by Anitra Pavlico
In Louise DeSalvo’s introduction to a 1991 edition of Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, she describes Woolf’s childhood incest and how she incorporates it into the novel. DeSalvo also discusses an earlier incarnation of the novel, Melymbrosia, which is much more overt in its references to incest. The Voyage Out, on the other hand, can easily be read without guessing at any of its author’s tragic history. DeSalvo, a scholar who spent seven years assembling Melymbrosia from Woolf’s papers in the archives of the New York Public Library, points out that it would have been illegal for Woolf to render incestuous experiences in print.
DeSalvo discusses Woolf’s half-brothers, Gerald and George, and their disturbing misdeeds. They were the sons of Woolf’s mother Julia and her first husband Herbert Duckworth, who died when Julia was pregnant with Gerald. Woolf described only many years later how Gerald had manually fondled her “private parts” when he was seventeen and she was five. George’s actions are harder to pin down. It seems he was someone who wanted to push boundaries, veering into flirtation and overly physical displays of affection, but still wanted to come across as the lovable, amiable older brother. Viviane Forrester notes in her 2015 biography of Woolf that Virginia and her sister Vanessa ruthlessly denounced George for the rest of their lives, but Virginia kept to herself the details of Gerald’s assault until only three months before her death.
It was not only Virginia Woolf’s half-brothers who were a troubling presence in her life. Forrester stresses that it was Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, who “would haunt Virginia to the last, torn as she was by hate, love, but especially repression. . . . A mention of him in her diary, even in passing . . . and there, a few lines or pages or days later, we find depression. Manifest. It at first seems like coincidence, but it isn’t, it occurs systematically.” A week before her suicide, Virginia wrote to a friend that she was trying to arrange some of her father’s old books; for months she had been absorbed in his books, papers, and letters.
After Virginia’s mother died, when Virginia was only thirteen, her father pined for Julia and created an oddly erotic atmosphere, animated by what Forrester bluntly describes as a “fetish bordering on necrophilia”: “Leslie would make this loss the excuse for horrid scenes, sordid hours, an insidiously incestuous atmosphere.” He strikes one as an extraordinarily weak and self-centered man who seems to have forgotten that not only did he lose his wife, but seven children had lost their mother. Leslie’s “appetites masked under his lamentations” eventually found an object in Stella Duckworth, Julia’s daughter with Herbert. Virginia later wrote that after her mother died, “in those days nothing was clear,” and that “suddenly [Stella] was placed in the utmost intimacy” with Leslie, who “expected entire self-surrender on her part.” In a letter written the same day as Stella’s marriage, Leslie writes to her that “The world seems to have turned topsy-turvy with me since this morning & I feel as I felt when I picked myself up after a fall. . . . The terrible sorrow I have gone through has taught me to know you as I never knew you before & to feel that you have–what could I say more expressive?–the same nature as my darling [Julia].” As Forrester puts it, both Leslie and Stella knew what he was trying to pull, and that it couldn’t work; the siblings knew as well, and “were all ashamed–above all, of knowing.” Woolf would for many years catch herself arguing with her father silently, venting her rage against him. At fifty-eight years old she wrote: “How deep they drove themselves into me, the things it was impossible to say aloud.”
Echoes of Virginia’s life can be heard throughout her fiction, if you know what to listen for. In The Voyage Out, the 24-year-old protagonist Rachel Vinrace embarks on a voyage to Argentina with her aunt and uncle and several other travelers. Her aunt, Helen Ambrose, suspects Rachel’s father of “nameless atrocities” toward his daughter and of “bullying” his wife, who is now deceased, but she does not ask Rachel about it. After Rachel, who has been denied a proper education and has been living with two elderly aunts, is kissed by Richard Dalloway, a married man who has joined the expedition with his wife, she is haunted that night by nightmarish visions:
She dreamt that she was walking down a long tunnel, which grew so narrow by degrees that she could touch the damp bricks on either side. At length the tunnel opened and became a vault; she found herself trapped in it, bricks meeting her wherever she turned, alone with a little deformed man who squatted on the floor gibbering, with long nails. His face was pitted and like the face of an animal. The wall behind him oozed with damp, which collected into drops and slid down. . . . All night long barbarian men harassed the ship; they came scuffling down the passages, and stopped to snuffle at her door.
When telling Helen what had happened, Rachel exclaims that she hates men. “‘I thought you said you liked him?’ said Helen. ‘I liked him, and I liked being kissed,’ she answered, as if that only added more difficulties to her problem.” Helen tells herself she needs to get Rachel to open up to her, “to understand why this rather dull, kindly, plausible politician had made so deep an impression on her, for surely at the age of twenty-four this was not natural.” Nothing ever does come to light, however. We get only glimpses. Rachel’s elderly aunts, in whose care her father left her, “were very much afraid of her father. . . . He was good-humoured towards them, but contemptuous. She had always taken it for granted that his point of view was just, and founded upon an ideal scale of things where the life of one person was absolutely more important than the life of another, and that in that scale they were [of] much less importance than he was.” He is apparently too important to be questioned about his actions or about his subsequent neglect of Rachel.
A recurring theme in The Voyage Out is love–falling in love, wondering if others have ever been in love–and alongside that, marriage–longing to be married, but wondering if one could ever be happily married. Rachel tells Clarissa Dalloway that she herself will never get married and asks: “Why do people marry?” Then, sure enough, she meets another English tourist, Terence Hewet, and falls in love–but in her awkward way, as she is completely unknowledgeable about relations between men and women, she manages to fall for someone who in the early days of their relationship thought to himself that “he was not in love with her. Did love begin in that way, with the wish to go on talking? No. It always began in his case with definite physical sensations, and these were now absent, he did not even find her physically attractive.”
An uncanny parallel can be found between Rachel and Terence on one hand and Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf on the other. Forrester turns a gimlet eye on Leonard and explodes many of the myths that surround him and Virginia. Leonard, she writes, was (while not homosexual) terrified of and repulsed by women. Before their marriage, while in Ceylon–having failed out of Cambridge and been forced to take a post abroad–Leonard was desperate, felt like a failure, was “fragile, neurasthenic . . . a discouraged, ruined man” with “suicidal tendencies.” He saw a marriage to Virginia as the best way out of his dire situation. For him it was hardly a marriage for love, but instead to improve his status. Forrester disputes the story of Virginia as frigid: on the contrary, she writes, it was Leonard who was terrified by the passion she displayed on their honeymoon and who put the kibosh on sexual relations because he felt she was too mentally unstable to be subjected to it. Forrester notes that Leonard’s autobiography on his honeymoon mentions the food at length, and Virginia hardly at all.
Leonard also, without Virginia’s knowledge, consulted doctors about her mental condition–and hiding behind some of these doctors’ diagnoses-in-absentia (not all were in agreement), Leonard determined unilaterally that they should not have children. It was a huge blow for Virginia. By all accounts she loved children. She was often angry at herself for not having defied Leonard and the doctors; she later wrote to a friend, “My own fault too–a little more self control on my part, & we might have had a boy of 12, a girl of 10: This always makes me wretched in the early hours.” Leonard was certainly supportive of Virginia’s work, and he considered her a genius. For the most part they seem to have had a satisfying, companionable marriage, bound by love of books, conversation, and the work together at their publishing house Hogarth Press. But it is possible that Rachel Vinrace’s misgivings about marriage came directly from Virginia’s own experience. Virginia wrote to her friend Ethel Smyth: “I married Leonard Woolf in 1912, I think, and almost immediately was ill for 3 years.”
Such was Virginia Woolf’s life that we have not even considered the effects on her of the early deaths of her half-sister Stella and of her brother Thoby, who taught her Greek and whom she adored. Her mother Julia was distant and spared only a few minutes at a time for her. Shall we also consider that at the end of her life, bombs were dropping around her and Leonard? It is impossible to imagine their fear, especially since they were on Hitler’s blacklist. Knowing what he knew of Virginia’s sensitivity, propensity to melancholy, and her earlier breakdown at age 22, should Leonard necessarily have made a mutual pact with her to commit suicide if the Nazis landed? Suicide was in the air at the Woolf household. And yet when it came down to it, Leonard was terrified when Virginia began to descend into deep melancholy in 1940. In March 1941, a few weeks before her death, Forrester describes Virginia returning from a walk “soaked, distraught; she claims to have slipped in a stream. No doubt a first attempt. But no one to rally around her. Leonard, terrified, seems to withdraw still further.” Forrester is brutal here: “Leonard has nothing to offer. He is always talking of ‘tak[ing] steps,’ but goes in circles, not knowing what those measures are. In any case, it’s too late now, but he never considered asking Virginia, talking to her, listening to her.”
In The Voyage Out there are several references to the opposition of music to words. One woman tells Rachel (who is awkward at conversation, but a very talented pianist), after she has played for the group, “I just adore music. It just seems to say all the things one can’t say oneself.” Rachel later asks Terence why he writes novels, telling him he should write music, because it “goes straight for things. It says all there is to say at once.” As many times as I have circled around it in the last few weeks, Virginia’s story always ends the same way. There is always another reason to uncover, or a person to blame, but her decision and the timing will always be mysterious to me. Virginia and Leonard had previously talked about how the fifth movement of Beethoven’s Op. 130 string quartet was well-suited to a cremation, but he was so horrified after her suicide that he could not arrange for it. When he returned home that evening, having been the only person to attend her cremation, he listened to the cavatina. It is beautiful, and says all there is to say at once.
Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out (Penguin Books, 1991); introduction by Louise DeSalvo
Viviane Forrester, Virginia Woolf: A Portrait (Columbia University Press, 2015); translated by Jody Gladding
Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, 5th movement (Cavatina), played here by the Guarneri Quartet