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Who’s Afraid for Virginia Woolf?

This is a grim story of sexual abuse, of the persecution of the innocent, of the lasting damage done to children who might never quite recover from the sins of others, and especially of their parents. It should not be imagined that there is anything titillating in this account of the misdemeanors of a century ago; the popularity of this book does not result from anything lascivious in its treatment of ancient lusts and lubricity. Professor DeSalvo comes to her task with becoming solemnity and in a disinfected spirit. Gravely she addresses the guilty sinners of that fin de siècle with the seriousness of a cleaner, better age, armed with statistics, a library of impressive works of reference and a sense which is not so much sedate as funereal; she can move her readers to indignant tears, also, it must be said, to hoots of laughter.

But how appalling were the sins, how repellent the sinners of that distant epoch, the terrible people who Virginia Woolf knew when she was little Virginia Stephen. Leslie Stephen, her father, appears an entirely odious character; neither does his wife, Julia Duckworth Stephen, seem very much better than her husband. J.K. Stephen, Leslie’s favorite nephew, is revealed as a monster of infamy. Jack Hills, who became Leslie’s son-in-law, had culpable faults. The only males in the circle to emerge without mud on their faces are Virginia’s brothers Thoby and Adrian; for her half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth the condemnation is total and unremitting. Sir Leslie’s daughters are for the most part victims: Laura, his daughter by his first wife Minny Thackeray, appears as an innocent martyr; Stella, Julia Stephen’s daughter by her first husband, is a martyred saint; Vanessa and Virginia herself are also persecuted, but are not quite so saintly.

A family accused of having engendered so monstrous a regiment of men might be expected to hang its collective head in shame, or, more probably perhaps, violently to protest. Another reviewer, in the course of a laudatory notice of this book, expresses a fear that this may be the result.

I suspect that the world of Bloomsbury scholars is itself a kind of magic circle, carrying an unspoken threat of punishment to any initiate who betrays it or launches out.1

I think I know what the reviewer means, for I myself have felt unspoken threats of punishment not, to be sure, from any magic circle but from some very angry people. I had written a biography of Virginia Woolf in which I revealed that she and her sister Vanessa had been the victims of their half brother George Duckworth, who, perhaps half unconsciously, had been guilty of sexual harassment. Attempts were made to persuade me that these ugly stories were untrue, that they were phantoms of Virginia Woolf’s wild imagination, delusions conceived during periods of nervous breakdown. But the evidence was such that it was impossible to accept these comfortable suggestions.

Now if Professor DeSalvo had gone further, if she had been able to provide the kind of evidence of rape by George or Gerald Duckworth that would justify specific charges in a court of law, then perhaps she might have invited threats from some quarter, but I cannot see that she has done this, or proved this beyond all reasonable doubt. She amasses a great deal of circumstantial evidence, from published and public sources, and using it she persuasively suggests that certain things are possible, even probable. But nothing is made certain, for she does not succeed, nor does she claim to have succeeded, in establishing any new or important facts. The case against the Duckworth brothers stands where it did George carried his demonstrations of “fraternal affection” to a point at which they became offensive to his half sisters; but how much further he went we cannot tell. Of Gerald I will speak presently.

It is hard indeed to reproach DeSalvo with anything save a brave impetuosity, a degree of sincere enthusiasm, which informs her writing and leads her, it must be said, to a rather cavalier treatment of evidence. It leads her also into a certain ambiguity.

I was, I will confess, a little startled when I read that my sister Angelica had been raped by my mother Vanessa Bell and my aunt Virginia. “Angelica’s violation repeats Vanessa’s and Virginia’s violation by their half brothers Gerald and George Duckworth.” Now for most of us I think the words “rape” or “violation” mean, within a sexual connotation, a copulation in which one of the parties acts under duress, physical violence, or the threat of violence. But DeSalvo provides a very different definition: she defines it simply as “violent seizure.” She does not even relate the seizure to sex, so we might almost define the action of a player who tackles an opponent, or that of a mother who snatches her child out of danger, as rape. At all events she gives the word a comparatively innocuous meaning, and it is this meaning which, I hope, she attaches to the conduct of my mother and my aunt. And yet one cannot be quite certain of this, for we are told that the actions of Virginia and Vanessa “repeat” those of George and Gerald; were they then guilty of no more than a stolen kiss or an unwanted hug?

At this point I should perhaps declare an interest. There are two places in this book in which I am reproached by name. At one point I learn that I am responsible for misleading a critic who failed to understand what I wrote.2 And earlier on I face a different charge:

Bell blames Woolf’s response to incest on her—on her inherent shyness in sexual matters, on the cancer of her mind, on the corruption of her spirit. Bell, therefore, blamed the victim Woolf for her response to incest.

This is really too silly. If you look at page forty-six of my biography of Virginia Woolf—that to which DeSalvo refers—and try to find a passage in which I blame anyone for anything, you will fail. I am sorry that Professor DeSalvo should have introduced this concept of blame. It is alien to me as I am sure it really is to her; it reminds one too powerfully of the cheap male judgment that used to be heard from the magistrate’s bench, when the woman was invariably blamed for the rape.

Let us leave this sad topic and turn to something more amusing: one of DeSalvo’s most splendid flights of fancy, her comments upon Virginia Woolf’s last book, Between the Acts.

The novel takes place during World War II, as England confronts the possibility of invasion by Hitler.” (i.e., some time after June 1940; surely a remarkable suggestion, for we have already been told (correctly) that the book was conceived in April 1938).

At the very beginning of the novel, there is an act of unmitigated sadism directed at a very small child, which becomes the moment that signifies how children are treated within the world of Between the Acts.

The reader may need to be informed that this is the incident where Mr. Oliver rolls up his newspaper, making it into a mask, and thus disguised addresses his grandson with the words: “Good morning, sir.” These words, coming from a beak of paper, frighten the little boy: he “stood gazing”; a large dog then appeared upon the scene and, finally dismayed by this or perhaps by Mr. Oliver who had removed his mask, he burst out crying. As though this were not horrible enough, DeSalvo grimly informs us that “the beak which so terrifies the child has been fashioned out of a newspaper which holds terrifying news.” Virginia Woolf tells us what this is:

M. Daladier,” he read, finding his place in the column, “has been successful in pegging down the franc….”

(We may observe that in 1940 M. Daladier had other things to occupy his mind.)

It is clear that, like so many of us, DeSalvo lives on rather awkward terms with reality. She relies, but to a most unusual degree, upon the operation of an internal censor (which may be in the unconscious); and she develops in an even more striking manner the mythogenic power that supplies satisfactory fictions for unsatisfactory facts. She is a courageous scholar, no one was ever less meticulous. Two instances may serve to exhibit this quality in her work.

Discussing the relationship between Stella Duckworth and her mother, DeSalvo enlists visual evidence:

The merging of their identities is dramatically illustrated in a photograph taken of Julia Stephen and the Duckworth children, by the famous Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron…. Stella is seated behind her mother, leaning into her, with her hand on her mother’s arm, but Julia isn’t touching her. The mother looks severe; the daughter looks sad. A lock of Stella’s hair has been taken and draped over her mother’s shoulder, so that it seems as if it, in fact, belongs to Julia.3

In a note DeSalvo remarks that “Stella appears to be older than the date of the photograph would indicate. It perhaps is an error.” There is indeed an error: the small girl in the photograph is not Stella. It is characteristic that having found an image that supports her thesis, DeSalvo does not bother to look at the note that identifies the sitters.

In the same way, discussing poor Laura Stephen, Virginia’s other half sister, nicknamed Her Ladyship the Lady of the Lake in the family newspaper (of which incidentally Vanessa was editor and scribe at the time), DeSalvo decides that this is derived from the subaqueous lady of Arthurian legend. This leads her, it would seem, to the belief that at the age of nine Virginia “was no doubt” familiar with these legends and justifies her plunging into a page and a half of very bold speculation. One possibility never discussed—and in the Stephen family it was a very distinct probability—was that the title came from Sir Walter Scott.

This reckless treatment of the evidence also supplies a rich field for unconscious humor. DeSalvo is a solemn, serious, unsmiling writer, and therefore perhaps not very well equipped to examine Virginia’s juvenilia; in fact, she won’t allow that it is comic. In the same family newspaper, the Hyde Park Gate News, there is a serial, A Cockney’s Farming Experiences and its sequel, The Experiences of a Pater-familias, describing the attempts of a man and his wife (they remind one rather of Mr. and Mrs. Pooter) to lead a bucolic existence. Perhaps Tit Bits, Virginia’s favorite reading at the time, may have influenced the style. Many readers might think that the intention of the writers was comic. Not DeSalvo. She sees it as a screen that conceals and yet displays (to her) “an extremely painful evocation of the experience of child abuse and neglect.” “Virginia describes with astonishing accuracy the personality traits that researchers have discovered in abusive parents.” And so on and so forth for about twenty pages.

  1. 1

    Kennedy Fraser, The New Yorker, November 6, 1989, p. 163.

  2. 2

    See DeSalvo, p. 248: “Quentin Bell’s published description of this [Warboys] diary is misleading and has led at least one critic to argue that the diary depicts Woolf in the throes of insanity.” Gayatri C. Spivak, “Unmaking and Making in To the Lighthouse,” in Women and Language in Literature and Society, ed. by Sally McConnell-Ginet et al. (Praeger, 1980) writes of Bell: “One is invited to interpret the curious surface of writing…as a desecration of the right use of reason,” etc.

  3. 3

    See Julia Margaret Cameron, Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women, expanded and revised edition (Godine, 1973), plate 30.

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