“I married, and then my brains went up in a shower of fireworks. As an experience, madness is terrific … and not to be sniffed at, and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets as sanity does.” ( Virginia Woolf )
The Bloomsbury Group remains, to this day, one of modern culture’s most remarkable associations of individuals—the diverse contributions of the Bell siblings alone, not to mention their lovers, peers, and acquaintances, rival the output of the rest of the Modernist canon in terms of experimentation, collaboration, and peerless acclaim in literature, art, and theory. This informal group of poets and painters, writers and critics, which included Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Vita Sackville-West, and Bertrand Russell, among others, may have called then-fashionable central London their home, but to generations of future scholars, writers, and cultural aficionados, they helped to locate Modernism both critically and geographically.
The old guard of the Bloomsbury group often came to the Woolf house in Tavistock Square. Five or six of them regularly assembled there after dinner, reinforced by one or two of the younger generation- Gerald Brenan, for example, and Angelica Bell, Vanessa’s daughter. The atmosphere, though informal, combined a certain austerity with an air of epicurean ease. Good conversation was what mattered. “I very soon got the impression that these conversations were really in the nature of orchestral concerts,” wrote Gerald Brenan.
” One might almost say that the score was provided, for the same themes always came up- the difference between the younger and older generation, the difference between the painter and the writer and so forth. The performers too, were thoroughly practised, for they had been meeting every week or even more often over a space of many years… The solo instruments, one might say, both strings, were Virginia Woolf and Duncan Grant: they could be relied on to produce at the appropriate moment some piece of elaborate fantasy, contradicting the serious and persistent assertions of other instruments. … Clive Bell, fulfilling the role of bassoon, would keep up a genral roar of animation. His psecial function in the performance was to egg on and provoke Virginia to one of her famous sallies.”
But in spite of the achievements and pleasures of those years between the wars, Leonard Woolf felt they were going downhill. Their lives had become penetrated by politics. Impotently they beheld a series of disasters leading step by step to barbarism and war: the Versailles Treaty, the creation of Stalin’s Russia, the failure of the League of nations, the rise of fascism and Nazism. But their private life, too, was overwhelmed with misfortune. Many of their closest friends, including Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, and Virginia’s nephew the poet, Julian Bell, died. And then there were the ever deepening crises of Virginia’s health.
Her health was closely connected with her novels and the process of writing them. From politics, from what others, especially in the 1930′s, tended to think of as the “real world”, she seemed oddly isolated. “it’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us,” she wrote in “Jacob’s Room”, “its the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.” Her poetic genius needed stimulus from the outside world, yet she also needed protection against its cruelty. “Life is a luminous halo,” she explained in “Modern Fiction”, “a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” It seemed, sometimes, as if she were only half-born into the world, as if her wraithlike spirit never completely possessed her body. The probing, innocent curiosity she felt about life, though often passionate, was sometimes curiously bloodless. In place of the direct involvement that was denied her, she posed a string of improbable questions. What did it feel like to be a king? A man? A bus conductor? She speculated endlessly on the unknown; and for her the unknown was frequently the commonplace.
Her novels were intricately charted extensions of this process of self-examination. Between periods of importance flies the moment of significance, and it is this transient moment she catches and hold up for us to see. Like a bat, relying on sound waves alone to reach the geography of its surroundings, she put together a vision of life full of wisps and fragments: a shadow, a silhouette,
wig in the wind , the mark on a wall. What we overlook in the hurly-burly of modern living, what impresses itself only on our subconscious minds; this was her raw material as an novelist. She was like some special correspondent in a theatre who, unconcerned by the plot of the play, lies concealed in the dark recesses behind the stage and spies upon the actors as they re-touch their make-up between the acts.
As a novelist, Virginia Woolf specialized in anguished and often precariously balanced self-observation. Her best books hold in equilibrium sanity and insanity, reality and delusion, the concrete and the dream, granite and rainbow. But it is the dream that gives her books their special quality. As an ordinary land animal she was inexplicable, even ridiculous; as some deep sea creature, whose habits and moods could not be properly understood on the hard, matter- of -fact surface of things, she was sublime.
But reality kept breaking through, and for her it was a land of nightmare. Behind her brilliance there was always a hint of stress. The despair that engulfed her when she finished a book became deeper and more dangerous. Fearful of what the real world would say of the world she had created, she nursed a pathological hypersensitivity to criticism. Yet, despite the risks she knew were involved, she continued to work. She had no alternative: writing, after all, was her life.
In 1936, while she was revising “The Years”, she came closer to a complete mental breakdown than at any other time since 1913. She thought the book bad. “I wonder,” she wrote in her diary, “if anyone has ever suffered so much from a book as I have from “The Years”. She revised it ruthlessly, slowly recovered, and the novel became a best-seller.
Her next book, a biography of Roger Fry,in which every page was rewritten ten or fifteen times, was finished and the corrected proofs were returned to the printers on May 13, 1940. And with this, some sort of peace came to her spirit. Yet the war had now started and the bombs began to fall. The significance to Virginia was that death now showered itself under a different guise: not an invited guest, but an interloper.
The symptoms of serious mental illness appeared again at the end of January, 1941. She was revising the proofs of her last novel, “Between the Acts”. A desperate depression struck her. Her thought began to race beyond her control. She became terrified of madness. Leonard consulted specialists, did all he could to calm her. At lunchtime on Friday, March 28, he came in from the garden and found a letter from her on the sitting room mantelpiece:
I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.
I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
He could not find her anywhere in the house. He ran across the fields to the river. There, on the bank, lay her walking stick. It was three weeks before her body was found, floating in the river………
Illness, repression and the psychosomatic are recurrent themes in Woolf’s work. Though much has been made of her differences with Freud, his influence was substantial, and Woolf fused its elements of the unconscious and theories on “transfer” to Walter Pater’s theory on aesthetics which permitted Woolf to integrate dream states as a means to invoke deeper realities. The Bloomsbury group’s proximity to the Society of Psychical Research and its interest in the subconscious, the paranormal and parapsychology is evident in the art and literature of the group’s members.”Woolf was influenced by psychologists’ working hypotheses about many aspects of personality, and her extraordinarily sensitive antennae picked up psychological ideas in the air. In her own ambivalent, idiosyncratic way, Woolf acknowledged both of these sources in a draft of “Character in Fiction” (1924), a paper given before the Cambridge Heretics Society. She wrote:
No generation since the world began has known quite so much about character as our generation…. The average man or woman today thinks more about character than his or her grandparents; character interests them more; they get closer, they dive deeper in to the real emotions and motives of their fellow creatures. There are scientific reasons why this should be so. If you read Freud you know in ten minutes some facts–or at least some possibilities–which our parents could not have guessed for themselves. . And then there is a … vaguer force at work–a force which is sometimes called the Spirit of the Age or the Tendency of the age. This mysterious power is taking us by the hand, I think, and making us look much more closely into the reasons why people do a. nd say and think things. (Essays III 504)
Here Woolf chooses Freud as representative of scientists of the mind, perhaps not surprisingly, since by 1924 he had the highest profile of psychologists whose ideas were discussed by the Bloomsbury group. Understandably, those few critics who have examined psychological influence on Woolf limit themselves to analysis of her problematic attitude to Freud. Woolf’s claim that she knew psychoanalysis “only in the way of ordinary conversation” (Dec. 7, 1931) certainly does represent a severe understatement . Whether she fully realized it or not, the conversations she had about psychoanalysis were far from ordinary, since they took place with those who were at the forefront of the psychoanalytic movement in Britain, as critics Jan Goldstein, Elizabeth Abel, and Douglass Orr have demonstrated. However, prior to her exposure to psychoanalysis during the years 1914-1918, Woolf was aware of ideas of earlier proponents of “new” or what I have termed second wave psychology,…. ( George M. Johnson )
Her frequent references to variations on the train-of-thought metaphor demonstrate that she was aware of the importance of the differing types of association in memory. Allusions to the unconscious feelings of characters illustrate her familiarity with that concept. The information that she presents in the dreams within her narratives suggest that she held Sully’s view that dreams carried hidden messages about conflict in the distant psychic past. Similarly to Sully, Woolf dissolved the distinctions between sanity and insanity, expressing this through the theme of insanity versus visionary capabilities, which is particularly well developed in Mrs. Dalloway….
Most important, Woolf acknowledges the function of psychical research as a source for the modern attraction to the supernatural in her statement that “A rational age is succeeded by one which seeks the supernatural in the soul of man, and the development of psychical research offers a basis of disputed fact for this desire to feed upon” . The insights Woolf expresses show that she had given some thought to the psychological processes involved in the supernatural. Woolf notes that these processes are to be found in much modern fiction , and, it might be added, they can be located in her own fiction…..
…Though characters typically fail to achieve intimacy in the novel, Woolf does suggest that human beings connect most significantly on a psychic level, beyond or below language. On board ship, Clarissa Dalloway experiences “fantastic dreams,” and the narrator comments that The dreams were not confined to her indeed, but went from one brain to another. They all dreamt of each other that night, as was natural, considering how thin the partitions were between them, and how strangely they had been lifted off the earth to sit next each other in mid-ocean, and see every detail of each others’ faces, and hear whatever they chanced to say.