Virginia Woolf was obsessed with the underworld of human behavior, the secret minutiae which seethed beneath the humdrum mise en scène surface appearance. She delighted in expanding the moment as multiple viewpoints simultaneously presented as raw images, with all their past associations, rather than relying solely on narrative. And she had great fun pulling it off.
Her family line included an aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, the groundbreaking Pre-Raphelite photographer, and a stepmother who was the daughter of William Thackeray. Her summers at St. Ives in Cornwall inspired her to write To the Lighthouse. The successive deaths of her mother, half-sister, and father resulted in nervous breakdowns, which plagued her the rest of her life.
With vision sharp as a hawk she roamed that wilderness where the human interfaces with the elemental, (and yet so fragile, so British at other times).
“Where was I? What has it all been about? A tree? A river? The Downs? Whitaker’s Almanac? The fields of asphodel? I can’t remember a thing. Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing…There is a vast upheaval of matter…Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail.“ Mark on the Wall
In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf began to really explore human consciousness, and in so doing, began to clarify a woman’s identity in the world. The action takes place on a single day in June, jumping between multiple characters, with monologue, soliloquy and description, her pioneering stream of consciousness technique. Time is an indifferent motion and only makes sense within the feelings of each person.
A male character makes this confession to himself: “… at the age of fifty three, one scarcely needed prople anymore. Life itself,every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun…was enough.”
Clarissa Dalloway would agree, but would also remind people, “Remember my party!” for she was a connector and relished this role with her parties as somehow giving solidity to her life and a sense of control: “What did it mean to her, this thing called life? …what people said, how superficial, how fragmentary they are!…if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create. ..anyhow it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano.”
“When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless. And to everybody there was always this sense of unlimited resources…our apparitions, the things you know us by, are simply childish. Beneath it is all dark…unfathomably deep ; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by.” To the Lighthouse
These moments were her her evidence, her tools that kept her constantly amazed and bewildered, and she possessed the gift of revealing them like no one else.
“The great revelation had never come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches in the dark” To the Lighthouse
The short middle section of To the Lighthouse, “Time Passes,” contains a remarkable account of the Ramsey house sans anything human, except for the cleaning lady, Mrs.McNab’s occasional visit; the years go by and chaos reigns. Woolf relishes this descent into the primal forces which have their day when human beings abandon a structure:
“Night after night, summer and winter the torment of storms, the arrow like stillness of fine weather, held their court without interference. Listening (had there been anyone to listen) from the upper rooms of the empty house only gigantic chaos streaked with lightning could have been heard tumbling and tossing, as the wind and waves disported themselves. Like amorphous bulks of leviathans whose brows are pierced by no light of reason, and mounted one on top of another and lunged and plunged in the darkness or the daylight (for night and day, month and year ran shapelessly together) in idiot games until it seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wanton lust aimlessly by itself.”
Then, after years of absence the summer guests return, but the matriarch of the house had died, along with her son in the war and a daughter in childbirth. “You find us much changed,” warned the widower, Mr. Ramsey, constantly prowling about in half rage, half grief. They were trying to get a visit to the lighthouse going, but without the steadying presence of Mrs Ramsey they were all impotent to carry it out.
“What does one send to the lighthouse? What does one do?Why is one sitting here, after all.” Lily Briscoe, the maidenly painter thought. … “anything might happen…as if the link that bound things together was broken. How aimless it was, how chaotic…Mrs. Ramsey dead, Andrew killed; Prue dead too.”
Nothing was the same and Woolf placed them at the mercy of the elements and memories, and they were helpless pawns without Mrs Ramsey, who had known the house intimately, who was able to guide her uncertain children and fragile summer guests through whatever might happen. Now the balance was off, emotions ran helter-skelter, things too big to make sense of, for they felt the push of something they had no name for, and floundered.
In A Room of One’s Own, she asked the basic questions of her time and place:
“Why do men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?”
In Elizabethan times there was simply no possibility of a female Shakespeare because the required conditions to nurture such a woman did not exist. Hardly out of the nursery, a girl was married and soon had a gaggle of children to look after, with unending domestic duties.
Pity the woman who actually made the attempt: “Any woman with a great gift would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself,…ended her days feared and mocked at…would have been so thwarted and hindered, so tortured by her own contrary instincts…that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty…No girl could have walked to London and stood at a stage door and forced her way into the presence of actor-managers without doing herself a violence and suffering an anguish.”
She envisions the future: ”In a hundred years women will cease to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all activities and all exertions that were once denied them.”
In spite of her lamenting the smothering injustices that women had endured, her authorial eye picks out the difference between how Jane Austen and Emily Bronte chose to handle their limitations:
“One might say that the woman who wrote those pages(Bronte) had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over…one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?”
I’m not sure if I entirely agree with Woolf here, for it is exactly Bronte’s over the top Gothic anguish that keeps me reading at times.But she gets back to the bigger picture: “She knew, no one better, how enormously her genius would have profited…if experience and intercourse and travel had been granted her. But they were not granted, they were withheld.”
She declared that a true writer/artist must be androgynous, creatively speaking so as to encompass all possibilities, and Virginia is always speaking for artists first, and then women out of necessity, because very few other were.
We are obligated to take notice, not only because we have mothers, sisters, wives and daughters, but because like all oppressed people whose crime was a thing they had no control over, but because it was done with a pompous superiority, which had not a whit of fact behind it, and from a position of power, which incriminates the perpetrator as a common schoolyard bully.
She has much praise for Austen and Bronte in light of their defiance:
“But how impossible it must have been for them not to budge either to the right or to the left. What genius, what integrity it must have required in face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it and Emily Bronte. It is another feather, perhaps the finest, in their caps. They wrote as women write not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the admonitions of the pedagogue—write this, think that.”
“Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can sit upon the freedom of my mind.” A Room of One’s Own
Woolf rightly observed that there was no aid to be gained from imitating male authors-their style was unsuited to a woman’s style. Both Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot tripped over themselves in the attempt. But as Woolf so proudly observes, “Jane Austen looked at it and laughed at it and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it.”
She goes on to say that alone among literary genres, the novel was still young and pliant enough to be adaptable to a woman’s particular modes of expression
“We do know that great knowledge of the world is not necessary for great art. The premium mobile must be genius itself. Jane Austen knew nobody and George Sand knew everybody, and Jane Austen was by far the greater and there you have it.“ Louis Kronenberger
Woolf concludes that in another century, if women get the five hundred a year and their own space, summon up their courage to escape the sitting room and write about people in relation to reality, realize they must go it alone, then, …”the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down..”
And so she has. But there is still an incline to her path, and in some places blatant obstacles, so we can be happy, but we cannot rest.
Virginia Woolf was human like the rest of us, endured her frailties as best she could, but the woman had the touch of an angel when she picked up a pen and saw things that none of us had seen before, dove into the the human psyche and exposed the grand complexity of our deep desires and hidden fears and showed that each one of us is capable of powerful observations and great breadth of vision, if we would only unshackle our feelings.
The incandescence that allowed her genius to flourish, in the end, became unmanageable, and she lost control. The exquisite sensitivity of her literary mind dwelled in the same brain as the instability, which became more intense as the years passed, and the temptation to relate the two is strong.
We are the losers, but thank the gods she left so much behind. I would match Virginia Woolf pound for pound, word for word with any author on earth. Take her hand, let her lead you through the labyrinths of human imagination and she will show you what lies behind the curtains of the astonishing theater of human existence.
Here are some clips from a nicely done film version(1983) of TTL, featuring a young Kenneth Branagh. Nancy dines with, and then teases the pompous Mr. Tansley in the first two scenes, then shares her dreams with Lily Briscoe, the melancholy artist, while on the beach.