks… Emerson (one of her favourite writers) may have been speaking generally, but he captured everything that makes Woolf special when he remarked: “In the work of a writer of genius, we rediscover our own neglected thoughts.”

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Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, 1892-95

Among her great essays, one called “Street Haunting” describes a walk through London at dusk that the author takes in order to buy a pencil. It is full of observations of small overlooked things:

“In the street outside, one catches a word in passing and from a chance phrase fabricates a lifetime. It is about a woman called Kate that they are talking, how ‘I said to her quite straight last night… if you don’t think I’m worth a penny stamp, I said…’ But who Kate is, and to what crisis in their friendship that penny stamp refers, we shall never know…here at the street corner, another page of the volume of life is laid open…”

Woolf raised her sensitivity to the highest art form. She had the confidence and seriousness to use what happened to her – the sensory details of her own life – as basis for the largest ideas.

Woolf was always profound, but never afraid of what others called trivial. She was confident that the ambitions of her mind – to love beauty and engage with big ideas – were completely compatible with an interest in shopping, cakes and hats, subjects on which she wrote with almost unique eloquence and depth. 

Conclusion

Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard bought a small hand-printing press, named it The Hogarth Press, and published books from their dining room—this was their mission to promote voices that heralded something new. They published Woolf’s radical novels and political essays when no one else would; they also produced the first full English edition of Freud’s works.

Woolf spent her life bringing voices to light that would otherwise be swamped by commercialism, by popular bias. She supported conversations that happened in whispers, in insights that she likened to lighthouse beams. “I’ve written you ever so many beautiful letters,” she wrote to her friend and lover Ethel just two months before her death. “Cigarette letters—you know the kind….  These are the letters I write you, about 3 on a wet windy morning….  Extend your lighthouse Beam over this dark spot and tell me what you see.”

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Conversations between friends—or between writer and reader—are what keep the world turning, and safe. Woolf spent more effort sharing her inner vision than almost anyone in history. She granted her readers sovereignty in the right to read. That is, books like hers—which aren’t overly sarcastic, caught up in adventure plots, or safely cradled in convention—are a contract. She’s expecting us to turn down the outside volume, to try on her perspective, to spend energy with subtle sentences. She demands the guts to look hard at the inner lives of people around us. We comfort each other, she said, by hosting each other; by watching who struggles, intuiting what they mean, and sustaining the images that move us.