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Virginia Woolf's life and diary and essays nurtured my hopes

Her first novel, The Voyage Out, stuck in my breast pocket, did not stop a bullet

In appearance we were opposites. If she was a lily, I was a potato.
  • In appearance we were opposites. If she was a lily, I was a potato.
  • Image by Cristy Maltese

Virginia Woolf was born 102 years ago this month in London. Dead, now, 43 years, as long as I've lived, she mothered me. Woolf chunked her pockets full of rocks and deliberately walked into the muddy swirl of the River Ouse in northeast England and drowned herself. ("I have fought against it, but I can't any longer," she wrote to her sister Vanessa. The "it" was Woolf's recurring depression.) More than once Woolf tried to end her own life. yet in my twenties, she saved mine.

Although several hundred thousand copies of her many books — eight novels, essays, reviews, biographies (including Flush, the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel!), diaries, letters — have been sold over the past 60 years by her American publisher, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Virginia Woolf only became a household word in the U.S when Edward Albee wrote Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in the play's 1966 film version, and Taylor won the Academy Award as best actress for her performance as the drunken and tormented wife of a college professor. But Albee's play had nothing to do with Woolf.

Woolf was never ignored, not in her lifetime or after. She never went unread or unnoticed. Her novels sold briskly; her criticism was in demand. But she was never popular. The larger population never fastened onto her.

After Woolf's nephew — her sister Vanessa's son, Quentin Bell — wrote his two-volume biography of Woolf in 1972, interest in Woolf widened to include Bloomsbury, an area in west central London where the still-unmarried Virginia and Vanessa had moved in 1904 after their father died. ("His life," Woolf wrote in 1928, "would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books — inconceivable.") During the Seventies, HBJ issued Woolf's diaries and letters, the final volume of which came out in 1980. Contemporary readers became enmeshed in Woolf's posthumously printed personal material and the memoirs and accounts of other writers from Woolf's era.

Bloomsbury the place became — in its own post-Victorian heyday — the catchall name for the group that drew together Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and on its fringes Aldous Huxley (who satirized Bloomsbury in Crome Yellow), E.M. Forster, Bertrand Russell (his Bloomsbury-associated mistress told Russell, "You have bad breath") and occasionally D.H. Lawrence ("To me Lawrence is airless, confined," Woolf noted in her 1933 diary). That group gravitated to the apartments where Virginia, Vanessa, and their brothers at Cambridge gathered. Bloomsbury was a place where — as if, suddenly — anything, even sex, could be discussed, and in mixed company. Even after Vanessa married art critic Clive Bell and Virginia married Leonard Woolf and both women moved out of the area, they and their friends continued to be known as the "Bloomsbury Group" and as "Bloomsberries."

Virginia Woolf did not save my life by any melodramatic action. Her first novel, The Voyage Out, stuck in my breast pocket, did not stop a bullet. She inspired me to no great deeds. Her life, in her fifties and diary and essays, nurtured my hopes, hopes that had faltered in my twenties, for something "more," as we say, "out of life."

I lived in a small isolated town that had been squeezed between mountain ridges. The sun shone on it late morning and left early. Twilight came fast. In spring and fall, Basque sheepherders drove through town thousands of sheep, raising dust in the streets and filling the air with bleating. The Greyhound bus to the east stopped at noon; going wet it stopped at five in the morning. The noon driver left off bottles of plasma packed in white boxes marked with a red cross.

I lived — on the surface — as a wife, a mother of two children. We had a half-beagle, half-basset. I called him Big Dog. He left home when the first child was born, and never came back. Feminist writings only recently began to tell what young women, who for a few years were set out in the world free from parents and then shut away again with husbands, suffered when they found themselves married, even as I was, to the kindest of men. At 17 my life had appeared to open out endlessly. After the wedding two years later, I found I had thrust myself back inside doors locked to that larger world where I had, too briefly, adventured. Life at once became a round of struggle with dirty carrots and heavy-bladed chuck roasts, intractable pie crusts that leaked blackberry juice, filthy linoleum, stained toilet bowls, yowling babies, steaming urine-sharp diapers, red rash on infant buttocks, my clothes speckled with baby powder, nights of whooping cough, teething, and death watches with high fevers.

Woolf and I hadn't that much in common. We were both female, married, nervous, morbid, prone to influenza, and fond of reading. Likenesses stopped there. On the advice of physicians, Woolf remained childless. ("I don't like the physicalness of having children of my own," she wrote in 1927 after Vanessa's children had visited.) Woolf's father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was one of the minor of the Great Victorians. She read her Plato in Greek, her Dostoevsky in Russian, and her Moliere in French. In her twenties she wrote book reviews for major London weeklies and dailies. In her thirties her first fictions were published. She and her husband founded and for years managed the Hogarth Press, publishing not only much of English and Continental fiction and belles-lettres, but the first book-length translations of Freud into English.

In appearance we were opposites. If she was a lily, I was a potato. Her aquiline nose rather severely drew to a point. She had thin straight hair and long fingers, a pale skin, large expressive and hooded eyes, gloriously slim racehorse legs. I was freckle-faced. My squinting eyes were green and my thick auburn hair grew into a frowze of its naturally kinky curls. My hands were small, plump, and often dirty. My ankles were thick and my hips wide.

I loved the way she looked. I thumb-tacked a sepia-tinted magazine photograph of Woolf on my kitchen cabinet door, right above the Mixmaster. Her dark dress got splotched with brownie batter and tomato soup and whipped sweet potatoes and cream from the dairy.

I fell for her right away. One book and I crawled, gratefully, under her wing, and lived in its shade. It was A Writer's Diary, not the usual route for succumbing to Woolf. Women have tended to come to her through A Room of One's Own. English majors were most often stricken by To the Lighthouse, with its elegant midsection, "Time Passes." What she called the "common reader" today often meets her through the still-emerging Bloomsbury biographies and memoirs.

I arrived at her fed up with FDR. Tired of biographies of Franklin and Eleanor, tired of New Deal histories, tired of Frances Perkins's post-Depression Department of Labor. FDR, certainly, offered me an heroic example (and I wanted that, then), his face set in a grin and his lips clamped down on a cigarette holder, while beneath the waist he endured the rattling metal that braced his impediment. Eleanor offered me hope that a shy girl (I thought, then, I would become a lawyer) could muscle into politics and then, quietly, begin to untangle social inequalities. But even with that ambition in mind, neither the polio-crippled New Deal/Great War President nor his wife; not any of the New Dealers setting out the scaffolding of the new social order; not the Depression with its Grapes of Wrath and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with Walker Evans' photographs of gaunt hill people; not even the war that came after Depression, with its set of two-, three-, even four-volume memoirs, seemed able to plant me firmly in the life of that world and command that world to take me in. None of that era and this country, then, could make me at home in their books, could make their books shine onto and warm up my life, tucked in there between high mountains. No one had given me, yet, what Virginia Woolf described, writing in her diary one evening before supper, as "some bout of poetry ... half read, half lived."

The town had a new librarian. He was thin, hollow-eyed, and middle-age. He wore plaid wool Pendleton shirts that were too large. His yellowed hands shook and he talked wearily and with a Southern accent. I would discover, later, he took an almost diabolical joy in pairing books with people. "I diagnose," he would tell me. I would learn, too, he was a recovered alcoholic, that he'd taken an LSD and psychodrama cure in a Canadian sanitarium. And on my 26th birthday, when I was bedded down with flu, we shared a split of champagne. I drank my glassful. He swished his champagne through his mouth (already, at 40, fitted with false teeth that clattered when he shook) and then spit the wine out an open window onto the shiny leaves of my rose bushes. I would meet his wife, a timid Mississippian who claimed one night that she hated him, and his daughter who unceasingly dressed and undressed a Barbie doll. After he died, at 45, his wife would drive twice each week to the nearest city to consult a medium for word from him.

On the morning we met, he lit my cigarette and his, a nonfilter Pall Mall (you could still smoke, then, at the library's front desk), with a quivering hand from which the fingernails were bitten back to the quick. He asked questions of me in short declarative sentences. Each question and each of my answers to his successive queries peeled back — with surgical precision — layer after layer of myself. I felt naked and vulgar. Neither the nakedness nor my vulgarity was sexual; it was my greenness he got to, my calfishness, my irremediable foolishness, confusion, and worst of all, my terrible hunger. My eyes were filled with tears.

Then he led me, actually took me by the wrist, to Ws, and handed me out Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. From the biography section, he pulled out a laminated $1.25 paperback Harbrace edition of A Writer's Diary (which I never returned and for which, under his aegis, the library never billed me). "Take these home," he said, looking into my blushing face, laughing as he handed over the books, "and suffer."

I was 22. Mrs. Dalloway, I attacked like housework, like socks that had to be matched, like dirt obscuring window glass. Like the Depression, the WPA, OPA, CCC, and other New Deal acronyms, Mrs. Dalloway was a job, a title to hurdle, a book to understand as I'd been taught in school. Years would pass before I could read it or To the Lighthouse for the pleasure of rutting in words. Two decades, almost went by before I took Woolf's fictions entirely in the manner Sir Leslie, Woolf's father, advised her in her youth read, "to read what one liked because one liked it." But in A Writer's Diary, Leonard Woolf's excerpts from his wife's 26 volumes of handwritten (in violent ink) diaries, right away I read vigorously — for pleasure. I didn't give a damn what it meant. I hoped I'd never finish it. I only wanted to be always at the next page to find out what she'd say then.

I believed my solitariness would drop like a crystal bottle and break at my feet. Men and women would invite me into passionate dialogue. I would feel our talk in my belly. It-It would turn to I-Thou. We would celebrate our own broken glass by walking on it in bare feet and would joyously suck the fatty sweet marrow of each other's Thou. We would smell hot and rub bellies. ("I should have liked a closer and thicker knowledge of life. I should have liked to deal with real things sometimes. I get such a sense of tingling and vitality from an evening's talk like that; one's angularities and obscurities are smoothed and lit," Woolf wrote in 1928.) But nothing like that happened.

My attempts to make "it" happen had failed. A friend said, "You are too intense. You wear me out." A psychiatrist told me, "You had an overstimulated childhood. You expect too much." A man's wife warned, "Quit flirting with my husband."

I could not stop wanting "it." I wanted to believe there was an enduring world — irreducible, adamantine, convinced of itself — behind the life that seemed only to make me tired by night. I wanted to hear life was worth scrubbing carrots and tenderizing tough chuck roast.

What's more, I wanted all this disclosed to me in words. I wanted to be able to tell it to myself, again and again. On every count where nature, family, friends, novels, poetry, lovers, a husband, children, the 1926 Book of Common Prayer, Sartre — where all had tried and failed, had raised only ore questions and increased the size and demand in my longing without satisfying it — on every count, where all those voices and those hands, those mouths on my mouth, those adult and infant mouths on my breasts, failed to convince me life was worth the time I'd give to live it, A Writer's Diary did the trick.

Woolf's husband Leonard groomed the 26 volumes of blank unlined paper, bound between boards by their own Hogarth Press and filled by her over 27 years. He did this after her death. (Perhaps, writes Nigel Nicholson, the son of Woolf's sapphic lover — "sapphist" was the word, in Bloomsbury, for lesbian, as "bugger" was for male homosexual — "her suicide was premeditated by ten days." Perhaps, Nicholson suggests, she tried suicide by drowning first on the 18th of March, which was why, on the 28th, when she succeeded, she had filled up her coat pockets with rocks.)

Leonard Woolf selected out passages that referred to her own writing, to books such as Lawrence's and Joyce's ("I finished Ulysses," she wrote in 1922, "and think it's a misfire"), to insights and scenes and persons that later entered her formal writing. ("I am very anxious," Woolf wrote in 1929 about what became The Years, "that she should have no name. I don't want a Lavinia or a Penelope: I want 'she.'")


When the new librarian, trembling and coughing and shaking harder after his coughing passed, gave me A Writer's Diary (and roughly thrust his dirty handkerchief into my hand, saying, "Wipe your goddam eyes"), he gave me the book that finally talked to me. While babies tugged at the apron I tied over jeans and shirt, while sheets and pillowcases billowed and flapped in high wine (I could hear them, out the windows) and rain wet them down again, A Writer's Diary took on the same weight as my tons of house needing cleaning, my husband on top of me trying to love me, my children in my arms, needing me. The book put wheels under the burden I took my life to be.

"If I could catch the feeling," Woolf wrote, "I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world." In August, 1928 she sat with her diary on her lap in her house in Rodmell, and wrote, "— Why did my eye catch the trees? The look of things has great power over me. Even now, I have to watch the rooks beating up against the wind, which is high, and still I say to myself instinctively, 'What's the phrase for that?'"

How much she saw of her own life! She could see its distance, clear to the mist burning off its peripheries. She could see its height in the reach of her won longing and its abysm in her squalid depressions. She could see what piled up as history — in wars and peace, party politics, labor strikes — at its horizons. She could see her smallness: "How little one counts," she wrote in 1928. "How fast and furious and masterly life is; and how all these thousands are swimming for dear life." And then, with all that, she always wrote in the particulars — a green hat, a mildewed carpet, a missing tooth, blue eyes.

She despaired, right on the page in front of me. "I have not really laid hands on the emptiness after all," she wrote. And, "I am swimming in the head and write rather to stabilise myself than to make a correct statement." And, "As usual I feel that I am sinking 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 and relations with people. Yes, even having children would be useless."

But she continued "scratching, scratching," before supper, in her diary. She looked up, down, and across miles of her own vistas. That "undependable brute, life," she wrote, that "feeling intolerably sleepy and annulled." Annulled, I looked at it and could taste the coppery emptiness, the slick of nothing on my tongue where something had been. She could give it to me in mouthfuls, like that. I could taste, chew, swallow the actual protein of her mind, written down, in the present, in her diary. "A thing I see before me: something abstract," she wrote, "but residing in the downs of sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall reset and continue to exist. Reality I call it."

I would come back with her and that town between mountains would be like a wide valley beneath my feet. The grass would turn bright green and be springy when I stepped out the back door, laughing at the rain and myself while I pulled sheets, diapers, m husband's shirts, off the line and hauled in the heavy wicker basket and draped backs of chairs with still-wet clothes. Then I would dice carrots and poke with a meat fork at the chuck roast before I sprinkled it with Adolph's meat tenderizer. I would even laugh about Adolph, on the label in his chef's hat.

The "new" librarian died. I would see his daughter, long after, riding her bike through town, her father's plaid wool Pendleton shirttails flying behind her. She touched me once, at Safeway. Her hand on my bare shoulder was cold, like her father's. The fingertips made me feel 20 again.

During the seventies I turned thirty. Woolf's unexpurgated diaries and her letters begin to emerge, one each year. Reading the diaries as they came out, looking back at myself at 20, reading in the midst of the din of teenage children's records playing downstairs, i was glad that Leonard Woolf took out in A Writer's Diary most of the dailiness in which his wife lived. He took out her sagging stockings, her painful menstrual periods, her hating to shop, her measurement of houses, and her distaste for his mother. My life, then, at twenty-two and five and eight, had enough dailiness, enough sagging, enough dislike of parents, enough mundane bloodiness.

I could in my thirties and still can now feel the shame of the new librarian's questioning me, and hate the return of my own tawdriness and greed and hunger. When the librarian was still living, I would remember that day and not be able to raise my eyes to his until the memory receded. But it was ... is all worth it to have been handed that one book.

I was 40 before I took out from my bookcase again the laminated copy of A Writer's Diary. I discover I've crimped down, I count, 14 corners. I read over these pages. On some, I can see, at once, what spoke to me. October 25, 1920, I had liked this: "Why is life so tragic; so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss. I look down; I feel giddy; I wonder how I am ever to talk to the end. But why do I feel this: Now that I say it I don't feel it."

Looking more closely through the book, its pages now brown on the edges, yellowing further in, and turned creamy in the center, I find I marked this under a heading of Woolf's, "Writing by Living People": "But how good is it?" she wrote. "Easy to say it is not a great book. But what qualities does it lack? That it adds nothing to one's vision of life, perhaps." hat was what I underlined. That, of course, was what A Writer's Diary, what Virginia Woolf, did for me. Added.

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