“…who shall measure the heat and violence of a poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” is one of my favourite quotes. Indeed, this strange predicament is personified, beyond comparison, by Virginia Woolf, the most influential woman writer from the Modernist phase. No other writer has probed and discovered, to such great depths, the scope, nature and nurture of women’s writing of past, present and future.
Virginia Woolf was born on January 25, 1882 in London, as the third child to influential parents. Her father was an eminent man of letters and her mother was a self-sacrificing socialite. She proved her skill as a writer at age 10, becoming the editor of the family newspaper. Endowed with an exceptional spirit of will power and the ability to write for over ten hours at a stretch, she battled many bouts of mental illness that plagued her life throughout, and produced an awe-inspiring collection of essays, novels, biographies, letters and memoirs by the time she ended her life at the age of 59 on March 28, 1941.
Woolf strived to create a new form of novel writing, a style suited to the emotional and intellectual needs of the day, one that respected the dramatic changes that the English society underwent post the First World War. She achieved this through her avant-garde novels Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Orlando, wherein she liberated the conventional linear plot line and fixed characterisations of 19th century fiction. In her novels, time, reality, consciousness and memory flow together in a seamless wave of unity. The author attained worldwide acclaim through her experimentation with the use of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ method, which was also popularized by writers like James Joyce and William Falkner. Woolf tried to “re-form” the English novel writing traditions from the “realistic” and pre-defined Victorian clutches, into a Surrealistic form that endeavoured to unearth the meaning of life and humanity through an inspection of the quotidian activities of society. She wished to delve deeper into her characters’ minds, by “tunneling” into their consciences and “burrowing” out invaluable information about individual and shared experiences.
Although the early deaths of her parents and siblings adversely affected Woolf’s emotional stability and pushed her over the precipice of depression, she later admitted that if her father had been alive, she would never have been allowed to realise her true potential as a writer. It was her association with the Bloomsbury group in her early 20s that propelled Virginia into the bohemian elite milieu of London that valued art, literature and creativity over constraining notions of morality, family values and class boundaries. It was here that she met her husband Leonard Woolf, who became her companion and confidante throughout life.
One of Woolf’s works which strongly influenced me is Room of One’s Own, wherein the author talks about the need for 500 pounds a year and a room of one’s own to spark the “incandescence” in a writer’s mind. She firmly believes that economic independence and a personal space devoid of distractions are essential requirements for creativity to bloom. Her narration of the experiences of the character Mary Seton, Woolf’s doppelganger, at Oxbridge, a fictional men’s university modelled on the likes of Cambridge and Oxford, is a stinging attack on the hypocrisies of the male dominated education system. Mary Seton is upbraided for walking across the University lawns, past the Chapel and entering the library without an accompanying male. Woolf delivered these experiences at a 1928 lecture at Newnham and Girton, women’s colleges at Cambridge. She also contrasted the luxurious food served at the men’s college with the meagre meals provided at women’s halls; believing that quality literature could only be produced when one’s worldly needs of safety, independence, food and entertainment were appeased.
While at the university, Woolf spots a truncated cat ambling across the courtyard. The oddity off this female tailless cat sets forth a series of images in the author’s mind, including the plight of a fictional character Judith Shakespeare. Woolf wonders why there is so little information regarding women’s lives and literature from the Elizabethan period, an era famous for its literary richness. She answers this by imagining the plight of Shakespeare’s sister who is equally gifted and ambitious. Forced to marry at the tender age of 16, Judith flees from home and arrives in London, with the hopes of making it big in the theatres. For the sole reason of being a woman, her genius is disregarded and she has to take to prostitution to sustain herself. The only respectable recourse left for her is suicide, and her remains, Woolf says, might still be lying beneath one of the crossroads at South Bank. Woolf also concerned herself with the question of women’s equality with men in marriage, and she brilliantly evoked the inequality of her parents’ marriage in her novel To the Lighthouse (1927).
Woolf’s preoccupation with freedom of living and writing was exemplified through the establishment of Hogarth Press, jointly owned and operated by herself and Leonard Woolf. The press printed and published some of the notable works of the times, including T.S Eliot’s Wasteland and writings of Clive Bell and John Middleton Murry. Woolf’s unconventional writing and lifestyle were also evident through her association with Vita Sackville-West and her sister and painter Vanessa Bell.
From her earliest days, Woolf had framed experience in terms of oppositions, even while she longed for a holistic state beyond binary divisions. The “perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow” Woolf described in her essay “The New Biography” typified her approach during the 1930s to individual works and to a balance between writing works of fact and of imagination. The true writer emerges beyond his/her personal ego and puts forward a writing that defies gender biases. Thus the writing becomes predominantly “androgynous”- a combination of male and female ideologies that Woolf portrayed through her character Orlando.
Woolf is one of the first women writers who wrote about feminist concerns and advocated the ideal methods that a woman can utilize to produce great literature. She also examined the reasons for male indifference to women’s genius. Men fear about female encroachment into their traditional areas of strength-politics, government and arts. Hence they relegated women to the restricting sphere of home and domestic duties which prevented them from engaging in social activities. Women were barred from attaining formal education, and hence Woolf felt that the new novel form would help them carve a niche to portray singularly feminine experiences and realities.
As time passed, Virginia’s mental health progressively declined to the point where she felt incapable of differentiating reality from fantasy. Her deep frustrations with her illness caused her to commit suicide, so that she needn’t vex her loved ones with her ailment. Although she had expressed her desire to “burn all my papers” to Leonard in her suicide note, her loving husband disregarded this request and preserved all her remarkable contributions to world literature. Woolf’s haunting language, her prescient insights into wide-ranging historical, political, feminist, and artistic issues, and her revisionist experiments with novelistic form during a remarkably productive career altered the course of Modernist and postmodernist literature.