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Original Essays

An Inner Life

by Julia Briggs
  1. Virginia Woolf: an Inner Life
    $4.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Briggs has done an extraordinarily skillful job of interweaving Woolf's experience as a writer with her experience as a woman in the world....That this book is a must for Woolf fans goes without saying, but it is also a must for anyone interested in the nature of female consciousness at its most self-aware and the workings of artistic sensibility at their most illuminating. Daphne Merkin, Publishers Weekly
It is the 7th of February 1922: an artist is standing at a desk, in a high tower, its windows looking out on snow-capped mountains. If we peer over the artist's shoulder, we can watch the words being formed on the page:

Nowhere...can the world exist except within us.
Our life passes in transformations,
And what is outside us grows steadily smaller, until it vanishes...
Virginia Woolf also liked to write standing up, but what she shares above all with this twentieth-century poet is a sense of the importance of the inner life. This inward turn characterises the modernist movement, a turn away from the action-packed novels and the detail-crammed paintings of the nineteenth century, towards the life of the mind. Woolf's aim as a writer was to record that life, and she found her greatest pleasure in living the life of the imagination.

In an early draft of her first novel, written some time before 1912, her heroine talks of "the world of things that aren't there, which was splendidly vigorous and far more real than the other. She felt that one never spoke of the things that mattered, but carried them about, until a note of music, or a sentence or a sight, joined hands with them." Towards the end of her life, in 1937, she told Stephen Spender, "I think action generally unreal. It's the thing we do in the dark that is more real; the thing we do because people's eyes are on us seems to me histrionic, small boyish."

Woolf's concern with the inner life made her impatient with the biographies of her day, and she often made fun of them, or exposed their shortcomings. This became a problem for her when she took on the task of writing a "straight" (in every sense) biography of the art critic Roger Fry. Here artistic truthfulness and self-discipline prevented her from recreating his life out her own imagination, as she could have done had he been a fictional character. Her solution was to use his writings and those of his friends to relate his life, however as she wrote, she longed to let go of facts and let imagination take over, but she never found the right place to do so.

Her husband Leonard was disappointed with her life of Fry: he thought she had tackled it the wrong way, and later readers have generally agreed with him. But the method she adopted of allowing her subject to speak for himself may well be the best one can do for anyone as articulate as Roger Fry — or, for that matter, for Virginia Woolf herself. Allowing the subject to speak for herself was important to me in writing my account, and I was convinced from the outset that focusing upon Woolf's writings would allow me to find new angles, and to tell her story in a new and different way; above all, it would lead me towards that inwardness which Woolf herself valued so highly. Of course, I was also conscious of her conviction, obvious from her third novel, Jacob's Room, that it is impossible to know another human being, and I was also conscious (as was Woolf) that all biography is actually autobiography, since we can only tell a story about another person by relating it to what we know or understand of ourselves. Yet by using Woolf's words from her diaries and letters, by examining the early drafts of her books, I could give a more objective portrait of her, avoiding some of the wilder forms of speculation. Even so, the context and argument in which Woolf's words were set, and the particular interpretation I gave them, these were inevitably and unavoidably personal.

Taking Woolf's writings as my starting point opened up a number of new ways of seeing them: it didn't offer a single grand overview, but it did offer a series of particular insights into particular books, as well as into a more general picture of how her books relate to one another, how they create not a continuous line but an argument among themselves, and a kind of zigzagging progress. And it revealed her in an unexpectedly heroic light.

Because I was using Woolf's books to explore her life as a writer, I began with her first novel, The Voyage Out, asking myself when she began writing it and why. And, surprisingly, this question wasn't all that easy to answer, because Woolf did not really begin keeping a diary until 1915, when this novel was published, and it is from her diaries that we learn most about the whole process of the conception, composition, and revision of her fiction. Recently some fragments of a journal of 1909 turned up, but disappointingly they tell us nothing about the progress of her first novel, although she was certainly writing it at the time. Her 1915 diary, by contrast, tells us about her early plans for her second book (it was to be Night and Day, but she hadn't yet hit upon the final title) and what reading she was doing in preparation for writing it.

So when and how did The Voyage Out begin? Letters to her sister Vanessa Bell and to her close friend Violet Dickinson refer to writing plans, but these are vague, and don't tell us what it actually was that she was writing. In fact, the first definite reference to it does not occur in Virginia's writings at all, but in that of her brother-in-law, Clive Bell, who began a diary on the first of January 1908, which he managed to keep for almost a month. At any rate, on January the second, he wrote, "Reading Froude's Carlyle, Dante and Virginia's Sarah, first part poor, last part excellent, very penetrating and often exquisite." Sarah was not the name of the book's heroine (she is called Rachel), but it was probably the name of the ship that carries Rachel and the Ambroses to South America at that stage (later it became the Sarah Jane, and later still, the Euphrosyne).

Knowing that there was a first and last part suggests that she had written enough for Clive to look at. But if there was enough for him to read by January 1908, Woolf must have begun writing in 1907, which pushes its conception back to a decisive and difficult moment in Virginia's life. Late in 1906, Virginia and her sister Vanessa, with their brothers Thoby and Adrian and their friend Violet Dickinson, travelled to Greece and Constantinople together, where Vanessa, Violet, and Thoby all fell ill. Vanessa and Violet slowly recovered, but Thoby died — the doctors had failed to diagnose typhoid and had done all the wrong things. After his death, his friend Clive Bell proposed to Vanessa and she accepted.

The two years of peace and happiness that had followed the trauma of their father's death in 1904 fell to pieces, leaving Virginia to look after her younger brother Adrian, whom she did not get on with easily, and also to move out of their home at Gordon Square since Clive and Vanessa had decided to live there. Virginia, almost the youngest, had always and would always long to be looked after. She was deeply upset, and yet she coped: with huge courage, she found not only a new home for herself and Adrian at 29 Fitzroy Square, but also a whole new career. She was miserable; she missed Vanessa unbearably, and at first hated Clive for having taken her away, but she picked up the threads of her life, and made the most important decision of all — that she would become a novelist. The earliest drafts of The Voyage Out date from the summer of 1907, when Vanessa was pregnant, and Clive Bell gradually became not just an ally but a confidant and her earliest reader. So this moment of reluctant independence turns out to be the moment of commitment to her vocation, and the lonely new life imposed by Vanessa's decision to marry became the most important choice of her life.

Following the progress of her writing offers many insights into the close relationship between writing and living: her comparative conventional second novel can partly be explained by the conditions under which she wrote it, recovering from her worst ever breakdown. She was under a strict regime of frequent meals, limited social engagements, and early bed, and only allowed to write for a few hours each day. She told her friend Lytton Strachey that she despaired of finishing the book "on this method...I write one sentence — the clock strikes — Leonard appears with a glass of milk."

Other books have their own stories to tell: the writing of Mrs. Dalloway, despite how it is shown in The Hours (but then it is wonderful that a popular book and film should represent the writing process at all), did not come out of her struggle with madness, but after it. It was written when she felt sufficiently in control of her feelings to explore them, to analyse what had happened to her during her breakdown and to use it artistically. The impact of her love affair with Vita Sackville-West can be seen less clearly in Orlando (a fantasy portrait of Vita), than in To the Lighthouse, written at the height of their relationship, since it gave her the confidence to turn back and explore the lost happiness of a childhood that had utterly vanished when her mother died — she was only thirteen. And her books dart from the seriousness of To the Lighthouse to the comedy of Orlando, back to her deepest and most experimental novel The Waves, and from there to an extended historical investigation of the changing roles of women from the 1880s to the 1930s in The Years. This was a book that grew and grew until it was unmanageably long. It was followed by Between the Acts, which records historical change on a much larger scale, but this time the action is packed tight into twelve hours, in a single house, with a small cast of characters. Yet perhaps her greatest and the most heroic achievement was the writing of The Waves — for months, she had no idea what it was going to be about, and her diary repeats over and over, "I don't know," and "yet there's something there" — a conviction that sustained her as she wrote this most experimental, most poetic, and most mysterious of her novels.

And in case you are still wondering, it was Rainer Maria Rilke who stood at his desk in February 1922, composing the seventh of his Duino Elegies. spacer

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