Cover image for Who's afraid of Leonard Woolf? : a case for the sanity of Virginia Woolf
Who's afraid of Leonard Woolf? : a case for the sanity of Virginia Woolf
Coates, Irene, 1925-
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Soho Press, 2000.

Physical Description:
458 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
General Note:
"First published in Australia by Brandl & Sclesinger Pty Ltd in 1998"--T.p. verso.
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PR6045.O72 Z5785 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Was Virginia Woolf mad and suicidal, or betrayed and broken to the point of taking her own life? Irene Coates argues the latter case and points to Leonard Woolf as the traitorous figure who first married Virginia, then abandoned her. With forensic precision, she meticulously and brilliantly dissects the amazingly charged relationship between the two people who were at the heart of the Bloomsbury Group. The conclusion Coates comes to is stunning, laying at Leonard Woolf's feet the responsibility for slowly undoing his wife with his pessimism, superiority, repression, and hypercritical attitude, all the while holding himself out to be the selfless husband caring for a mad genius of a wife.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Virginia Woolf is one of the most analyzed writers of all time, but one key aspect of her life has remained in shadow, her husband. Leonard has been all but canonized as a saint who sacrificed his own happiness to enable his mad genius wife to write, a simplistic tale Coates wholeheartedly rejects. She presents her case against Leonard in a forcefully written, meticulously argued, adroitly supported, and curiously emotional narrative, in which she chronicles a power struggle between an ambitious, manipulative, and selfish man whose books went nowhere, and a fluently creative, generous, and life-loving woman whose writing revolutionized fiction and challenged the patriarchal paradigm. As Coates dissects Leonard's temperament and chronicles his life, she presents compelling evidence that he used Virginia's alleged madness as an excuse to dominate her; lived off her money while keeping her cash-poor; conducted affairs, and, in her riskiest claim, ultimately drove her to suicide. This is an electrifying read. Coates' eloquent and insightful testimony is veracious, and the Virginia who steps off these heated pages is an infinitely stronger and more convincing figure than has been enshrined by earlier commentators. But Coates' speculation, calculated to incite objections, does run to extremes. Nonetheless, Coates is to be commended for rejecting orthodoxy, revisiting Virginia's endlessly revealing and relevant writings, and seeking the truth. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Although Leonard Woolf's reputation has fluctuated even more than that of his wife, Virginia, no biographer has shown as much animus toward him as Australian poet and playwright Coates (Poems of Change; Sweet Fanny Adams, etc.) in this paranoid and disappointing book. In the authorized biography of Virginia by her nephew Quentin Bell, Leonard is portrayed as a selflessly devoted helpmate, but in Hermione Lee's recent, authoritative life, he comes across as an overly serious control freak. For Coates, he is a villain out of a George du Maurier thriller: a domineering hypocrite who jealously oppresses his artist wife until he can engineer her suicide. Coates does not have any new evidence for this theory, only her obsessive readings of the familiar documents, diaries and letters, and a penchant for melodrama. Early on in the Woolfs' marriage (they wed in 1912), Coates compares Leonard to "a parasite" and suggests that he subconsciously set up Virginia's first suicide attempt in 1913 by leaving her sleeping pills conveniently at hand. When Virginia succeeds in killing herself in 1941, Coates imagines Leonard scheming to get rid of her out of envy of her artistic accomplishments and greed for her royalties, going so far as to picture him dictating her last suicide note. This American edition's misleading subtitle (the subtitle of the original Australian edition was "Getting Away with Murder") implies that Coates actually offers an assessment of Virginia's mental condition. Unfortunately, her evidence amounts only to clichd assertions about Virginia's creativity being a magnificent by-product of her lapses into madness "from which she brought back insights that have inspired her greatest books." Even devotees of Woolf's writings, who may seek this out, will find it hard to follow Coates fully into her portrait of Leonard as a fiend. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

As the volumes of Virginia Woolf scholarship continue to multiply, literary detectives are beginning to grasp at straws. Recent studies have blamed the tragic circumstances of Woolf's life on childhood trauma and sexual abuse (Peter Dally's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, LJ 11/1/99) and even eating disorders (Allie Glenny's Ravenous Identity, LJ 2/1/00). Given that Woolf herself left behind perhaps one of the most complete and insightful diaries ever written by a novelist, all the fuss seems speculative at best, condescending at worst. The latest twist is Coates's theory that Leonard Woolf was responsible for his wife's insanity and suicide. Coates, a playwright, arrogantly presumes to know why Woolf behaved the way she did, writing, for instance, with cloying certainty: "Mental breakdown was her method of freeing herself from other people's attitudes." Leonard's apologists, Coates notes, credit him with his unflinching support of his wife during 30 years of creativity interspersed with bouts of terrifying madness (posthumously diagnosed as manic depression). Coates has Leonard "gaslighting" Virginia (driving her insane), disregarding the fact that she suffered her first breakdown years before she met Leonard. Buy only for larger literature collections. In contrast, the newest addition to the excellent "Penguin Lives" series is by Nicholson (Portrait of a Marriage), the son of Vita Sackville-West, one of Woolf's lovers. In this beautifully written literary biography, Nicholson interweaves childhood memories of time spent with Woolf with in-depth analyses of her novels, showing, for instance, how he may have been a model for the character of James in Mrs. Dalloway. While Nicholson's personal stake in Woolf's memory lends an intimate quality to his portrait, he does not allow his fond recollections to cloud his view of his subject's troubled life. He describes Leonard as an imperfect man perpetually walking on eggshells. Nicholson does what Coates does not: pay tribute to a great artist by showing that her work gave her whatever fleeting peace she may have experienced in her lifetime: "Pain was relieved, and pleasure doubled, by recording it." His effort is highly recommended for all libraries. [Nicholson's work was previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/00.]DDiane Gardner Premo, Rochester P.L., NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



VIRGINIA'S NEED FOR SUPPORT `Hold yourself straight, my little Goat.' These were her mother's last words to the thirteen-year-old Virginia Stephen before she died of rheumatic fever at the age of forty-nine, having borne three children to her first husband Herbert Duckworth and then, after his death and a lengthy period of grief, a further four children to Leslie Stephen: writer, biographer and a most demanding husband and father. Altogether there were eight children in their large London house since Leslie, too, had been previously married and was a widower with one daughter, Laura. Virginia was the second to youngest child of the entire brood. She did not hold herself straight. All her life, she needed someone to support her: someone with an extraordinary capacity for loyalty and concern for her welfare, who would be rewarded by the quality of her mind - sensitive, bright, original. There was also a mordant side to her personality, to which was given various animal names: during her childhood she was Goat, and from this Billy; later, she called her other self a number of different names, such as the apes, Mandrill, and, with her friend Vita Sackville-West, Potto. Virginia began to perceive her world over a hundred years ago, at the end of the nineteenth century. That time may seem distant to us, who have entered the twenty-first. Yet her work continues to live, her books are in print and she is surrounded by an ever-growing penumbra of commentators. We need to perform an act of imagination to realise that Virginia had to fight hard for her very survival in that large family home where she was born at Number 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington. London, on 25 January, 1882. My daughter and I went and stood outside this solid, tall house which is in a cul de sac. As we mentally placed the Stephen family and their seven live-in servants behind the windows, from basement to attic, one of the windows opened and a scroll of paper dropped to the pavement: it was a photostat copy of an article by Richard Brunner on some of the famous who had lived in Hyde Park Gate, including Sir Leslie Stephen of No. 22, `the preeminent 19th-century man of English letters. His two daughters, Virginia and Vanessa (better known as Virginia Woolf, the novelist, and Vanessa Bell, the painter) were born here.' After a brief wave to the now-shut window we drove away, Sophia both impressed and amused at this evidence of living history. In that great London house the four younger children, Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian, formed a separate group from their older half-brothers and sisters. Within this group Virginia tried to keep up with her elder sister Vanessa and brother Thoby, while distancing herself from Adrian, the baby of the family. During their years in the nursery Vanessa and Thoby found a way of infuriating Virginia. In his authorised biography of Virginia, Quentin Bell says: "There was some technique for making her turn `purple with rage'. What it was we do not know, but Thoby and Vanessa knew and there were terrible occasions when she did turn a colour which her sister described as `the most lovely flaming red'. It would be interesting to know how this was done, still more interesting to know whether, as Vanessa surmised, these paroxysms were not wholly painful to Virginia herself." [1] Here we get a glimpse of Vanessa and Thoby tormenting their younger sister. We don't know what they did to upset her so profoundly but we can be sure that they were repulsing her need to be close to them. We should not assume that this rejection was anything but extremely painful to Virginia who, being younger and weaker, must have done all she could to minimise the damage so that they would once more accept her. If Vanessa remembered these occasions as not being `wholly painful' to her sister, then we can assume that she herself was ambivalent. Indeed, it was probably Vanessa's game, perhaps played to keep control when she feared Thoby was getting too close to Virginia. We can guess this because a similar game was played after Vanessa married Clive Bell, with Clive taking the place of Thoby. Virginia needed to relate closely to her sister, given that her beautiful mother Julia was a busy and mostly distant figure who escaped as often as she could from the overheated family atmosphere by taking up charitable work, visiting the poor and sick. When she did turn her attention to her children it was her youngest child, Adrian, to whom she gave most of her affection. Unable to rely on her mother, Virginia turned to Vanessa for support in a house where their father set the emotional tone, alternating between bouts of maudlin self-pity and the rages of a frustrated tyrant. Such scenes were extremely upsetting to his young daughter who could only watch, shocked, and wait for them to end. She had no other world to enter, since she never went to school, spending her time at home where she received occasional tuition and had the run of her father's library: here, early in life she decided to become a writer. As a child, Virginia was the live wire behind a home newspaper, the Hyde Park Gate News , written mainly by herself but contributed to by all the younger Stephens. She would recount the doings of the Stephen family, changing their names but retaining factual details so that each person was identifiable, while the story was entertaining. In a state of suppressed excitement, she would place the newly-written newspaper near her mother, and wait. When Julia gave it a casual look and said `rather good, I think,' she made her youngest daughter's day. From her early years, Virginia told stories in the evening, listened to by both Vanessa and Thoby. By the time Virginia became aware, her father's first daughter Laura was in trouble. Laura's mother, Minnie, was the younger daughter of the novelist Thackeray. Minnie had had a sheltered upbringing protected by her sister Annie, and she could not cope with being Leslie Stephen's wife. Neither could Minnie's daughter, Laura, cope with her father. Through some dramatic episodes of breakdown and Leslie's misguided efforts to teach her through strict discipline, Laura deteriorated. She had to dress and attend for tea every day, where the whole family was assembled, until she was removed first to her own quarters and then to a mental home where, in seclusion, she outlived Virginia and most of her half-siblings. The children's only escape from the hot-house atmosphere of the big London house was during the long summer months, when the entire family migrated to Talland House, at St. Ives in Cornwall. Here they played in the garden, within sight of the lighthouse, and explored the beach. Throughout her life, the sound and rhythm of the waves along the shore were ever-present to Virginia and return again and again in her writing. Yet as soon as Julia died in 1896, Leslie gave up Talland House, the one place that could have helped Virginia who was so overwhelmed by the burden of adult grief, her father's in particular, that she herself could not grieve for the loss of her mother. The shock was such that she became numb in a household that expressed its grief extravagantly, her father weeping and wailing surrounded by numerous mainly female relations dressed from head to foot in black. Suddenly her life was changed, she was, literally, living a nightmare. Standing at a window after that last scene with Julia, ignored and isolated, she watched the doctor walk away down the street with a sense of desolation. Utterly oppressed by a grief that she could not herself feel, Virginia had her first mental breakdown. For years she was obsessed by her beautiful mother's face and form, her presence, and was only relieved of this burden after writing To the Lighthouse , in which both her parents were brought back to life. The list of female casualties lengthened. After Julia's death Virginia's elder half-sister, Stella, aged twenty-six, took over the management of the household. Stella had always lived in the shadow of her mother and seemed like a pale reflection of Julia. However, she was being passionately wooed by the ardent Jack Hills and soon there was the excitement of their marriage. But Stella returned from their honeymoon exhausted and ill. She died in 1897, only two years after her mother's death. Whereupon Vanessa and Virginia tried to cope with Jack's inordinate grief, a major ingredient of which was the sexual deprivation he suffered from the loss of his partner. There was a very close link between sex and death that burnt into Virginia's being. The existence of the deranged Laura could not be ignored; nor could the message she represented, that another in that family could go the same way. Yet so far from having a personal fear of madness, Virginia could write to Emma Vaughan, her `dearest Toad', in 1901, when she was nineteen: "This world of human beings grows too complicated, my only wonder is that we don't fill more madhouses: the insane view of life has much to be said for it - perhaps its the sane one after all: and we the sad sober respectable citizens really rave every moment of our lives and deserve to be shut up perpetually. My spring melancholy is developing in these hot days into summer madness." [2] After Stella's death Vanessa, the next oldest woman in the house, aged sixteen, had to take on the burden of managing the household although she had decided to be a painter and wanted to continue her studies at Art School. Vanessa proved to be a tower of strength, coping with their father's tantrums by using the most effective of all weapons - silence and stillness. She not only ran the house but got onto her bicycle and took art lessons as often as she could. This was the time that the two sisters formed a close conspiracy to continue their work at all costs, even though their world seemed to be tumbling about their ears. The young Vanessa and Virginia were now the only two surviving women in a family of five males. It was a dangerous imbalance between the sexes. This was particularly so given the characters of the three older men: Leslie himself, in many ways the Victorian patriarch, continuing to indulge in extravagant paroxysms of grief for the loss of his wife; and George and Gerald Duckworth, Julia's two eldest sons. Some of the complications of Virginia's early life were caused by George and Gerald. At this time George, the elder, was trying to make his mark in conventional society. To help him, he insisted on one or the other of his half-sisters accompanying him when he paid formal visits and attended dinners and dances; they must be dressed suitably, behave becomingly and be a credit to him. From his point of view, those two young, beautiful women were a social asset and he thought he was doing the right thing by trying to `bring them out'. But neither Vanessa nor Virginia had any desire, or aptitude, for making their way in conventional society. They were already committed, Vanessa to art and Virginia to writing. They caused him much embarrassment when they refused to dress correctly, refused to dance, and finally refused to accompany him. George, all his life, remained a snob and eventually married a titled lady; but not before he had managed to damage Virginia by molesting her. The activities of George and Gerald in relation to the two girls are well documented. Louise DeSalvo has researched this aspect of Virginia's life in Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work (1989). Virginia herself discussed it later in her life in Moments of Being ; and there are also contemporary accounts in letters between the two sisters. In 1911, Virginia wrote to Vanessa about an intimate conversation she held with Janet Case, with whom she had studied Greek. Janet Case was a spinster who visited Virginia in her first rented house in Firle, Sussex. Sitting demurely with a piece of embroidery in her hand, Virginia writes of her: "She is a woman of great magnanimity ... She sat stitching ... and listened to a magnificent tirade which I delivered upon life in general. She has a calm interest in copulation ... and this led us to the revelation of all Georges malefactions. To my surprise she has always had an intense dislike of him; and used to say `Whew - you nasty creature', when he came in and began fondling me over my Greek. When I got to the bedroom scenes, she dropped her lace, and gasped like a benevolent gudgeon. By bedtime she said she was feeling quite sick, and did go to the W.C., which, needless to say, had no water in it." [3] When Virginia was about six, her younger half-brother Gerald sat her on a ledge and explored her genitals. This was apparently the only time he molested her. Virginia was surprised at the depth of shame she felt and attributes her dislike of her own body to this event. That there was sexual abuse as we understand the term now, there can be no doubt, although occasionally one meets a commentator such as Peter Alexander, in Leonard and Virginia Woolf: A Literary Partnership , who is at some pains to condone George's behaviour, preferring to see any damage that might have been done as being due to Virginia's sensitivity: "George Duckworth ... fourteen years older than she, was a deeply affectionate young man who expressed his fondness for his sister and half-sisters in rather extravagant endearments and embraces, both in private and in public. He had the habit of kissing and caressing Virginia as she sat at her lessons ... and he would also kiss her at night before she went to bed ... A good many, perhaps most, children have sexual experiences and come to no harm from them; but Virginia was not one of these ... No one seems to have reproached him or even spoken to him of his behaviour until Virginia's physician, Dr Savage, warned him to be careful during Virginia's second spell of madness in 1904 ... George Duckworth was by no means the monster of Virginia's imagination." [4] Leonard Woolf, in his autobiography, ignored the possibility that Virginia had been damaged by her half-brothers. He offered Virginia's first novel The Voyage Out to Gerald Duckworth for publication and went out of his way to praise George without, apparently, a hint of irony: `He was an extremely kind man and, I think, very fond of Vanessa and Virginia.' [5]; although he does describe him as a snob. Continue... Excerpted from WHO'S AFRAID OF LEONARD WOOLF? by IRENE COATES Copyright © 1998 by Irene Coates Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. 9
Prologuep. 13
Part 1 Aboard the See-Sawp. 23
1 Virginia's Need for Supportp. 25
2 Leonard Tells His Storyp. 51
3 Tying the Knotp. 80
Part 2 The Servile State of Marriagep. 113
4 Leonard Takes Overp. 115
5 Leonard Exposes Himselfp. 146
6 Beginning and End of the Good Wifep. 171
Part 3 Virginia Learns to Ride the See-Sawp. 195
7 Bringing the Dead to Lifep. 197
8 A Breath of Vitap. 219
9 Watershedp. 253
Part 4 The Coming of Mabel and Louisep. 285
10 Towards the Death Polep. 287
11 Virginia Exposes Leonardp. 318
Part 5 Make Believep. 361
12 Dwindling Island of Insecurityp. 363
13 Untying the Knotp. 391
Appendicesp. 431
Select Bibliographyp. 443
Referencesp. 447
Indexp. 455