Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? The answer to Edward Albee's famous question must be: Biographers are afraid. Virginia Woolf is indisputably the most important and iconoclastic novelist of the 20th century, but a biography has yet to be written that both illumines her massive literary achievement and explores her complex private life. At fault: sexism, feminism and Freud.
Panthea Reid appears to tread fearlessly into the arena of genius with "Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf" (Oxford University Press, 545 pages. $30). Alas, appearances can be deceiving, and this biography, which should be tremendously satisfying due to previously unavailable and unpublished material, gets mired in the same psycho-babbling muck of previous books.
Perhaps the Big Problem Reid and other biographers can't get past is Woolf's suicide - a question of the end justifying the means. Woolf, rocks weighing down the pockets of her fur coat, walked into the river Ouse on March 21, 1941, at the height of World War II.
At the time, her death was attributed to an inability to cope with the war rather than to her lifelong battle with depression; she was deemed a coward in the press.
Intervening decades have found her equally misrepresented by biographers portraying her as dominated by others, psychologically and sexually. Yet this passive creature is the indomitable mistress of modern 20th-century letters, the woman who did for fiction what T.S. Eliot did for poetry. A conundrum.
Woolf was a true visionary. She wrote, rewrote, refined and revised until she developed a new way of looking at language. Reinventor of the novel, inventor of stream-of-consciousness fiction, expositor of feminist literary theory and premiere diarist of this or possibly any other age, Woolf's brilliance and ouevre remain unmatched. Yet biographers have ignored, dismissed or underplayed her genius.
The entrenched sexism of the male-dominated literary world of the pre-suffrage England in which Woolf lived insisted women could not write as well, as forcefully or as importantly as men-and perhaps shouldn't be writing at all. However, Woolf hasn't fared much better today; latter-day feminist academics promote their own victimizing agendas at her expense.
Each successive biography from Woolf's nephew Quentin Bell's creditable but unarguably sexist and nepotistic perspective in "Virginia Woolf: A Biography" to Louise de Salvo's irritatingly revisionist feminist infantilization, "Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work," has misunderstood Woolf's struggles and devalued the impact of her work.
Male and female biographers alike have fixated on the same theme: Woolf was crazy. She has been subject to an extraordinary amount of one-sided psychoanalysis on the part of biographers who have focused on her fragility rather than her formidable strengths.
"Art and Affection" is the latest attempt at deconstructing Woolf's psyche, positing a different theory of her life, art and mind. The results are mixed. Reid's exhaustive (and often
exhausting) research doesn't illuminate much; for a book so rich in primary sources, the text is curiously anemic.
Each successive psychoanalytic biography has Woolf beset by demons, corporeal as well as psychological. De Salvo wedges Woolf between an abusive father, Leslie Stephen and dominating husband, Leonard Woolf.
The feminist sophism here: men abused her; they made her crazy. More expansive, Reid rejects theories of sexual or spousal abuse, in fact at times reading like an apologia for Leslie and Leonard. She posits that Woolf remained driven from early childhood to her death by sibling rivalry with her older sister, the post-Impressionist painter, Vanessa Stephen Bell.
Woolf didn't receive the maternal attention she needed from her mother, Julia Duckworth Stephen, thus the young Virginia felt abandoned and yearned for female love. Though - thank the Goddess - Reid never goes truly Freudian to suggest this led to Woolf's lesbianism.
Reid acknowledges some sexual abuse of the young Virginia at the hands of her stepbrothers, George and Gerald Duckworth, but minimizes its impact. She also presents Virginia's relationship with her father as less oppressive than previous biographers have done, supplanting Leslie with Vanessa as the real dominant force in Virginia's life and heart.
Words to lure love
This yearning for maternal love, Reid declares, set up a lifelong dynamic in which Woolf sought her sister's affection, felt it outside her grasp (having a long flirtation with Clive Bell, Vanessa's husband, didn't help) and attempted to replace that need, or fulfill it, with art. According to Reid, Woolf wrote in opposition to her sister's painting and tried to lure love with words 'first from her father and later from a host of suitors including Violet Dickinson, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.
Reid edits her material to fit her argument, and therein lies the downfall of this extraordinarily well-researched but peculiarly lifeless book filled with too much, often dull, data.
Nearly the entire first half of the book delineates the Duckworth-Stephen-Bell-Woolf-Bloomsbury lineage with all the cohesion of a bad Russian novel. Reid also fixates on the psychological, outlining the many traumas of Virginia's early life, but never, maddeningly, explaining their influence. Why did Woolf remain a virgin until she was nearly 30 while her sister was bedding half of London's literati?
Why was she so frightened of "male sexual power" if the sexual abuse of her childhood and what Vanessa called her "Sapphist tendencies" meant nothing?
The second half of the book is more engaging, largely because of the reams of dishy material on the Bloomsbury group, though this too is presented so drily it flattens much of the intrigue. This section also includes Reid's sketchy and arbitrary commentary on Woolf's writing, focused more on Reid's thesis than Woolf's craft. It seems shameful that there only two paragraphs on "A Room of One's Own," the most important feminist treatise since Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Women."
The psychological delving does make some points, however. Manic depression had yet to be defined in Woolf's day; did it fuel her talent or did she persevere despite the "black hairy demons" that threatened her very sanity? Did her reliance on migraine medications and sleeping draughts further damage her fragile psyche and launch her into ever-deepening depressions?
Another illuminating aspect of Reid's book is a byproduct of her thesis. Reid writes compellingly of the influence of art critic and painter Roger Fry, Vanessa's longtime paramour, on Woolf's imagination. After decades of collaborations, his death began the spiralling depression of the last years of her life.
Finally "Art and Affection" begs another question beyond Albee's. Why is Woolf so elusive to biographers while lesser literary lights go overexposed?
Unlike other members of the now infamous Bloomsbury group, Woolf's work has lived on, well-read and much-deconstructed. As others of her circle fade into millennial obscurity, Woolf gains stature, the sheer volume of her work - letters, diaries, plays, essays, poetry and novels - prohibitive.
Why do biographers psychoanalyze her life and art rather than examine and extrapolate from it? Books like Reid's ultimately diminish Woolf's genius by attempting to explain it as something else, something other - as if the very idea of a woman having so great and iconoclastic a mind is in itself, madness.
Hence Woolf, creator of some of the most startlingly innovative fiction ever written, remains a brilliant, provocative enigma -- the woman who changed the way we think about language, art, women and the life of the mind.
Victoria A. Brownworth writes for many national publications and is the author and editor of numerous books, most recently "Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life" and "Out for More Blood: Tales of Malice and Retaliation by Women." She is currently at work on a history of women and social reform movements in the U.S. to be published next fall by Avon/Morrow.
Pub Date: 11/03/96