The Whip Descends
Virginia Woolf: A Portrait
By Viviane Forrester, Translated by Jody Gladding
New York: Columbia UP, 2015.
Why are we drawn to read the same story again and again? Why do some lives continue to interest us even when the facts are familiar? In the case of Virginia Woolf, we return to hear how art emerged from this life, begun in a privileged home, full of art and books, but shattered by all those early deaths—the mother, the half-sister, the father, and the brother. We wonder where the biographer will come down on the question of Leonard Woolf, her husband: was he the cause of her suicide attempt, early in their marriage, or her saviour? A loving nurse and helper or a tyrannical jail keeper? We read on, interested to hear again the story of a writer, at once privileged and burdened by grief. How did she escape? How did she create?
As biographies go, Viviane Forrester’s newly translated portrait of Virginia Woolf would be a terrible source for one’s first answers to these questions. But as a second or third account of Woolf’s life, it offers unexpected insights and useful challenges to settled ideas about Woolf, her friendships, her marriage, and her imagination. Progressing in sections through five key relationships in Woolf’s life—her husband, her family of origin, her sister Vanessa Bell and Bloomsbury, other writers, and death itself. Forrester’s book emphasizes deep psychological motivations, proceeding through leaps of logic, sometimes dazzling, other times, tenuous. It begins with a long discussion of Leonard’s unhappy posting in Sri Lanka and barely mentions her novels at all. When the fiction comes in, however, Forrester often offers an astute and interesting connection to Woolf’s life. Bad or lazy biographers draw straight lines, linking historical figures to fictional characters. Forrester never does that. Instead, she shows patterns of imagery, suggestive links, taking up seldom-quoted diary entries and juxtaposing them against less-familiar passages from the novels to illuminate something that, at its best, seems both fresh and apt.
Forrester, who died in 2013, brought several salient personal and intellectual qualifications to the task of writing about Virginia Woolf. She was a French Jewish intellectual and feminist. She married the English painter John Forrester and after a few years, they lived separately, but never divorced. Her obituary in Le Monde mentions the dignity with which she bore the pain of her son’s suicide. Born Viviane Dreyfus into an affluent Jewish family (her mother’s family hosted Débussy in their home, where he died), she recalled in her autobiography the Second World War and her family’s exile from France. This forced her to recognize at age fifteen that she was more Jewish than French where, before, she had thought of herself as “not Catholic.” Her first book was a novel, but it was her 1973 book-length essay on Virginia Woolf that first brought her to the attention of the French public. That book emerged in response to the appearance of Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt Virginia. Bell accepted Leonard’s characterization of Woolf as apolitical, dismissed her lesbianism, emphasized her madness while downplaying her commitment to feminism, all shadings that continue to affect the public perception of Woolf down to this day. As Forrester notes, “No one thought at the time—or since, really—of the contradiction between a woman judged as simultaneously frigid and too ‘excited.’ Both grounds for rejecting her.” Novels and essays followed, including an acclaimed study of Van Gogh. Woolf remained a touchstone in the decades that followed. At the behest of the British Council, Forrester organized and acted in a 1982 performance of Woolf’s comic play Freshwater at the Pompidou Center, with Eugene and Rodica Ionesco, Nathalie Sarraute, and other writers playing parts. Already a prominent public intellectual, her 1996 condemnation of rampant neo-liberalism and capitalist greed, The Economic Horror, brought her greater fame and exposed her to greater criticism, some of it pointedly misogynist. Virginia Woolf: A Portrait, originally published in 2009, and only now translated into English, remains in conversation with—and angry at—the casual misogyny of Quentin Bell. In short, Forrester’s life contained many of the key elements of Woolf’s, but arranged differently: haute-bourgeois family, close acquaintance with painters (a husband, a sister), intellectual background, a mixed Jewish-Protestant marriage that saw strains but endured, and suicide. These personal connections, these experiences, similar but different, add poignancy and authority to her several meditations on living in an atmosphere of anti-Semitism, the artist’s life, and the complex factors that lead to suicide.
We first enter Woolf’s world through her relationship with Leonard, the man who was her husband and an outsider. Forrester is deft in imagining and speculating about Leonard’s desire to remain for life in the Cambridge social and intellectual world where he, as a Jew, could never have retained a place without an alliance such as his marriage to Virginia:
Strangely enough, that is where Leonard’s strength resides: in the power of his tragic ardor, as later, in the energy, the endless energy required to keep from expressing it, to hold that ardor in check to ensure his decisive status, never again to find himself an outcast, forever to be respected above all (even if it meant being cowardly sometimes in order to maintain this; even if it meant feigning ignorance of the anti-Semitism to which he was often openly subjected, even among his close friends).
Forrester moves from speculations on how British anti-Semitism, from the beginning of the 20th century up to the rise of the Nazis at the time of Woolf’s death may have played a role in Woolf’s suicide, back to 1917 and the Woolfs’ purchase of a printing press, all within a discussion of Leonard’s second partner, Trekkie Parsons, whom he got to know through her husband’s interest in acquiring the Hogarth Press. It is an essayistic sweep that repays patience. The second part focuses on Woolf’s family of origin, moving from mother, to half-sister, to father, to brother, progressing from death to death as Woolf herself does in Moments of Being. The portrait continues with a consideration of her relationship with Vanessa, taking detours to discuss Bloomsbury love affairs, and connecting that emotional drama to the tempestuous emotions and ambivalent commitments of Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. The fourth part looks at Woolf at among her contemporary writers, with amusing discussions of her reactions to Joyce, Eliot, and Lawrence and this memorable description of Woolf at work: “Leonard and the milk will no longer do anything but come in, go out—a man nursing a woman he has denied children! Nothing will interrupt Virginia at work anymore. At work, she is untouchable.” The book ends with her end, a discussion of suicide and suicidal imagery in Woolf’s work.
Forrester is particularly good at drawing apt, intuitive connections that offer genuine psychological insights. For the most part, these connections are essayistic rather than scholarly, emerging out of a French tradition of thinking deeply on a subject and allowing metaphoric connections to hold rhetorical weight. While these observations contrast with the more dogged, literal style of Anglo-American documentation, they nonetheless offer us a way of imagining Virginia Woolf. For example, at the beginning of a discussion of the many deaths Woolf endured in adolescence and early adulthood, Forrester quotes one of Septimus’s thoughts from Mrs. Dalloway, “The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?” It’s a striking phrase, aphoristic in its power. I cannot document its source, but I share Forrester’s perception that the connection is right: Septimus’s sense of the world’s malevolence and threat derives power from Woolf’s deep experience of loss. Just a few pages later, she quotes a haunting phrase from the diary: “All life seemed a shipwreck.” Here, Forrester uses Woolf’s metaphors as a key to her psychology and the result is both surprising and provocative.
Twenty-five years ago, when the news was full of stories of incest and sexual abuse, Woolf’s own experiences became sensationalized and those whose vision of Woolf’s life centered around seeing her as a survivor of child sexual abuse and incest, had their day. At keynote address at the first Woolf Conference in 1990, Louise deSalvo broke down in tears, sobbing, “I just keep thinking about Laura…” Even avid readers of Virginia Woolf’s life and work may need a moment to remember who Laura was, let alone her fate. Laura Stephen was Woolf’s half-sister, a daughter from her father Leslie Stephen’s first marriage. (His first wife died when Laura was five.) Laura outlived Woolf by four years. Deemed an “idiot” by her family, treated by the doctor for whom Down Syndrome was named, and suffering from mental challenges that continue to elude diagnosis, Laura spent her adult life in an institution. (For more on Laura, see Victoria Olsen’s discussion of her life in these pages, and Hilary Newman’s Bloomsbury Heritage pamphlet on the topic). The appearance of Hermione Lee’s masterful biography in 1996 added a welcome corrective to the emphases in telling Woolf’s story. Without dismissing the fact of abuse (well-documented by multiple sources), Lee also refused to make it or any other strain of Woolf’s life into a master key for explaining the rest. In a very different key, and still more in dialogue with Bell’s biography than Lee’s, Forrester, too, helps us think through the impact these family secrets may have had on Woolf’s life and art.
Perhaps, we have moved too far in the direction of empiricism. There is great value in reminding contemporary readers of the profound stigma—and genuine danger of institutionalization—surrounding mental illness in Woolf’s lifetime. And when Forrester writes about the institutionalization as a cautionary tale for Virginia, a certain level of suggestion seems appropriate. Evidence is slim, but the combination of the stigma surrounding mental illness with an institutionalized half-sister probably did affect Woolf’s sense of what could and did happen to people who could not control their mental state.
Elsewhere, however, Forrester permits herself to dwell too much in innuendo. When Julia Stephen died, Leslie transferred his affection and his need to his stepdaughter, Stella Duckworth. The depth of his dependence outraged both Virginia and her sister Vanessa (who refused to fall into the same enabling role when Stella died soon thereafter). Still, when Forrester writes: “But he and Stella knew what boundaries were crossed. How far? The innuendos resound,” she relies too much on the worst kind of sensationalism. Such moments run the risk of undermining the insight elsewhere: when things get too speculative, they make us wonder what else she is inferring, blurring the line between what is known (Woolf’s half-brothers molested her) and what is speculation (Woolf’s father may have molested Stella). Her point, that “the foul atmosphere” of incestuous desire authorized Woolf’s half-brothers’s acts, might sound more clearly with prose that was less overheated. The empirical style of Anglo-American academe produces admirably documented essays, such as Christine Froula’s comparison between the incestuous touching at Hyde Park Gate with Parisian brothels. The experience of being victimized informed Woolf’s genius, Froula argues, while the experience of being a client at the same time informed Picasso’s. So genius finds its expression in spite of the damages inflicted on it by patriarchal ideas of the relations between men and women. Forrester arrives at an analogous conclusion in a more accessible style. There is room for both.
Forrester has a good eye for detail. Sometimes, it is something small, as Bloomsbury was “considered disreputable. Or worse: inelegant” and yet, in that move to Bloomsbury, “A way presents itself, unthinkable until now” for the sisters to make lives for themselves beyond the narrow confines of her parents’ expectations. Other details suggest more, as when Forrester retells the story of the Stephen and Duckworth children’s trip to Italy after Leslie Stephen’s death. The trip, which was Gerald Duckworth’s idea, depresses Woolf and she breaks down upon her return. Biographers have emphasized the breakdown, but not the miserable trip to Italy that preceded it. By shifting the focus just slightly, Forrester suggests a new possibility: as Constantinople is a code for sexual freedom in Woolf’s work, perhaps Italy is code for madness. If she is right, that is yet another reason Woolf placed Septimus’s wartime experience in Italy rather than the more obvious Western Front.
Years ago, an editor told me about this book. Anxious, he wondered if I knew Forrester’s work, if I thought it might be good, if it would be of interest to English readers. I was unable to answer him then, but I can now: Viviane Forrester’s Virginia Woolf: a Portrait is indeed an interesting book, one that suggests new ways of thinking about the life of a writer whose life and work continues to live with us.
Anne Fernald teaches modernist literature at Fordham University and is the editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.