Virginia Woolf by Michael Whitworth (2005) is a part of the 'Authors in Context' series published by Oxford World Classics. It is essentially a biography but what makes this biography such a fascinating read is that Whitworth writes about Virginia Woolf's life and works in the context of her times. This is not one of those biographies that write about an author with historical, social, and literary events on the periphery but one that locates her in the centre of it all. It's an excellent portrait of Virginia Woolf.
The book is divided into seven parts:
- The Life of Virginia Woolf
- The Fabric of Society: Nation and Identity
- The Literary Scene
- Philosophical Questions
- Society, Individuals, and Choices
- Scientific and Medical Contexts
- Recontextualizing and Reconstructing Woolf
|Virginia Woof's bedroom at Monk House.|
In the first, Whitworth writes on the key events in Woolf's personal life - her birth on 25th January 1882 and her early years at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, a brief account of the lives of her parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen, their deaths and the effect it had on the family, moving with Vanessa to 46 Gordon Square, then to 29 Fitzroy Square (once the home of George Bernard Shaw) with Adrian after Vanessa's marriage, and then meeting Leonard Woolf and their subsequent marriage. Virginia Woolf lead a very interesting life: it's hard not to find a fascinating biography, in fact (though there are some rather dry ones about). And, despite the fact I've read numerous biographies now. Whitworth has found interesting facts I wasn't aware of: I was quite taken, for example, by the description of her bedroom:
Her ground-floor bedroom, separate from that of her husband, Leonard, is attached to the main house, but accessible only through an outside door. 'I used to think how inconvinient it must be to have to go out in the rain to go to bed,' recalled their cook Louie Mayer. An uninformed visitor might conjecture that there had been an 'estrangement' between husband and wide, but that term is quite inadequate to the close and supportive relationship they formed: they were rarely apart. Nevertheless, the structure of the house suggests Virginia's need for privacy and independence. Moreover, it suggests that the story of her life is not simply the story of the composition of her books, nor of her friendships and family relationships, but also of the places she lived in and how she shaped them to herself.
|Henry Campbell-Bannerman, 1908.|
|The Right Honourable Margaret|
Bondfield, MP for Wallsend
(Tyne and Wear).
Following this short (29 pages) chapter Whitworth goes on to write about the "identity of the nation" and the changes in Virginia Woolf's life. As we know, she born in 1882 and her family were almost the archetypical intellectual Victorian family. When she died in 1941 she had lived through World War I and was in the early years of World War II. This period was a key time for Britain: the British Empire, for example, was the largest empire in the world, but this was to decline following The Boer War of 1899 - 1902, and then the First World War (1914 - 1918). The early 20th Century also saw the rise of the Labour Party which was created in 1900 and first came into government in 1924 (the first Labour Prime Minister was Ramsay MacDonald) and again in 1929 (which included the first female cabinet minister - Margaret Bondfield). Prior to this, the Liberal Party (which, in 1988, was to merge with the Social Democrats and become the Liberal Democrats we know today) elected in 1906 (the Prime Minister was Henry Campbell-Bannerman) introduced legislation that was to change the path of politics forever, focusing on Protectionism, reforming the Poor Law, and improving employment and employment conditions, all of which were of great interest to Woolf and all of which found their way in her novels: The Voyage Out (1915), Night and Day (1919), Jacob's Room (1922), and Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Women's Suffrage features heavily, too, in Night and Day. All of these political events, in fact, had a great impact on the understandings of gender, class, and race, and Whitworth shows how they were all reflected in her novels.
|The Wise Virgins |
by Leonard Woolf.
Following this chapter "The Fabric of Society: Nation and Identity" comes "The Literary Scene" in which Whitworth explores "literature in the Marketplace", other key texts of the time, the themes and subjects they explored, and, most importantly, how Woolf's own work fitted in (or not) with them. Whitworth also writes about the authors and publishers who were prosecuted at the time in a discussion of censorship (Henry Vizetelly's fines and imprisonment are mentioned for his translation of Émile Zola's La Terre, 1888 and again in 1889). Leonard Woolf's own novel, The Wise Virgins (1914) was also criticised at the time and his publishers demanded he made thirty-six revisions. Virginia Woolf, however, managed to escape censorship.
Next, "Philosophical Questions", in which Whitworth writes of the more abstract themes in Woolf's works: time, for example, in Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando (1928), perception and reality in To The Lighthouse (1927), and the idea of "multiple selves" in Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves (1931). In the fifth chapter, "Society, Individuals, and Choices" he discusses power in the context of authoritarianism and individualism in Mrs. Dalloway, a question that was raised following the Boer War on the extent to which the state should and ought to exercise its authority over an individual (Mrs. Dalloway, as the wife of Richard Dalloway MP, facilitates the workings of political society yet has no political power herself). Whitworth also looks at career choices with reference to Three Guineas (1938) and Night and Day, then finally 'Militarism, Discipline, and Education' within The Waves (1931).
In the penultimate chapter, the attention turns to scientific and medical advances and how the theories and impacts found their way into Woolf's novels. The medical understandings and treatments for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder come under criticism in Mrs. Dalloway in the treatment of Septimus Warren Smith, a former soldier suffering from shell-shock, as well as the notions of masculinity and mental illness. In The Years (1937) there are references to and thoughts shared on atoms; then, the possible impact of Schrödinger's Equation (defined by Wikipedia as "a partial differential equation that describes how the quantum state of a physical system changes with time.") on her novel The Waves; then, the developments in astronomy and Woolf's translation in her novels, especially Night and Day. It's something I've picked up on - there are many references to stars in Woolf's writing:
"There was a star riding through clouds one night, & I said to the star, 'Consume me'." (The Waves)
"When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don't seem to matter very much, do they?" (Night and Day)
"I see you everywhere, in the stars, in the river; to me you're everything that exists, the reality of everything" (Night and Day)
"She stood there: she listened. She heard the names of the stars" (Mrs. Dalloway)
"She blazed. She kindled. Out of the night she burnt like a white star." (Slater's Pins Have No Point)
"Her eyes are pure stars" (Orlando)
"It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech" (A Room of One's Own)
Finally, the last chapter "Recontextualizing and Reconstructing Woolf", Whitworth highlights the interpretations of Virginia Woolf and her novels: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee (1962), and the film in 1966), To the Lighthouse (1983), Orlando (1992), and Mrs. Dalloway (1997), The Hours (2002), and various other stage adaptations. Whitworth critiques various works and how they influence our understanding of Woolf, and I particularly liked what he had to say on The Hours, first a novel by Michael Cunningham (1998) and then a film (starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore in 2002). He writes,
The first section recontextualizes Mrs Dalloway within a biographical frame. That frame itself interprets Woolf's life in the light of her death: by beginning the novel with Woolf's death, Cunningham makes her a suicide first, and a writer second. All biographies must necessarily reduce lives to themes and to coherent narratives, but the structure that Cunningham creates is potentially very reductive: it encourages the reader to see every detail of Woolf's life as prefiguring her death.
This is a danger that Woolf's art is not only understood only in terms of her death (depression, whilst important to her biography, is not so much to her writing), but that there may even be clues to her suicide in novels such as Mrs. Dalloway. It ought to go without saying that Woolf did not know that she would commit suicide in 1941, and furthermore had she have even had an inkling her life would surely have been almost unbearable with stress and fear. This was not so: there is more to Virginia Woolf than her depression.
Michael Whitworth's biography has instantly become one of my favourites and I wholly recommend it to those exploring Woolf's works. It offers the nearest to a "whole" biography as is possible, it's long enough to be informative and short and well-written enough to be greatly inspiring: there is much to learn, so much more. This is an excellent introduction to Virginia Woolf's writings.
Novels by Virginia Woolf