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…


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