Upon the Waters
By Gabriel Blanchard
In her narrative techniques and personal ideals, Woolf was emblematic of all of twentieth-century literature.
It has been pointed out (sometimes even as a criticism) that the CLT Author Bank lists an abundance of Inklings; C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and arguably Dorothy Sayers are examples. Today, we close with the third profile in sequence of a figure from a circle known as the Bloomsbury Group, who formed a kind of pendant to the Inklings. Both groups were literary; but where the Inklings were academics centered in Oxford with an imaginative, chivalric bent, the authors of Bloomsbury were a London-based group, associated with literary Modernism and active in political causes like socialism and pacifism. John Maynard Keynes was more practically inclined than many of the others, and Alfred North Whitehead was more at Bloomsbury’s outskirts (as was the American-born T. S. Eliot), but Virginia Woolf was right at the heart of it.
She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882, into a family which formed a collection of late-Victorian eccentricity, especially for its atheistic leanings; both parents had children from prior marriages, and Virginia grew up as the next-youngest of six. For much of her childhood the family lived in Cornwall, in the extreme southwest of England, and the presence and sounds of the sea loom in much of her work. The children were educated fairly conventionally: that is, the boys were sent to boarding schools while the girls were taught at home. Virginia’s brother Thoby attended Trinity College at Cambridge University; it was from his circle of friends that the Bloomsbury Group initially took shape, and among whom Virginia met Leonard Woolf, whose proposal of marriage—after some hesitations—she accepted in 1912. The couple founded Hogarth Press together, which published many avant-garde Modernist authors, including the first bound edition in the UK of T. S. Eliot’s most lauded poem, “The Waste Land.”
Modernism is a hard phenomenon to define; after a few minutes reading about its many contradictory expressions, one is tempted to reach for the sarcastic definition of Postmodernism as “Anything that happened after 1945 that felt new at the time.” A reliable rule is that artistic Modernism, regardless of which art is concerned, reacts against realism. Or at least, it reacts against something that calls itself realism: the “realistic” art of the Victorian period was in truth governed by rigid conventions (which the Pre-Raphaëlites had reacted against in their own way, decades before Bloomsbury). Abstraction, irony, and parody are all common techniques in Modernism, and it tends to have a self-conscious quality—sometimes embodied in the technique of stream-of-consciousness narration, of which Virginia Woolf is an important early exemplar—that some audiences find repellent and others engaging.
Woolf wrote both fiction and nonfiction, the former consisting in novels and short stories and the latter principally in essays. Besides the stream-of-consciousness perspective already mentioned, her fiction makes interesting use of time as a narrative device. Two of her novels, To the Lighthouse and The Years, take place on individual days but space them years or decades apart, thus functioning a little like portraits; The Years, which focused on the gradual change of manners and mores in the fictional Pargiter family from the 1880s to the 1930s, was especially popular, and was published in a pocket edition for soldiers during the Second World War. A third, the fantastical novel Orlando: A Biography, is set across three centuries, centering on the character of a young Elizabethan nobleman who, due to unclear causes, lives for at least three hundred years, and moreover changes from a man into a woman early on, thus gaining a unique vantage point from which to view English literature and literary history. (The book is also in part a satiric portrait of Vita Sackville-West, a fellow writer and gardener with whom she had an affair for many years.)
Woolf’s nonfiction writing focused largely on contemporary political and social causes. Her best-known work in this field is doubtlessly A Room of One’s Own. Based on two lectures she delivered at women’s colleges at Cambridge, the book asserts that women, like men, need domestic and financial independence—the titular “room of one’s own”—in order to fulfill their creative impulses, and that the prior history of society had very largely stifled women by allotting them only maternal duties. She spends part of the essay on a thought experiment, imagining Judith, a sister of William Shakespeare, his equal in native talent but not in liberty to develop it, and therefore weighed down and decayed by what should have been a delight. Her later work Three Guineas, which was also among her last, touched on the theme of women’s autonomy as well, this time in the light of a second, imminent world war and the fascist movements that brought it about.
Woolf had struggle extensively with poor mental health—it is now believed that she probably had bipolar disorder, which was poorly understood and scarcely treatable at the time—and attempted suicide on a few occasions. The coming of the war, and the destruction of her home in London during the Blitz, seem to have been among the factors that finally broke her spirit. In the spring of 1941, Woolf filled her coat pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse. Before she left, she wrote in her farewell note to her husband:
You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. … What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it.
Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance author and the editor at large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
Thank you for reading the Journal. If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like some of our other profiles of figures from the CLT Author Bank, including Origen, the “Pearl” poet, Charles Montesquieu, Zora Neale Hurston, and many more.
Published on 24h July, 2023. Page image of Godrevy Lighthouse off the coast of Cornwall, near St. Ives, where the Stephen family lived (source).