There has of late been a transformation in the fortunes of Virginia Woolf. It is not that she has belatedly grown famous; her name has been a household word since the mid-Twenties, and even at the start of that decade she was able, as this new diary shows us, to predict with sardonic accuracy the reactions of reviewers (“Mrs Woolf…must beware of virtuosity. She must beware of obscurity…her great natural gifts &c…. She is at her best in the simple lyric…”). She lived to see a good deal written about her; and even in the years when her reputation went into its posthumous slump there was a steady stream of books and articles. But what is happening at the moment transcends mere fashion. She is being received into the canon.

There appear to be two main reasons for the alteration in the kind of attention her novels are getting—apart, that is, from a developing recognition of their own merits. The first is a renewed interest in her feminism, now seen as constituting precisely that serious and intelligent commitment to the affairs of her society and the world that was formerly supposed, by arrogant males, to be impossible in a woman of her temperament and talents. This aspect of her work is now, and quite justly, thought to be far more important than her clever men friends could understand. There are even attempts to develop, from some of her remarks, a theory of androgyny, founded in her reading of Coleridge; Roger Poole, sympathetic to feminism, nevertheless makes some sturdy qualifications here, and one is glad of them, for a bass voice strengthens the chorus.

The second extrinsic reason for the change I speak of is the renascence of Aubreyan candor in literary gossip, especially about Bloomsbury. When Michael Holroyd wrote his Strachey few of the survivors seemed to care what was said about them, and in a sense it is their candor that has now grown popular. Virginia Woolf shared it; sometimes it seems that for her the word bugger was virtually a synonym for “male,” and her autobiographical writings (published a couple of years ago under the title Moments of Being) reflect the passion of the Bloomsbury buggers for intimate and even embarrassing truth.

Leonard Woolf, who long ago published an excellent selection from her diary, spoke with loving candor of Virginia in his multi-volume autobiography, and so did her nephew Quentin Bell in the standard biography. The world knows pretty well by now that her half-brothers interfered with her sexually, that her father oppressed her, that from time to time she was insane, and that these and other sufferings were not unrelated to disadvantages shared by others of her sex. Six volumes of letters and five of the diary will make her intimate life as well known to the public as that of any author in history.

A second wave of biography, interpretative and revisionist, is inevitable. And so people turn again, with curiosity or veneration, to the novels, and may find that at any rate two of them, To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts, are among the greatest of the century. They may then reflect upon the prejudices that delayed this recognition.

The new volume of the diary covers a period during which Jacob’s Room was published and Mrs. Dalloway written. One purpose of keeping it was simply to satisfy her endless desire to be writing; another, as she discovered, was that she liked to “practice writing; do my scales, yes & work at certain effects.” Work was necessary to happiness; she and her husband both thought so. Running the Hogarth Press was work therapy; filling every chink of the day with usefulness was a way of avoiding or delaying the long blank months of illness. In these years she wrote two books and a hundred articles and reviews. She doesn’t say a lot about the novels; the diary is not in the least like James’s notebooks. She does mention the moment when the story of Mrs. Dalloway “branched into a book…. The world seen by the sane & the insane side by side—something like that. Septimus Smith?—is that a good name?” Friends died—Kitty Maxse, thought to be the original of Mrs. Dalloway; Katherine Mansfield, for whom she felt a mixture of affection, respect, and envy. She is not profoundly disturbed. She moves house, and leaving Richmond reflects upon her times of sickness there: “I’ve had some very curious visions in this room…lying in bed, mad, & seeing the sunlight quivering like gold water, on the wall. I’ve heard the voices of the dead here. And felt, through it all, exquisitely happy.”

She liked to think that it was this visionary power that compensated for her lack of the tough, honorable reasonableness she associated with Leonard; she felt screened from the world in which he was effective, and tended to exaggerate her lack of practical intelligence, but claimed instead a susceptibility to “the poetry of existence,” often, she says, associated “with the sea and St. Ives.” Sometimes she speaks of reality as if it were something everybody except her had a right to be easy with. Mrs. Dalloway helped her to overcome her fear of this exclusion, and To the Lighthouse was the masterpiece that resulted from her giving the sea and St. Ives their full due.


In 1922 she reached forty. The Group was still flourishing, though “we all grow old; grow stocky; lose our pliancy and impressionability.” The triadic sentence is characteristic; in one sense Between the Acts is an extraordinary set of variations upon it. These triads are imposed upon her world. There they all are, Keynes and Strachey and Fry, Bell and Forster and Grant; on the fringes Ottoline Morrell, Mansfield, Eliot. Affection and admiration never make her uncritical. Forster was for a time her adviser; but, he said, “one waited for her to snap.” Strachey she deeply admired, but envied the sales of his books. Keynes’s intellect she thought wholly out of her reach, but saw him “by lamplight—like a gorged seal, double chin, ledge of red lip, little eyes sensual, brutal, unimaginative.” Clive Bell made the mistake of growing fat and bald. Acquaintances untouched by the glamour of Cambridge have an even worse time; Eliot flits in and out, suavely double-tongued, pitiable, evasive, admired.

The record of Woolf’s reading often shows the same capacity to admire and snap simultaneously. In The Wings of the Dove there is much “juggling & arranging of silk pocket handkerchiefs” and Milly disappears behind them. “He overreaches himself…. The mental grasp and stretch are magnificent. Not a flabby or slack sentence, but much emasculated by this timidity or consciousness or whatever it is. Very highly American, I conjecture, in the determination to be highly bred, & the slight obtuseness as to what high breeding is.” Resisting Eliot’s propaganda for Ulysses, she calls it “an illiterate, underbred book…the book of a self-taught working man.” Proust is another matter, unquestionably upper class: “his command of every resource is so extravagant.”

Occasionally, and understandably, she would say she wished she knew some “normal people,” but when she met them they tended to be either underbred or boring. Class mattered enormously, and the English upper-middle-class horror of being mistaken for the English lower middle class. She criticized her friends for dressing badly; they should not smell of the bargain counter and the suburb. Forster and his friends tried to escape the class trap by taking working-class men as their lovers; she had a weakness for great ladies, freely confessed in the essay “Am I a Snob?” There, for instance, is Mrs. Asquith, “stone white: with the brown veiled eyes of an aged falcon…. She rides life, if you like.” (She herself wanted to ride work “as a man rides a great horse.”) She was a little afraid of these great persons: “The thing about aristocrats is that they veil all pretence very humbly; & let one ride on their backs; & then suddenly turn seigneurial.” Victoria Sackville-West, on first acquaintance “florid, moustached, parakeet coloured, with all the supple ease of the aristocracy,” was to become her lover.

For servants she had a contempt that is sometimes simply odious. She seems never to have looked critically at the class attitudes of her set, perhaps because she was herself socially insecure. It was when she was ill that her disgust with the lives and bodies of the poor grew most violent. Of the oppression of women as a class she was of course acutely aware, but at this stage she wanted the great ladies to handle it: “The lady R[hondda]s ought to be feminists…if the rich women will do it, we neednt; & its the feminists who will drain off this black blood of bitterness which is poisoning us all.” The two main feminist works, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, came out in 1929 and 1938.

Anybody reading this volume without some awareness of the whole story might well suppose its author to have been a rarely gifted, rarely industrious (filling up gaps by refreshing her Greek or learning Russian), and for the most part rarely happy person. The editing, it must be said, reinforces this impression of calm, even of gaiety; Anne Olivier Bell’s touch is light and amusing, and even the excellent index is rather jolly. But few will read it with so innocent an eye. The breakdowns and the suicide are so well documented, and the sexual assaults, and the recurring sense of exclusion and aridity, and her doubts about her intelligence, sanity, and achievement. All this needs explaining, and two more explainers are at hand.


Roger Poole is polemical as well as apologetic, and the main objects of his assault are Quentin Bell and, especially, Leonard Woolf, both of whom said repeatedly that in what Poole calls her “very distressed periods” Virginia Woolf was mad. This is the expression they—and Virginia Woolf, and many other people, for the usage, though blunt, is normal—use of persons who claim to hear the birds talking Greek and the king uttering obscenities among the azaleas. Poole prefers to say “her nerves gave out.”

That he can claim to show plausibly why this occurred doesn’t alter the fact that the sufferer was quite properly described as mad, and it is a pity that Poole, a combative writer, should want to fight over this semantic eggshell. He needed all his powder for the assault on Leonard Woolf, who, so far from being a model of patience and devotion, is held to have subjected his wife to a peculiar tyranny, here characterized at length, and no less disastrous to her nerves than the tyranny of her father and the outrages of her half-brothers. On these earlier traumata Poole has persuasive things to say; for example, he makes a brilliant guess why the birds spoke Greek to Virginia. He uses a variety of psychoanalytic ideas, some less plausible than others (the famous episode of the six-year-old Virginia’s frightening experience with a looking glass is related to the “mirror stage,” but six is surely rather aged for that?). It is, however, in his treatment of Leonard that he fails to persuade.

It is doubtless true that Woolf (“a penniless Jew,” as Virginia liked to call him, of lower-middle-class origin) remained, despite Cambridge and the Apostles, uneasily aware of his social ambiguity, unduly vain of his intellect; and possibly, over the twenty-nine years of their marriage, he sometimes mishandled his sick wife. But Poole thinks he was always wrong. He consulted doctors about her health even before they were engaged, took her collapse after the honeymoon as a recurrence of the old troubles (instead of seeing that it had, in the honeymoon itself, its own cause), went to some trouble to find doctors who would say his wife should not have children, and indeed entered into a lifelong conspiracy with the medical profession against her. Her refusal to eat he countered stupidly, unflaggingly persistent with his spoonfeeding; he reinforced her fear of being stared at in public. All this Poole connects, very skillfully, with the account of the madness of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway.

Yet it is surely wrong to represent Woolf as so malignant. Perhaps his choice of medical advisers was, if not premature, unfortunate, and Septimus admittedly did jump out of the window. Anorexia nervosa (Rose’s diagnosis) was and remains a difficult disease to treat. He made other mistakes, and it may be true that his masculine passion for reason made it especially hard for him to understand madness. Yet he struggled for such understanding, and a less partisan review of the record would surely suggest that he had some success.

Virginia Woolf was almost thirty and without much achievement when she married; in spite of two lost years she was at forty intensely productive, working on her fourth novel Mrs. Dalloway, conscious for the first time of the genuineness of her gift, and even quite famous. It would be difficult to argue that Leonard had no part in making all this possible, that he and his wife were totally incompatible, that the marriage, though like other marriages sui generis, was not in many ways a happy one. Poole would so argue; and he is, in the end, bound to confront the suicide note, in which Virginia wrote “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.” This he describes as an honorable lie, “the only fraud of her career,” intended to spare Leonard some of the guilt of the survivor. There is small reason to believe this, or to disbelieve the reasons for suicide given in the note to Vanessa, which was perhaps not available to Poole: “I am certain now that I am going mad again. It is just as it was the first time, I am always hearing voices, and I know I shan’t get over it now.”

Phyllis Rose does quote the note to Vanessa. Though she certainly does not neglect the pathogenic elements in her subject’s early history, or their relation to the novelist’s gifts, Rose’s book is distinguished less by its new discoveries and new theories than by its extremely sympathetic and balanced view of Woolf as a woman of letters, with the emphasis on “woman.” Poole stresses the dichotomy between male rationality and female imagination, and this is also part of Rose’s theme. She is very good on the difficulties that stood in the way of some kinds of achievement in a man’s world, and on the men in question, from the moaning father to the absurd, sick half-brothers and the brilliant boring buggers. In Three Guineas Woolf argued a relation between normal male antics and fascism. She thought the conventional assumptions about registering reality in fiction were also essentially masculine; but in this respect she was less sure of herself, of the value of her quite different methods.

Rose is particularly good here—she identifies Woolf’s characteristic successes with her victories over male precept, with her refusal of the poetry-fact dichotomy. There were lapses, even as late as The Years; but feminism won, and the poetic and “experimental” survived, so that certain good aspects of modernism are to be seen as a triumph for the sex. This success was achieved, as Rose is careful to show, without loss of serious engagement with great public issues, though that engagement was also different in style from the male version.

Rose naturally speculates about the mariage (practically) blanc, and the strain it must have entailed; but decides, sensibly, that a woman who at twenty-nine describes herself as a failure, childless and insane, and at forty claims to have found her own voice and to be happy, has not suffered a disastrous decade. In fact she had done much to discredit the “pre-existing (masculine) model of the novelist.” It is not quite dead even now, as much fiction reviewing testifies; but it is very shabby. Rose has written an admirable book; she is perceptive about Woolf’s madness, in particular about its tendency to recur as a novel was being finished; and she understands some of its usefulness, to which Woolf herself testified. In Rose’s view the whole story of Virginia Woolf illustrates the problems still facing women of achievement. Sometimes I think that she is wrong, for example that she misunderstands Between the Acts and especially Mrs. Manresa; but the portrait as a whole seems right, and does something to explain the somewhat belated revision of the canon to which I alluded at the outset.

This Issue

December 21, 1978