Cover image for The measure of life : Virginia Woolf's last years
The measure of life : Virginia Woolf's last years
Marder, Herbert.
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Publication Information:
Ithaca [N.Y.] : Cornell University Press, 2000.
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xiii, 418 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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PR6045.O72 Z8152 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
PR6045.O72 Z8152 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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This elegantly written and richly detailed biography tells the story of Virginia Woolf's last ten years, from the creation of her great visionary novel, The Waves, to her suicide in 1941. Herbert Marder looks closely at Woolf's views on totalitarianism and her depictions of Britain under siege to create a remarkable portrait of a mature and renowned writer during a time of rising fascist violence.An awareness of personal danger, Marder says, colored Woolf's actions and consciousness in the years leading up to World War II. She practiced her art with intense dedication and was much admired for her wit and vivacity. But she had previously tried to kill herself, and she asserted her right to die if her manic-depressive illness became intolerable. Waves and water haunted her imagination; visions of drowning recurred in her work. The Measure of Life suggests that Woolf anticipated her suicide, and indeed enacted it symbolically many times before the event. Marder's account of her death emphasizes the importance of her relationship with her doctor and distant cousin, Octavia Wilberforce. Wilberforce's letters about Woolf's last months, including some previously unpublished passages, appear in the appendix.Staying close to the spirit of Woolf's own writing, Marder traces her evolving social consciousness in the 1930s, connecting her growing concern with politics and social history with the facts of her daily life. He stresses her endurance as a working writer, and explores her friendships, her complex relations with servants, and her activities at the Hogarth Press. The Measure of Life illuminates the unspoken quarrels and obscure acts of courage that provide a key, as Woolf herself believed, to the hidden roots of our existence. By letting the reader see events as Virginia Woolf saw them, Marder's compelling narrative captures both her unique comic spirit and her profound seriousness.

Author Notes

Herbert Marder is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Illinois.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Woolf remains the Bloomsbury Revival's most popular biographic draw, but in his latest account of her life, Marder (Feminism and Art: A Study of Virginia Woolf) completely bypasses the more familiar and exhaustively studied first portion of the writer's lifeÄher Victorian childhood, her Edwardian rebellion, and her early, more popular booksÄto concentrate on her last decade. Drawing heavily on Woolf's private writings, Marder (professor emeritus at the University of Illinois) draws a competent portrait from the writing of The Waves to Woolf's suicide during WWIIÄa phase that was marked by changes in her aesthetic and by tremendous fear: "Oh yes," the 49-year-old Woolf wrote in her diary on completing The Waves, "between 50 & 60 I think I shall write out some very singular books, if I live." Marder emphasizes the competing forces of her political engagementÄevident in her novel-essay The Years and in her feminist/antifascist tract Three GuineasÄand her artistic sensibility. Though she remained a committed modernist, he notes, her aesthetic took a radical turn. Indeed, her competing feelingsÄof being both a "detached artist" and an "angry outsider"Ägrew more pronounced during the Depression and the rise of fascism, belying her image as ivory tower intellectual. Tracing Woolf's thoughts as gloomy current events preyed on her spirit, Marder takes readers all the way through her suicide during the worst days of the Battle of Britain. But although he strains for objectivity, his dependence on Woolf's journal entries often leads him to sacrifice biographic insight in favor of Woolf's own version of events. 24 b&w photos. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

For Marder (Feminism and Art: A Study of Virginia Woolf), a motivation to write this book was her "fascination with the way people change under stress." Unlike other recent Woolf biographies (James King's Virginia Woolf, LJ 3/1/95; Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf: A Biography, LJ 5/1/97), Marder's work covers only Woolf's last decade to show how events in the outside world and in her own life led to her suicide in March 1911. A major factor was a dread of recurrences of her bipolar disorder, triggered in part by unresolved issues from her past as well as the war and her equation of Nazism with an "accelerated descent in barbarism." Woolf's ability to keep writing was her defense against depression, but, the author points out, a pattern of references to water and drowning in her works foreshadowed her final act. Relying heavily on Woolf's diaries and letters, Marder allows the reader to see events from her unique perspective. Recommended for academic and public libraries.DDenise J. Stankovics, Rockville P.L., Vernon, CT (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Marder (emer., Univ. of Illinois) provides a detailed portrait of Woolf as mature writer battling the tyranny of childhood as she lives with the threat of rising global tyranny. The book reflects the author's keen understanding of Woolf as an emotionally and socially conflicted woman whose art flourishes even as her life and work during this time are haunted with the possibility of suicide. In Woolf's last decade, her writing reflects concern with social realities, from her petulant Angel in the House to The Years and Three Guineas. Marder reads The Waves, completed before this final period of Woolf's life, as an autobiographical work in which Woolf creates selves that "make [the novel] whole" at the same time that the mood of the novel evokes the destructive forces on the economic and political horizon in Britain from 1929 to 1931. This is literary biography at its best: Marder invokes Woolf's metaphors to tell her story and moves beyond the "cotton wool" (nonbeing) of Woolf's life to find her pattern in sustaining moments of being. Recommended for upper-division undergraduates through faculty. N. Allen; Cabrini College



Chapter One Human Nature Undressed Is there a ratio between art and life, between the refined forms of a writer's work and the daily litter of papers and bills, head colds, dirty dishes, uninvited guests?     As Virginia Woolf said after finishing The Waves , "My ship has sailed on. I toss among empty bottles & bits of toilet paper. O & the servants." Her history reflects a constant struggle against banal interruptions, against the random daily events that interfered with her literary work. She was relatively poor after her father's death and had to earn her living. Sir Leslie Stephen, though distinguished, was only a man of letters, and he didn't leave enough capital for Virginia to live on, at least by upper-middle-class standards. She and Leonard (whom she called her "penniless Jew") worked hard as writers and publishers, putting in long hours six or seven days a week. For many years, till her novels began to sell and the Hogarth Press became profitable, the Woolfs' income was as modest as their way of life. They were intellectuals who had no desire for luxury or grand possessions. Their left-wing politics placed them on the fringes of the privileged upper middle class, but they kept up easy relations with members of the establishment. Virginia's family and friends were the kind of people who had dominated the senior levels of the English civil service, armed forces, and professions since the nineteenth century. According to a 1930 estimate, the governing class was remarkably small--no more than 100,000 people from the higher bourgeoisie, plus a few hundred aristocratic families--out of a total population of 45 million. Virginia belonged to this elite by birth and training. She voted Labour and held heretical opinions, but her cousins were pillars of the establishment--eminent professionals, knighted civil servants, an admiral, a former cabinet minister. Connections. She spoke their language, she was a lady, and her way of life grew out of that soil and reflected the values of her class.     A very exceptional lady, nevertheless. By the late 1920s her outlook had been tempered by long years of intellectual and artistic activity. She had an established reputation as a novelist and critic. Two major novels in the modernist mode, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse , had brought her some fame and even notoriety, but they were too original and complex to attract a large readership. This began to change in October 1928, after the publication of her biographical fantasy, Orlando , a more accessible book that sold surprisingly well. She followed it with her long essay on women and fiction, A Room of One's Own , which also introduced her writing to a wider public.     Virginia Woolf habitually used odd moments at the end of work or before guests arrived to write in her diary. She wrote whatever came into her head, as if she could never get her fill of writing, as if she hoped to get through the artistic barricades to some more essential state. The whole work, with its constant shifts in mood and perspective, has a shimmering unity that often seems to baffle as it enlightens. On March 28, 1929, she wrote in her diary after six weeks of silence. An illness had prevented her from working, and for half the time she had lain in bed, making up the ending of A Room of One's Own in her head--she saw things with startling clarity during her enforced idleness--so that she was able to write it all down in a single excited outpouring when she recovered. A fertile illness, then. She had run into Vanessa that afternoon, she wrote, while shopping on Tottenham Court Road. Holding on to her bundles, she felt her deep kinship with her sister--how they mirrored each other, both "sunk fathoms deep in that wash of reflection in which we both swim about." Vanessa was preparing to leave for four months in the south of France, but the passing of time, Virginia thought, drew them closer together. It was a "potent" spring day, a day when everything was heightened by the bustle and excitement of the streets.     Her mind was exploring "a thousand things as I carried my teapot, gramophone records & stockings under my arm." She thought about her next novel; she would go far out beyond the fanciful satire of Orlando and let herself sink down to unconscious depths. "I am going to face certain things. It is going to be a time of adventure & attack, rather lonely & painful." The new novel would convey a mystical sense of living on several different planes at once. She had been fascinated by a story Vanessa told about a giant moth, literally "half a foot, across," that tapped loudly at her window one night. For Virginia the moth's instinctive action was linked to some hidden dayspring behind the visible world. She imagined that her new book would connect at every point to that mythic realm, so that every object, no matter how ordinary--the pull cord on the window shade and the bowl on the table--would be "saturated" with its light. "Why admit any thing to literature that is not poetry--by which I mean saturated.... The poets succeed by simplifying: practically everything is left out. I want to put practically everything in; yet to saturate." A program that might well have been approved by Proust or Kafka, Lawrence or Joyce.     She went on to ask whether there was something too facile about these literary plans. When she was younger her books "were so many sentences absolutely struck with an axe out of crystal: & now my mind is so impatient, so quick, in some ways so desperate." Desperate perhaps because she was aging, like some of her friends, who seemed increasingly "wrinkled & dusty." Had she deteriorated? No, she was not like the others, she still felt the rush of ideas within her. "Only in myself, I say, forever bubbles this impetuous torrent.... I am more full of shape & colour than ever. I think I am bolder as a writer. I am alarmed by my own cruelty with my friends. Clive, I say, is intolerably dull. Francis is a runaway milk lorry." A sudden confession that preserves her exacting standards while apologizing for them. The exaggerated claim--"only in myself, I say, forever"--hints at some desperation, as well as defiance.     But on this spring day she saw an opening, a doorway, through which she could pass in pursuit of some "strenuous adventure." Sometimes, when she woke in the small hours of the night, she had to brace herself against her terrors by reminding herself that she had been able to conquer them in the past. The decision to write Orlando had come out of these struggles with her demons. "All this money-making," she noted in December 1928, "originated in a spasm of black despair one night at Rodmell." She had vowed to find a way out--and since part of her misery was caused by "the perpetual limitation of everything; no chairs, or beds, no comfort, no beauty; & no freedom to move," she decided there and then to acquire these things. And now in March she could boast that she had made "£1000 all from willing it early one morning. No more poverty I said; & poverty has ceased." Her strengths appeared most clearly at times when she seemed most vulnerable. She deplored her shaky nerves, but she knew her own importance as a writer. She was proud of making money and contributing to the prosperity of the Hogarth Press. Her work was not just scribbling, but had the tangible effect of "keeping 7 people fed & housed.... They live on my words"--these seven distinct, idiosyncratic personalities. Next year, she predicted, they would be living off A Room of One's Own . After that came the new novel, with its metaphysical theme that would demand great concentration; she would "enter a nunnery," banishing worldly interests. The din of the traffic all around her seemed to dismantle these plans, even as she made them. Yes, she would continue as she had been, going out into society and meeting people while she wrestled with her very abstruse theme. She lived on incongruity, and thrived on contrasts--a trait that emerged strikingly in her diary on another March 28, exactly a year later, when she was close to completing a draft of the new novel. "Home from tea with Vanessa and Angelica," she wrote. "A fine spring day. I walked along Oxford St. The buses are strung on a chain. People fight & struggle. Knocking each other off the pavement. Old bareheaded men; a motor car accident; &c. To walk alone in London is the greatest rest." Seemingly a detached observer and also perversely implicated, she saw the random aggression, the accident, the poverty-stricken old men, as if these scenes revealed something she wanted, some truth, some confirmation of a reality she felt within herself. * * * Virginia loaded her diary with curious details and particulars of daily life, having concluded that the most commonplace facts often bring one up against essential questions. In 1930 she recorded a tour of the greenhouses at Waddesdon, one of the Rothschild estates. Taken round by Mr. Johnson, the head gardener, she was repelled by the display of showy flowers. "Cyclamen by the hundred gross. Azaleas massed like military bands.... One flower wd. have given more pleasure than those dozens of grosses." The observation inspired some further reflections about human pursuits and cultivated gardens.     [Virginia's diary, April 13, 1930] There were rows of hydrangeas, mostly a deep blue. Yes, said Mr Johnson, Lord Kitchener came here & asked how we blued them... I said you put things in the earth. He said he did too. But sometimes with all one's care, they shot a bit pink. Miss Alice [de Rothschild] wouldn't have that. If there was a trace of pink there, it wouldnt do. And he showed us a metallic petalled hydrangea. No that wouldnt do for Miss Alice. It struck me, what madness, & how easy to pin ones mind down to the blueness of hydrangeas, & to hypnotise Mr Johnson into thinking only of the blueness of hydrangeas. He used to go to her every evening, for she scarcely saw anyone, & they would talk for two hours about the plants & politics. How easy to go mad over the blueness of hydrangeas & think of nothing else.      Virginia's satirical treatment of the gardener and his obsession--he reminded her of "a nectarine, hard, red, ripe"--is coupled with a sense of familiarity, an awareness of how easy it is "to go mad" over one's garden--or the form of a novel or a political program. How easy, she says with consternation and sympathy, how human, to fall into a hypnotic trance and so pass one's life going round and round one narrow track.     She could poke merciless fun at the gardener's obsession and treat her friends' private lives with irreverent glee. But she had her own domestic compulsions--modest problems she could not treat with her usual humor--for example, the servant question, which harked back to her Victorian childhood and was therefore a serious matter. In spite of their socialist principles, the Woolfs could not do without a cook in residence, though they employed her with mixed feelings. During the years immediately following World War I, Virginia and Leonard had two live-in maids to do their cooking, washing, and cleaning. Paid help was a necessity at a time when there were few labor-saving devices. According to the social historians Noreen Branson and Margot Heinemann, upper-class English social life "depended on the almost unlimited supply of low-paid domestic servants.... Dependence on servants was not confined to the great houses or the very rich; the pattern repeated itself, albeit on a more modest scale, right throughout the upper middle class. You did not normally invite people to a meal at a restaurant, you invited them to lunch or dinner in your home, and the meal would be cooked and served by your domestic staff. You did not normally spend your holidays in hotels; you either owned or rented a house, and stayed there with a staff of servants to look after you while you invited other friends to stay."     This description fits the Woolfs' case precisely. They had two houses--one in London, where they lived most of the year and which also contained the offices of the Hogarth Press; the other a country cottage, where they went during summers and on weekends. Both places were homely and unpretentious. Monk's House in Sussex had belonged to a pub-keeper and at first lacked an indoor toilet, though it had a fine garden. But both houses supported a way of life centered on the giving and receiving of hospitality--frequent invitations to lunch, dinner, weekends in the country--and they were maintained by "low-paid domestic servants."     For Virginia and Leonard, as for most people of their class, problems with servants were one of the irritants of daily life, a minor evil that occasionally blew up into a major disturbance. Domestic help was a staple of polite conversation, like garden pests and the weather. There were long stretches when Virginia's letters to her sister, Vanessa, contained a daily digest of visits to employment agencies and negotations about hours and wages. The problem subsided at times but always recurred. By the mid-1920s the Woolfs, hoping to simplify their lives, were down to one live-in maid, with two or three others coming in as needed to help with the cleaning and the garden. But in the summer of 1929 the servant problem got worse.     Relations between Virginia and Nelly Boxall, who had been with them since the early years of their marriage, were strained. Nelly's moods varied unpredictably, shifting from friendliness to open hostility without warning. She was good-hearted, passionate, mean--and altogether "the most faithful and enraging of her kind." Her presence in the house was a constant distraction; there was no escaping her. Virginia, who was now in her late forties, was deeply immersed in the new novel, her fictional "autobiography," which was proving even more difficult than she had expected. It presented six friends summing up their lives in a series of impersonal soliloquies. The story, she noted, was not about individual selves but about "something in the universe that one's left with." And all through this time she was embroiled in a series of violent quarrels with her cook. It was the sort of ironic contrast that Virginia loved to expose in the lives of others. Nelly Boxall tried her spirit and entered into her emotional life; she tricked her into sympathy and resentment. Virginia's diary, where she had often recorded her anger and frustration with the servants, also reflected her desire to understand their lives. "If I were reading this diary," she noted in December 1929, "if it were a book that came my way, I think I should seize with greed upon the portrait of Nelly, & make a story--perhaps make the whole story revolve round that--it would amuse me. Her character--our efforts to be rid of her--our reconciliations."     A garrulous person with a "funny rather mulish face," Nellie had come to the Woolfs as a young woman in 1916 and was growing middle-aged in their service. In the late 1920s she played the twin roles of trusted old servant and shrewish dependent, alternately pampering Virginia and baiting her. She was an excellent cook, who could be relied on to serve appetizing food when the Woolfs had three dinner parties and two tea parties in eight days. She was also a hypochondriac--constantly preoccupied with her own internal organs and, as Virginia noted, childishly demanding. "Nelly has vacillated between tears & laughter, life & death for the past 10 days; can't feel an ache anywhere without sending for me or L. to assure her that aches are not certainly fatal. Then she cries. Never, never, never will she get over it.... And nothing the matter save what one of us would call an upset inside." Nellie was a natural manipulator who knew how to disarm her mistress, first getting under her skin and then exploiting her guilt. "Oh ma'am I never meant to tire you--dont go on talking now if it tires you--but you wouldnt give me any help. Now Grace had all the help she wants.... For 3 years I've been ill."     Virginia endured Nelly's cantankerous temper and observed her character with curiosity, but there were times when her ironic detachment failed her. During the summer of 1929 the tension at Monk's House, where the rooms were small, grew unbearable. Nelly was sullen, slowly working herself up to a display of temper, in the course of which she would give notice. It was her way of letting off steam, and it had happened so often in the past that Virginia had vowed never, never to believe her again. But this year, when the complaints and threats began, when working days were disrupted by bitter scenes, Virginia was closer than ever before to letting Nelly go permanently. After a violent quarrel, she did ask her to leave the house, to which Nelly replied stridently that nothing could please her more. Virginia was tormented by mixed feelings. She was sickened by the quarrel--it was sordid and ridiculous. It would be "stupendous" to free herself from this degrading relationship, although she hardly knew how to accomplish it after so many years. But if she didn't act now she would be condemned to keep Nelly on forever, and the thought appalled her: "I looked into her little shifting greedy eyes, & saw nothing but malice & spite there ... she doesn't care for me, or for anything." During recent years the Woolfs had spent countless hours pacing up and down, discussing Nelly's ultimatums, her complaints about coal scuttles and working hours. She resented their having guests and let them know it. She felt overworked and unappreciated. She was jealous. Virginia remarked that these imbroglios were "worse than operations for cancer." And yet, two days after ordering Nelly out of the house, she noted with relief that they had made peace again, she was staying. "Heaven be praised; it is all over & calm & settled." The thought of Nelly being cast out, with nowhere to go and jobs hard to find, was too painful.     Both women were highly emotional, but in different ways, divided as much by temperamental as by class differences--and living side by side in such close quarters--the mistress, all speed and remoteness, vainly trying to penetrate the maid's stubborn immovability, and both of them baffled by a certain mutual fascination. After one of their quarrels Nelly had said: "I am too fond of you ever to be happy with anyone else," which was the greatest compliment possible. This relationship gave Virginia her most intimate contact with a member of the lower classes since her youth, when the family cook, Sophia Farrell, had been a powerful presence in her life. The relationship allowed her to imagine her own prehistory. Nelly represented the self "in a state of nature; untrained; uneducated, to me almost incredibly without the power of analysis or logic; so that one sees a human mind wriggling undressed--which is interesting; & then, in the midst of one's horror at the loathesome spectacle, one is surprised by the goodness of human nature, undressed; & it is more impressive because of its undress." Nelly's psychology baffled her; she was appallingly spiteful one moment and then, ignoring the fact that she had been fired, bicycled miles to fetch cream for their dinner, acting out of genuine good nature, because Mr. and Mrs. Woolf must not suffer.     Their irrational quarrels were rooted in something beyond personal differences. Virginia thought that the fault lay in the system, which allowed the uneducated Nelly to let herself into their lives, to become dependent on them as if she were part of the family, when they were culturally so different. It was a version of the colonial dilemma. Like the Europeanized "native," Nelly had lost her identity; she had become a "mongrel," a displaced person without roots anywhere. Virginia and Leonard were paying for the sins of previous generations, sweeping up a "rubbish heap" left by their Victorian parents. Unfortunately, Virginia's analysis didn't make it any easier when she went into the kitchen and found Nelly sulking. She longed to be treated as an employer, not a friend. The spiteful scenes would happen again, the cycle of quarrels and reconciliations. But their ties were strong, and she suspected that they would last a lifetime, feeling half pleased that parting was so much harder than she had expected it to be.     Virginia's uneasy bonding with Nelly and her other servants took place against a background of economic inequality and hardship for the working classes. Having for a long time spent part of each year in Rodmell, Virginia knew something about rural poverty, and at times the ugliness came close. One day in June 1929, after visiting a sad-eyed young mother in the village, she lamented that "incubus of injustice," the struggle to survive when there was barely enough money for food. It was intolerable--she understood the desire to rebel, imagined wanting to do something violent if she were in the young woman's place. "Annie Thompsett & her baby live on x 15/a week. I throw away 13/- on cigarettes, chocolates, & bus fares. She was eating rice pudding by the baby's cradle when I came in." Virginia hired Annie to help her with occasional cleaning and cooking. A year later, when Annie was evicted from her home on short notice, the Woolfs bought a nearby cottage and let her live there in return for doing their housework on a regular basis.     Ironically, the crash of 1929, which caused massive unemployment and hunger in the north of England, hardly touched well-to-do upper-class people in London. In that year Virginia and Leonard were becoming affluent for the first time in their lives, and she had earned almost a cabinet minister's salary. The Hogarth Press prospered; Virginia joked that they were "hauling in money like pilchards from a net." The appearance of Orlando and A Room of One's Own had secured her position. From here on she was pretty sure of being well paid for anything she wrote. This was the context in which she had boasted about making £1,000 merely by willing it early one morning. The yearly wage of a skilled worker at this time was about £150.     Virginia's grudging indulgence of Nelly grew out of her guilty conscience. As she wrote her new friend, Ethel Smyth, in 1930, she was infuriated by servants and quite unable to be ruthless when dealing with them face to face: "They are so weakly and devoid of all support, and one sees their poor fluttering lives as one talks." The thought of Nelly made her savage with rage against her own class for their ineptitude as governors--for "having let grow on our shoulders such a cancer, such a growth, such a disease as the poor are." The shrillness of her tone suggests she was aware of being on morally questionable ground--blaming the system while enjoying its benefits. It was a burden that she resented and expiated daily.     In addition to her moral distaste, Virginia's vehemence had another, less obvious cause. She lived very close to a psychological borderline; she was a manic-depressive who had kept her illness in check for years but always knew it could return. When she was well, her energy was remarkable, but she had recurring minor breakdowns--intense headaches combined with fits of gloom, which sent her to bed for days and sometimes weeks. Shortly after her marriage, in 1913, she had swallowed a huge dose of Veronal and lain in a coma all night, coming within a hairsbreadth of dying.     Her fame as a novelist and a woman of letters had partly eclipsed the memory of her suicide attempt--it was an old story, sixteen years had gone by since then. But she still lived close to the edge; she could blunder into an emotional whirlpool and be sucked under for good. That possibility, which was often on her mind, influenced her attitude toward practical matters like money and servants. She had written Orlando with the conscious aim of ending her financial insecurity and making domestic life more gracious, hoping by those means to resist depression. In spite of her book's success, she still found herself fighting off suicidal thoughts at three in the morning. She had described her terrors in 1926, while she was writing the last pages of To the Lighthouse . She woke with the sensation of being on a rack: "physically like a painful wave swelling about the heart--tossing me up. I'm unhappy unhappy! Down--God, I wish I were dead." Comparing herself to Vanessa, whose life was so full, who had her children to justify her, she felt worthless--a vain, incompetent chatterer whom people laughed at. "Failure failure. (The wave rises). Oh they laughed at my taste in green paint! Wave crashes. I wish I were dead! I've only a few years to live I hope." The urgency of the waves passing through her body, draining her like a physical seizure, is partly undercut by the absurd reference to her taste in green paint--a typical, though perhaps unintended, note of satire. But the pain is dominant. The episode left Virginia with a vision of the sea and waves breaking on the shore, supplying a major motif of the new novel, which she ultimately called The Waves . In June 1929 some doubts about her writing made her reflect again that she lived at the edge of a "great lake of melancholy" into which she might pitch and be drowned at any moment; only her work kept her afloat. "Lord, how deep it is.... Directly I stop working I feel that I am sinking down, down. And as usual, I feel that if I sink further I shall reach the truth. That is the only mitigation; a kind of nobility. Solemnity. I shall make myself face the fact that there is nothing--nothing for any of us. Work, reading, writing are all disguises; & relations with people. Yes, even having children would be useless." The seductiveness of those depths, which made them all the more terrifying, is clear from the qualities she encounters there: "nobility," "solemnity." She did not know whether she really wished to escape her "glooms"--they offered a sterner truth, a desolate reward that tempted her, and she resolved to defend herself by bringing along more work than she could possibly get done when she left for her summer holiday in July. * * * Work was her lifeline; she concentrated on the difficulty of writing, screwing her brain, as she worded it, "tight into a ball," until she came to the verge of extinction (again, her own word)--it took a desperate need, or a masochistic obsession, to drive her on. Sometimes she wondered why she inflicted so much pain on herself. An appetite for the highs?--release of sunbursts in her brain, a flare in which she saw colors separate and run together, till the brilliance overloaded? Recurring struggles to maintain her balance, reversals--black "caverns of gloom and horror open round me"--and then bursts of intoxicating euphoria.     "What is called a reason for living," says Camus, "is also an excellent reason for dying." Virginia tested herself every morning with a dose of strenuous reality. She could have made money by writing popular fiction, but she wanted to be used up by a morning's writing, consumed by her work, so that, as she said of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse , there would be "scarcely a shell of herself left for her to know herself by." It was a daily trial--many small deaths to deflect her interest in the big one, trading one obsession for another. As long as she accepted the self-prescribed "effort and anguish," she tricked the wild other self that could fasten really dangerous screws on her. She survived by absorbing regular doses of pain.     There was the ordeal of bringing herself to the highest tension, the screw of creation, every morning, keeping the devil down, the terrors, keeping this balance for almost forty years--a mental economy dating back to her youth. When she finished a book she suffered. When the reviews came in she suffered again, naked. A hostile review was dangerous, threatening her belief in the work and her system for survival. After each book she figured a mental balance sheet of favorable and unfavorable judgments, and began it all over again--the grind, the marshaling of ideas.     A high level of daily pain, then, combined with creative excitement and occasional ecstasy--which can leave one depleted, but also, as Virginia said, open to gaiety and recklessness. "I always remember the saying that at one's lowest ebb one is nearest a true vision. I think perhaps 9 people out of ten never get a day in the year of such happiness as I have almost constantly"--joy that she shared with her friends and loved ones, who knew her as the most delightful of companions, "a creature of laughter and movement," the novelist Elizabeth Bowen called her. When she emerged into the light of common day she often felt elated just to be there--a vigorous woman at the height of her powers, who was fascinated by the sights and sounds she encountered on her long, rambling walks through London, the scenes at every corner, which yielded "the greatest rest." The same visceral response to the city fills the opening episode of Mrs. Dalloway , where Clarissa Dalloway walks across St. James's Park to buy flowers, drinking in the atmosphere, musing on a hundred and one things, and confessing as she stands at the curb while the taxicabs pass, that she has a perpetual sense "of being out, far out to sea and alone"--which, if anything, heightens the pleasure of walking toward crowded Bond Street on this sunny morning. Copyright (c) 2000 Cornell University. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Illustrationsp. xi
Editorial Notep. xiii
Prelude: The Shapes a Mind Holdsp. 1
1 Human Nature Undressedp. 13
2 A Taste of Saltp. 26
3 Lady Rosebery's Partyp. 43
4 God's Fistp. 63
5 Ghosts: The Empty Roomp. 77
6 Ghosts: From the Acropolisp. 89
7 Anonymity and Rhythmp. 102
8 The Firing of Nelly Boxallp. 124
9 Acts in a Playp. 147
10 On Being Despisedp. 162
11 Slow Motion: The Yearsp. 190
12 An Inch of the Pattern: The Yearsp. 211
13 Antigone's Daughtersp. 231
14 A Purple Backgroundp. 253
15 To the Altarp. 270
16 Weeping Williep. 291
17 Oblivion and Waterp. 312
18 Time Passesp. 333
Appendix The Wilberforce Lettersp. 347
Sourcesp. 365
Bibliographyp. 399
Acknowledgmentsp. 407
Indexp. 411