13 Oct 2011

Walking to The River Ouse: Where Virginia Woolf Drowned Herself

There’s something magical about people who write words that move you, touch you and stimulate you with the feeling of self-assurance, joy, sadness, tears, pride. You feel you want to see their faces if they were alive, or stand by their grave if they were dead, you want to share with them a moment, walk their footsteps if you knew where they have trodden. In their exquisite thoughts they lit a space in your mind that once was dark, undiscovered. In the brilliance of their faculties they have rained on your barren, dry mind, ploughed and turned over its infertile soil, so that now seeds can be planted and grow into crops that will keep feeding you forever. The courage of their pen makes you feel stronger, their daring, bold, disobedient, defiant words tell you that it’s okay to go that far, and it doesn’t matter what people think. Virginia Woolf is one of those people and A Room of One’s Own is one of those books (although you might argue it’s not a book but a series of lectures delivered in Newnham College). A Room of One’s Own is a beautifully written thesis on the subject of feminism and women writers and fiction, the ideas in A room of One’s Own flow - rhythm like - not angry, not hateful, not resentful, but gentle and charming yet fierce, powerful, simple and so full of beautiful images and metaphors.

“...There one might have sat lost in thought. Thought - to call it by a prouder name than it deserved – had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it, until - you know the little tug – the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and careful laying of it out? Alas, laid on the grass, how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating.”  (V. Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929).

In her book, Woolf suggests that women writers need a room of their own and a reasonable income in order to write. The room represents privacy, a place for one’s self; to reflect, think, and muse without interruption. Woolf writes from a time (late nineteenth century) when women had no choice in marriage and child bearing, a time when it was impossible for women to work and earn money, and even if they did, they could not possess the money they earned, all that women had, in reality, was their husband’s property.

"First there are nine months before the baby is born. Then the baby is born. Then there are three or four months spent feeding the baby. After the baby is fed there are five years certainly spent playing with the baby, human nature takes its shape in the years between one and five...”. Woolf then acknowledges how the most famous women novelists did not bear children: “.. looking at the four famous names; what had George Eliot in common with Emily Bronte? Did not Charlotte Bronte fail entirely to understand Jane Austen? Save for the relevant fact that not one of them had a child...” She then points out that the four women mentioned above wrote fiction, but why? She asks herself; “could it be that they all come from middle class backgrounds?” and even then she adds: “the middle class family in the early nineteenth century was possessed only of a single sitting-room between them. If a woman wrote, she would have to write in the common sitting-room, and as Ms Nightingale was so vehemently to complain, - ‘women never have a half an hour that they can call their own, she was always interrupted.’ Still, - continues Woolf - it is easier to write prose and fiction there than to write poetry or a play, less concentration is required. Jane Austen wrote like that to the end of her days. ‘How she was able to effect all this?’ her nephew writes in his memoir. ‘is surprising, for she had no separate study to repair to, and most of the work must have been done in the general sitting-room, subject to all kinds of casual interruptions..’
(V. Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929).

And reading this now, I think it is not very different for women today, minus the financial difficulty which is not as unfavourable today for women as it was once, here Woolf points out; “good novels; Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women so poor that they could not afford to buy more than a few quires of paper at a time...”. But looking at the general challenge of finding peace of mind to write, the conditions for women today are not that much more encouraging. I consider my own life for example - keeping in mind that other women have different life styles of course, but we all generally have to work for a living even for women who have earning partners -  On a Sunday, when it is a full day off work, I wake up early to make breakfast for myself and my child, always a cooked breakfast on Sundays since there is a bit more time and you’d like to sit and enjoy your breakfast with your child and have a conversation rather than the usual week day rush before school, then I take her to the park (if the weather permits) this requires a lot of energy when the child is small and active, they want to go on all the rides, and ride their bicycles and climb trees, then ride their scooters, then eat ice-cream and so on, then it’s time to buy the groceries, then it’s time to go home and cook lunch, then it’s helping the child with their reading and writing and some simple maths (as they get older, they have more homework and more complex school projects to prepare for) and all women understand that if you want your child to do well academically you can never depend on the school alone, you must work with the child at home. Then its bath time, and dinner time, and a bedtime story. By the end of the day, when she is finally settled and sleeping in her bed I am shattered, not to mention I have some ironing to do and cleaning the house before the beginning of the week, and what time do I have left, if I wanted to sit before an empty page to write down a few thoughts? Or do a bit of painting? None, a mere hour, in which I’d rather put my feet up than sit upright on a writing desk, sometimes with a book and sometimes with cup of coffee, drained completely from whatever creative thought I had when I woke up that morning. During the week days it is worse, with work and school eating up more than three quarters of the day. And even when my child is having her dinner or watching television and I try to steal a few moments to sit at my computer, I am constantly interrupted by: Mummy I need the toilet! Mummy I can’t reach the orange juice in the fridge! Mummy what does this word mean? and so on. But this is not only my story, this is the story of all mothers who wish to write. The only advantage we have over women novelists of the late nineteenth century is that we can earn our own wages upon which we live comfortably whether or not we have partners, but this is also why we have such little time for writing.

I grew fonder of Woolf as I read more about her. How she battled against depression and mental illness throughout her life and always found comfort in her writing and her work:

“I sometimes fancy that the only healthy condition is that of doing successful work. It’s the prime function of the soul.” (from Woolf’s Diary January 21st 1920).

“Why is life so tragic, so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss. I look down; I feel giddy; I wonder how I am ever to walk to the end. Why do I feel this? It’s a feeling of impotence: of cutting no ice. Here I sit in Richmond and like a lantern stood in the middle of the field my light goes up in darkness. Melancholy diminishes as I write.”
(From Woolf’s Diary, October 25th 1920).

Her beautiful expressions:

“But I should not spend my time on an indoor chronicle, unless I lazily shirked the describing of winter down and meadow – the recording of what takes my breath away at every turn. Here is the sun out and all the upper twigs of the tree as if dipped in fire; the trunks emerald green, even bark bright tinted and variable as the skin of a lizard. Then there’s Asheham hill smoke misted; the windows of the long train spots of sun, the smoke lying back on the carriages like a rabbit’s lop ears”  (Diary, January 1920).

The missed plans for writing which all writers experience whether amateur or professional:

“Such a good morning’s writing I’d planned and wasted the cream of my brain on the telephone” (Diary April 1920).

Her fear of loneliness and finding strength and fulfilment in her work:

“Yesterday I had tea with Saxon and remembering old lonely evenings of my own, when the married couple seemed so secure and lamplit, I asked him back to dinner. I wonder whether his loneliness ever frightens him as mine used to frighten me. I daresay office work is a great preservative.” (Diary May 1920).

Her blunt and sometimes depressing views:

“The middle classes are cut so thick and ring so coarse when they laugh or express themselves. The lower classes don’t do this at all.” (Diary January 1920)
“Content is disillusioning to behold: what is there to be content about?” (Diary, May 1920)

“Unhappiness is everywhere; just beyond the door” (Diary, November 1920)

Her love of the younger generations and her belief that they can bring change:

“How adorable the young are, like new brooms, I long to look over their shoulders and see them sweeping clean, I much prefer them to the distinguished, wrapped soft in their reputations” (Diary, September 1922)

How she wrote passionately about illness:

“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us in the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm chair and confuse his ‘Rinse the mouth, rinse the mouth’ with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us – when we think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken  its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia, lyrics to toothache. But no...”  (On Being Ill, 1926).

I went on a journey to East Sussex to visit the place where Virginia Woolf’s ashes are buried; she (as it is well known) drowned herself in The River Ouse after a long battle with depression. I had read on the internet that her ashes are buried in the back garden of Monk’s House, a small country house, where she and her husband Leonard Woolf lived at the time. Monk’s House is located in a small, peaceful village called Rodmell just outside Lewes. It has been kept the way Leonard left it after his death in 1969, and Virginia’s room is still kept as she had left it after her death in 1941. I was looking forward to seeing where their ashes were buried in the back garden (as Leonard’s ashes were buried next to Virginia’s) but it was explained to us that the ashes were buried under an elms tree that was pulled down by a storm and there were no other marks to distinguish the place of burial. Other than that, it was a remarkable experience, I felt enchanted as I walked in Virginia’s house, it was small, but beautiful and very well kept, paintings by her sisters Vanessa decorated the walls. The lady from National Trust who works in the house and guides visitors, explained that Virginia did all her writing in a small shed outside in the garden, and had added a room as an extension to the house in the later years of her life which she had planned to be a “room of her own” where she can write, but she was very ill and soon the study was turned into a bed room where she spent most of her nights with a small side bedside table.

I left the house and asked for direction for the river where Virginia Drowned herself, it was a 30 minute walk in the fields, nothing but a narrow path, and stretched green fields with a spot of cattle here and there. The River Ouse was quiet and peaceful, and due to (what I suspect) a few dry seasons, the water level of the river was low but still reasonably deep. The Ouse had a sense of bleakness and a feeling of loneliness and abandonment to it.

Leonard Woolf's study
Virginia Woolf's bedroom  (was later built as an extension to Monk's House)

Monk's House
Monk's House back garden

this is where Virginia would have walked to get to the River Ouse.

The River Ouse.

Going back to A Room of One’s Own, Woolf speaks against the educated men of her time who argued that women are inferior to men, such as Mr. Oscar Browning (writer and historian at Cambridge) who once declared: ‘that the impression left in his mind after looking over any set of examination papers, was that, irrespective of the marks he might give, the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man’. Woolf uses one of her beautiful metaphors and provides that it’s vital for those men to see women as inferior to them, she explains how women have a looking glass likeness to life:

“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man twice its natural size... that is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism, how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and arousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism. For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilizing natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is...”

And yet, as Woolf acknowledges, women have always been the centre and subject of men’s writing:

“women have burnt like beacons in all the works of writers from the beginning of time – Clytemnestra, Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Phedre, Cressida, Rosalind, Desdemona, the Dutchess of Malfi, among the dramatists; then among the prose writers: Millamant, Clarissa, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Madame de Guermantes – the names flock to mind..”.Woolf continues: “She is a person of the utmost importance, very various; heroic, and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as man, some think even greater..”

But Woolf doesn’t forget the great men who valued the opinion of the women in their lives:

“.. Johnson and Goethe and Carlyle and Sterne, and Cowper and Shelley, and Voltaire and Browning and many others, and I began to think of those great men who for some reason or another admired, sought out, lived with, confided in, made love to, written of, trusted in, and shown what can only be described as some need of a dependence upon certain persons of the opposite sex. That all these relationships were absolutely Platonic I would not affirm, but we should wrong these illustrious men very greatly if we insisted that they got nothing from these alliances but comfort flattery and the pleasure of the body. What they got, it is obvious, was something that their own sex was unable to supply; and it would not be rash, perhaps to define it further as some stimulus, some renewal of creative power which is in the gift only of the opposite sex to bestow...”  

A Room of One’s Own (1929) was reviewed by both men and women as charming, witty, energetic and humorous. After all, Woolf does not in her writing of this book oppose the domination of men, and she concludes that women can write and succeed as writers even in the climate of male supremacy which existed at the time. But when she published her final and much more daring and highly controversial book on feminism Three Guineas (1938), where Woolf argues that sexism itself is both the root and the flower of the male dominated hierarchies and - when the book was written - was leading the world into global conflict, Woolf became the subject of much criticism. The image of the father who is a pork butcher associates blood and brutality with patriarchy. Contemptuous of influential and successful men, Woolf describes them as owners of the slaughterhouse. Three Guineas was to make explicit the connection to the butchery of war. (Black 2004). In Three Guineas, Woolf found a way to demonstrate that opposition to fascism was a necessary implication of understanding the situation of women, where she links domestic and private fascism to the public fascism that was expanding so hideously in Europe. Woolf provides:
“that the public structures of dominations and oppression can best be combated by elimination of private ones. Therefore war and other horrors of the public world must be fought through opposition to the most subjugation, the subjugation of women”.
Her arguments in Three Guineas were not accepted by many and induced severe criticism and opposition towards Woolf. Her nephew Quentin Bell insisted that Three Guineas was an irrational cry of feminine anguish; he called it “a saddening and exacerbating production”. The son of Woolf’s dear friend Vita Sackville-West described Three Guineas as “neither sober, nor rational”, another review described it as “sublimation and the feeling of helplessness and self-hatred”, and another review described it as “the triumph of narcissism”.

As I was reading Three Guineas sitting on a sofa at home and my five year old daughter playing on the floor, I came to Woolf’s lines “women are both the worst sufferers of current conditions and also the best prospect for societal change. Partly because women have remained relatively powerless they have developed practices and attitudes that can counter the tyrannies we all suffer from. Women activists have demonstrated that the private virtues imposed on them, brought deliberately into public life, can generate hopeful results and, above all, more peaceful and productive procedures. Drawing on the lessons of their enforced seclusion, they have, in some few cases, shown that it’s possible to enter public life without being corrupted by it”. Just then I was interrupted by my daughter who told me that today at school she played with her friend Duncan, in their game, she explained, Duncan was Iron Man and she was a fairy. Indeed Iron man is strong, invincible, powerful, big, sturdy; Iron Man can kick, hit, hurt, destroy, even passively, some child could be pushed against a standing Iron man in the school playground and injure himself. While a fairy on the other hand, a fairy is fragile, weak, small, her wings brittle and can easily be plucked, although a fairy can do beautiful magical things; like putting the blue in the running water of a stream, opening and closing flowers; a fairy paints butterflies’ wings, turns tree leaves from green in spring to crimson and gold in autumn. Yet a fairy remains threatened, she must not be seen, always hidden away, she avoids humans, afraid of being caught, trapped in a jar to be studied. The smallness of her size helps her survive; she can hide inside a flower bud or under a mushroom. A fairy is made out of hazy, blurry light; making her harder to see, through this mechanism a fairy can avoid the cruelty of big, violent creatures, and by this she can continue to change the seasons and draw rainbows after the rain.