Virginia Woolf

Asheham Press recommends Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf.

Biography Notes:

Born Adele Virginia Stephen (January 25, 1882 – March 28,1941), she went on to become the renown writer, diarist, essayist, editor, and publisher – Virginia Woolf.

I began studying Woolf in the early 90s. I came to her through her biography rather than through her literature. Truth be told, her life (and life of the mind) is far more interesting than her books of fiction. Yet, her fiction is informed by her life and her reflections upon it. As a child, Virginia was the victim of sexual abuse from her one half-brothers. Then later in adolescence again by the eldest half-brother. This had lasting affects on her which has been speculated as causing her emotional and mental problems. Her parents, talented as they were, were self-centered if not unhealthy narcissists. Regardless, she loved both her parents and expressed this through various novels and in this quote from 1907:

“Beautiful often, even to our eyes, were their gestures, their glances of pure and unutterable delight in each other.”

A rapid series of untimely family deaths affected Virgina Woolf in such a way to cause her first mental breakdown at age 13. Her mother died in 1895, her step-sister Stella in 1897. In 1904 her father died, and then her beloved brother Toby died in 1906. It was shortly after her father’s death that her older step-brother George Duckworth, bullied and sexually abused Virginia.

A true survivor, Virginia triumphed in many ways through her writing, publishing, speaking and manifold relationships. Funny and an astute observer of human behavior, kindred spirit is what Woolf means to me. But more, her insights to life, death, suffering, disease, loneliness, art and love. Her only autobiographical work, Moments of Being, was published after her death. A series of five pieces, it reveals a woman of considerable range and introspection. This is Woolf at her finest, in her own authentic style. Originally a manuscript she called, A Sketch of the Past, Woolf skates along the ice of her life and then before the reader knows it dives deep beneath the surface of the blue steel curtain to explore the depths.

What we find is Woolf exploring the nature of consciousness. Woolf astonishes when she says, ” From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is a hidden pattern; that we – I mean all human beings- are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.” She wrote of her ‘philosophy: ‘ it will not bear arguing about; it is irrational’.

She comments on her writing as the means of self-discovery, ” But whatever the reason may be, I find that scene making is my natural way of marking the past. A scene always comes to the top; arranged; representative. This confirms me in my instinctive notion–it is irrational; it will not stand argument–that we are sealed vessels afloat upon what it is convenient to call reality; at some moments, without reason, without an effort, the sealing matter cracks; in floods reality; that is a scene…”

In those scenes she writes of in her fiction, are recurring rhythms, patterns, symbols, and images that weave a pattern and are expressed through her stream of consciousness writing style. Even though she was an editorial taskmaster of her own work, she allowed her inner self to inform her writing. You cannot mistake her writing for someone else’s. She would open the floodgates and let it all spill out on the page. This takes great courage to reveal one’s self and it took its toll on her via many bouts of depression. But although her emotional state was fragile, her mind was genius and she shared with us all the aspects of being human.

Virginia Woolf was not all seriousness or introspection. She was beloved by her nephews and nieces, and known to have a great sense of humor. While she chose not to have children, she was not wanting for love. She found it with her husband Leonard, her lover-friend Vita Sackville-West, her close associates, the Strachys, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry — and her beloved older sister, Vanessa Bell.

No life is perfect. All lives are unpredictable. We all suffer and we all experience triumphs. Life is after all, an adventure. Woolf honored her adventure, all aspects of it, through her writing. She knew the past informs our present. She looked and dared to examine what was behind the cotton wool. What she found is a gift to us all.

I hope people do not judge her harshly for taking her own life. Her fragile emotional state was severely impacted by the frequent bombings around her home by the Germans in 1941. She simply could not endure sliding into another depressive state. Fact was, she and Leonard had been informed that they were on a list of persons to be captured once the German army invaded England. A person who has been a victim of abuse finds the idea of being apprehended, imprisoned against ones will, to be very frightening. One must contemplate the reality of the situation. Her husband, a non-practicing Jew and she, a known feminist were known throughout Europe.

“Woolf clipped many small newspaper stories, some no more than a few paragraphs. One from 1935 describes a young woman in Nazi Germany who is arrested and charged with “insulting and slandering the state and Nazi movement.” Her crime? She thought it was OK to do business with Jews, and said the “thorn of hatred” had been driven deep enough.”

“Another describes how the Germans were rewriting their history to conform with Nazi ideology.” (CSU Newsline)

“The Woolfs’ house was bombed in London during the blitz. They had fled London and were in their country home in Sussex when their house was bombed.” Hitler’s own extreme narcissism became their reality, as it did for the world. She knew the beast and knew she could not cope with it.

I think of her choice and feel only compassion. Did she do the right thing, the moral thing? I have my own opinion. I will say however, I could not see her interned at some horrible concentration camp.

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