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Virginia Woolf knew there were deaths visible to the public and deaths that occurred deep within one's heart and mind to which no one else is witness. The Victorian period was an incubator for the private death of every woman's thoughts and ideas. Woolf laments, "There is no woman in the Cabinet; nor in any responsible post. All the idea makers who are in a position to make ideas effective are men…Why not bury the head in the pillow, plug the ears, and cease this futile activity of idea-making?" (1Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid).
In her essay Evening Over Essex: Reflections in a Motor Car, Woolf captured the sequence that kept repeating in her life -- a sequence all too common during the period in which Woolf lived: "Also there was disappearance and the death of the individual. The vanishing road and the window lit for a second and then dark." (1) The last of her written words in The Waves -- used as her epitaph -- provide a touchstone for Woolf's life experiences and the experiences of characters in her stories. Woolf wrote: "Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!" She flung herself mentally against death, falling into a mental break down with each subsequent death she lived through. It is impossible to separate the difficult circumstances of Woolf's life from her disordered thinking that were a result of her mental illness. Regardless of whether it was schizophrenia or bipolar disease that sat on Woolf's shoulder, her condition was relentless, ever threatening to cloud her thoughts, generate overwhelming anxiety, or rev her mental processes to the breaking point.
It does appear that Woolf's despondency was an artifact of her inability to prevent the deaths of those around her. Many of her essays deal specifically with the topic of death: "Mrs. Crowe Is Dead" (Portrait of a Londoner); "The Insignificant little creative now knew death" (The Death of the Moth); and "He died two nights ago, of some foreign fever." (Three Pictures); and Death is cheerful here, one felt." (The Three Gates) She would later write, "[D]eath is stronger than I am." (386, The Death of the Moth).
Throughout her life, Woolf continued to have experience mental breakdown -- often when life became unbearable through deaths of family members and beloved friends, her marriage, publication of a novel, and other life-altering events. In some of Woolf's essays, death is used as metaphor, standing for something other than the ending of life. But in many other stories, death is just what it is -- the random passing of a loved one. The helplessness that Woolf likely experienced directly from her failure to eliminate the suffering and death of those around her is expressed in her writing, "Her body was wrapped round the pain as a damp sheet is folded over a wire. The wire was spasmodically jerked by a cruel invisible hand." (1 Old Mrs. Grey)
In the spring of 1941, Woolf was determined not to go on experiencing these dark depressive periods of her mania; they kept her from writing, which was her lifeblood.
These periods of depression and mental breakdown, were internal deaths that brought normalcy to a halt; but the flip side of her despondency was the constrained life afforded a woman of intelligence -- some would say genius -- in the Victorian era. This repression was killing her softly. Her breakdowns occurred against the Victorian backdrop that closed off the intellectual world to women -- circumstances that would particularly bring suffering to the bright and creative Woolf. That Woolf found meaning in her writing goes without saying, though she herself avowed this was true. That Woolf found relief during her writing can be surmised from her words, "Letter-writing was in its way a substitute for opium." (1 The Man at the Gate) Her writing takes on a stream-of-consciousness style that depicts, intentionally or not, the sort of self-talk in which a schizophrenic engages. Her narrative style fosters the free flow of unfiltered perceptions, thoughts, and ideas as, one would assume, they occurred to Woolf during her writing.
The ideas may be as unpredictable as the voices that Woolf sometimes heard, flitting from one thought to the next, apparently without concern for the effect this ungoverned thought had on the protagonists -- or on Woolf, who wrote, "Thoughts proliferated. Like her father she had a Surinam toad in her head, breeding other toads." (1 Sara Coleridge) Once apprised of Woolf's mental illness, the reader is left to wonder if her narrative stems from experiencing several selves. She writes, that, "(it is well-known how in circumstances like these the self splits up and one self is eager and dissatisfied and the other stern and philosophical)…While these two selves then held a colloquy about the wise course to adopt in the presence of beauty, I (a third party now declared itself) said to myself. (386 The Death of the Moth)
Let us go then and buy this pencil. But just as we are turning to obey the command, another self disputes the right of the tyrant to insist. The usual conflict comes about…we see it through the eyes of somebody who is leaning over the Embankment on a summer evening, without a care in the world. Let us put off buying the pencil; let us go in search of this person -- and soon it becomes apparent that this person is ourselves. For if we could stand there where we stood six months ago, should we not be again as we were then -- calm, aloof, content? Let us try then." (1 Street Haunting: A London Adventure)
Woolf's characters react and interact in the moment, and flash back to past memories, creating a backstory that is articulated in the present moments and events. Woolf's lucid days may have seemed to her to be a gift -- a glimmer of the ordinary, precious because they existed without the contamination of her mental illness. From this perspective, it is understandable that Woolf may have used the conceit of telling a protagonist's story all in the course of a single day. In Portrait of a Londoner, Woolf wrote: "Mrs. Crowe by no means dwelt in the past -- she by no means exalted it above the present. Indeed, it was always the last page, the present moment that mattered the most" (119). Woolf grabs and holds on to the profundity of each day of her characters' lives, and then puts them under a microscope -- under a magnifying glass. In her mind, moments are golden coins: "The moment was stabilized, stamped like a coin indelibly among a million that slipped by imperceptibly." (1 Street Haunting: A London Adventure)
The reader can get a feel for what Woolf thought of her own writing style in her essay for Writing for My Eye Only which is about her personal journaling.
The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old columns, is not to play the part of censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, & found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time. But looseness quickly becomes slovenly. A little effort is needed to face a character or an incident which needs to be recorded.
Upon reading her own writing after an absences, Woolf confessed that she found it a "rough and random style" that was quite ungrammatical, often missing just the right word, and in need of editing. As a general rule, Woolf was apprehensive about letting her work out into the public eye -- she felt or knew she could write better than what she was doing. On the other hand, Woolf felt…[continue]
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