I don’t mean this title literally, of course. Woolf was a bit willowy and delicate in terms of her constitution, but she would (she did) run intellectual circles around us (yes, I’m lumping you into my “us” because I don’t care how smart you are; chances are Woolf was smarter). And now she’s pissed.
This should not, however, intimidate us lowly souls and keep us from reading Woolf. Famous for her stream-of-consciousness style of writing, Woolf brings us into her thoughts when she writes, and we feel connected to her. If you’re only willing to let yourself be absorbed by her words, she will envelop you and guide you.
But she will also kick your ass.
Let’s be honest; if you’ve read Virginia Woolf’s writing, you’ve probably gotten the sense (as I have) that she was a bit pissed off during her lifetime. She hid it well most of the time, under a proper English Victorian-on-her-way-to-being-Modern veneer. But she was awfully ticked, I think, that the generation before her still had what she felt were old-fashioned expectations, that society was making such slow progress toward equality for women, that there was such trauma in her personal life as well as the world at large, and more.
Virginia Woolf, were she still alive, or somehow able to see and hear our world today, would be pissed that talk of her death so often precedes (and sometimes eclipses) talk of her work and her life.
In her February 17, 1922 diary, Woolf writes, “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.” The opposite happens when people today talk about Woolf, as though they mean to talk about life, only death comes breaking in.
Yes, she killed herself in 1941, when she was 59 years old. She filled her pockets with stones and walked into the river. It’s tragic, and by no means do I intend to brush it off as insignificant, but it’s not the only compelling thing about her.
Adeline Virginia Stephen Woolf was born in 1882 to well-known and highly intellectual parents with a blended family. Woolf suffered greatly when she was 13 years old and her mother died; two years later her half-sister died, and seven years after that her father died. Woolf suffered “breakdowns” throughout her life, and was diagnosed with manic-depressive, bipolar affective disorder, and bipolar disorder, depending on who you ask and which generation they are a part of.
Woolf married Leonard Woolf in 1912, and had an affair with Vita Sackville-West in 1922. The book Orlando is usually read as a love letter to Vita.
Woolf wrote nine novels, six short story collections, three biographies, fourteen nonfiction books, seven autobiographies, one drama, one translation, and many prefaces, letters, and diaries. All of this while not only surviving two world wars, but being in great distress during World War II, after the Woolfs’ London home was destroyed in the Blitz and there was considerable danger for Leonard, who was Jewish.
Cheery, no? We needn’t wonder why she may have been pissed off while alive.
I think our focus on Woolf’s death occurs because we’re uncomfortable with her uncertainty or her ambiguity, or the way she draws out our own uncertainties and ambiguities. We can’t categorize her, even though at first glance there are many categories for her: Modernist, feminist, Bloomsbury, writer, suicide, bisexual, and more. But just dip a finger below the surface and you’re beset with contradictions.
In our time as our understanding of things like sexuality and gender, age, what constitutes news, our understanding of media and its reputability (or lack thereof), becomes more fluid, both more and less complicated, and our definition of humanity broadens and deepens, we owe it to ourselves to read and appreciate Virginia Woolf. She was 100 years ahead of us in her ideas and experimentation. We should be running to catch up instead of letting her pass by while we chatter on about her death.
If this sounds like a giant advertisement for Woolf, well, good. If I made a kerbillion dollars (which I’m sure is coming any day now, since most teachers and writers live the high life), I’d have purchased a 30-second slot during the Super Bowl to say READ VIRGINIA WOOLF. SHE WAS PISSED THEN AND SHE’S PISSED NOW BECAUSE IT IS TAKING FOREVER FOR US TO CATCH UP TO HER. Oh, and STOP FOCUSING FIRST AND ONLY ON HER DEATH.
Yes, it’d be in all caps because it’s a proclamation that deserves to be shouted.
As connected as I feel to Woolf when I read her work, few things terrify me more than the idea of actually speaking with her. I’m sure I’d be in such awe that I wouldn’t be able to form a complete sentence. Still, when the “Who, living or dead, would you have a beer with if you could” question becomes reality (as I know it will), I might still dare to choose Virginia Woolf, for the pleasure of listening to her kick my ass.