Alix Strachey, a practising psychoanalyst and an old friend of the Woolfs, discussing why Leonard had not persuaded Virginia to see a psychoanalyst about her mental breakdowns, concluded ‘Virginia’s imagination, apart from her artistic creativeness, was so interwoven with her fantasies – and indeed with her madness – that if you had stopped the madness you might have stopped the creativeness too… It may be preferable to be mad and be creative than to be treated by analysis and become ordinary.’ So whether art is regarded as transcendental and impersonal or as autobiographical in its genesis, the artist’s integrity seemed threatened by psychoanalysis.
In her 1926 essay On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf ponders why illness has been denied a place alongside “love and battle and jealousy” as one of the main themes of literature. She argues that, as a consequence of this denial, illness has never gathered its own vocabulary, leaving the ill without language to express their experiences: “The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love,” argues Woolf, “has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry” . Examining her own familiarity with illness, Woolf undertakes a rigorous, compassionate, and droll investigation of how illness shapes the identity of a sick patient, particularly the invalid, not only affecting his or her perceptions of the world but also awakening the helplessness of being unable to convey those perceptions, or the effects of illness, to others.
In the early years of the last century Bloomsbury was bright promise and gaiety and wit. Virginia Woolf created Bloomsbury,a self-mythologizing family of clever posh rebels. But all the while its most celebrated novelist was battling private demons that would one day overwhelm her.
When Virginia finally heard Aaaron Woolf’s proposal to marry her, he failed to hear her assent, for he had chosen to ask her in a train and, because of its rattling, had to shout out, “What?”- at which she had a sudden revulsion and murmured, “Oh, nothing.”
But finally, on the afternoon of may 29, 1912, at 38 Brunswick Square, into which she and Adrian had moved the previous year, she told Woolf that she loved him and would marry him. “It was a wonderful summer afternoon and we felt that we must get away from London for a time,” he later recalled. “We took the train to maidenhead and I hired a boat and rowed up the river to Marlow. … We had seemed to drift through a beautiful, vivid dream… the intense emotion of Virginia’s saying that she would marry me, the gentle rhythm of the row up the river.”
They were married on August 10 at Saint Pancras Registry Office and went off on a long, meandering honeymoon in Spain and France, returning in October to love at 13 Clifford’s Inn, just off Fleet Street. Five months later, Virginia completed the typescript of “The Voyage Out” and sent it to the publisher.
Four months after that she was preparing to enter a nursing home. Ever since their engagement, Leonard had been watching her health with increasing unease. The emotional strain caused by the prospect of marriage and the completion of her novel, together with their long honeymoon, had exhausted her. Her illness, then confidently diagnosed as “neurasthenia”, a vague term covering anything of a mental or nervous nature, was a form of manic-depression. She w
fflicted with terrible headaches, lassitude, and a feeling of guilt. She refused to eat and, at the same time, refused to admit that she was ill. By the summer of 1913 Leonard had grown seriously concerned. She was suffering from bouts of extreme worry, delusions and insomnia. Moreover, she blamed herself for this condition as if it were a fault of character.
She left the nursing home in August, 1913, apparently improved, but her despair soon grew deeper again and despite Leonard’s constant care her condition worsened. The crises came one day in Brunswick Square, when she swallowed a large dose of veronal tablets and almost died. Her depression lasted, in an acute but intermittent form, from the autumn of 1913 to the autumn of 1915: two lost years. During much of this time she withdrew from the real world into a land of delusions where the birds spoke Greek and she carried on long, agonizing conversations with her dead mother. She was given to fits of extreme melancholia, and to extreme violence against the nurses.
Even after the madness had left her, the threat of its return greatly affected the pattern of her life with Leonard. They gave up all hope of having children. As far as possible, it was desirable for Virginia to lead a quiet, vegetative life, fortified by plenty of good food, plenty of rest. She must avoid anything that might tire her physically or mentally. Yet she was a born writer. For her, living meant writing, with all its inevitable stresses. So she wrote, while Leonard trained himself to spot the smallest symptom of an oncoming attack and take action to avoid it.
“For the sick to communicate their experiences, Woolf suggests, they “would need the courage of a lion tamer” , since finding words to express “this monster, this body” is a daunting task. Ruled by their bodies, the sick become “outlaws” to convention (p. 22). As soon as “we raise our feet even an inch above the ground,” Woolf argues, “we float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested” . Perceived as deserters, the sick find themselves without a receptive and sympathetic audience or the words to explain adequately their dilemmas. Unable to engage the rest of society with stories of their suffering, the sick might find solace, Woolf suggests, in having the time to read poetry with a new sensibility and richness, to approach Shakespeare with a “rashness” that “leaves nothing but Shakespeare and oneself”, or “perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up—to look, for example, at the sky” .
Leonard and Virgina divided their life between London and the country. From 1913 to 1919 they lived at Asham, a nineteenth century farmhouse set in one of the folds of the Sussex Downs and overlooking the Ouse valley. It ws this solitary house, with its “ghostly footsteps and whisperings,” that gave Virginia the idea for her story “A Haunted House” . In 1919, after their lease was up, they bought Monk’s House, believed, inaccurately, to have belonged to the fifteenth-century monks of Lewes Priory. It was a white weatherboard house with an acre of garden adjoining the church-yard in the Sussex village of Rodmell.
During the same period they also had two houses in London. They moved into the first of these, the beautiful Hogarth House in paradise road, in march , 1915, and then, in 1924, to 52 Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury, which was eventually destroyed by bombs during the Second World War.
The years between the wars were full of achievement. Most of Virginia’s novels and critical essays were composed during this period, as were much of her husband’s critical and political writings, and together they founded the Hogarth Press in the basement of Hogarth House. In their spare time, they printed and bound books by hand. Not only was it a useful therapeutic occupation for Virginia, but it expanded into a highly efficient publishing firm with a distinguished list of authors. One of the most notable was Sigmund Freud, whose complete works the Woolf’s published in a monumental translation by Lytton Strachey’s brother James; a work so fine that a german publishing firm suggested retranslating it back into German to serve as their own standard edition.
What Freud and Woolf had in common was a deep interest in the workings of the human mind, though Freud approached it through observation and analysis, while Woolf apprehended its workings through the very flight of the mind itself, through acts of re-creation and imagination. For both of them, the nature of memory and its elusive workings were crucial:
“But they were also divided — not only by that crucial quarter of a century but also by sexual difference, so that the opportunities available to them were very different, and as a result they held substantially different views. For Freud patriarchy constituted an optimal order, so that the coming of the Second World War was symptomatic of its breakdown; for Woolf, patriarchy was a dangerous system in which the tyrannical father corresponded to the tyrannical ruler: it contributed to wars and had to be left behind. Despite substantial and irreconcilable differences, Freud and Woolf shared many values and some experiences; they belonged to and were the products of the same cultural moment.
Freud’s ideas were experienced as a threat by the novelists who grew up under his shadow, but in particular by Woolf and James Joyce. Both had to find a way of responding to theories that influenced how they represented their characters’ thoughts (at a time when the novel was increasingly concerned with such thoughts); and his theories also interrogated the nature of their creative powers. Both Woolf and Joyce actively resisted the threat that Freud seemed to pose – a resistance that Freud would have predicted.
Freudian psychoanalysis seemed to undermine traditional conceptions of creativity and of the artist’s control over his or her work. Joyce’s vision of the artist was one of transcendent impersonality: he should take a distant and god-like attitude to his own work, sitting back and paring his fingernails. But Freud’s theories questioned notions of creative distance, insisting instead on the pressure of personal history underlying creativity. He claimed to be able to interpret an artist’s inner drives through surviving accounts of his dreams and other writings, and had done so in his study of Leonardo da Vinci.” ( Julia Briggs )