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.