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.

Now in this chapter have readers perhaps noticed a change in the author’s tone of voice? Does DeSalvo become less self-assured, less didactic, a little doubtful, perhaps even a little humble? Personally I can’t see that she does; she seems to me just her usual self. And why, you may ask, should I hope to see anything of the kind? The answer is simple; a writer sensitive to the value of evidence should know that here she was dealing with a new kind of witness; she is dealing not simply with Virginia Stephen but with Virginia working in collaboration. The fact that Thoby Stephen was coauthor with his sister stares Professor DeSalvo in the face on the pages of the Hyde Park Gate News. What then becomes of all those pages of explication? Unless she can tell us which pages were written by whom it is going to be rather hard to measure the impact of sexual abuse on anyone.

But there is something else that DeSalvo should have noticed in the Hyde Park Gate News. There is at least one issue where Virginia (and this time it is Virginia) expresses herself clearly on the subject of the patriarchal family, and there is no need of careful exegesis in order to understand her meaning. In Miss Smith, written when she was thirteen, Virginia describes a young lady who “at fourteen wrote sonnets”; at the “age of twenty…she protests that society must be entirely reorganized.” “She wrote the most remarkable essays on Women’s Rights, and declared herself to be a temperance lecturer. She had determined that men were brutes and the only thing that women could do was to fight against them.” But at thirty she had “deserted Women’s rights and Temperance” and “with many pangs allowed herself to be only a woman,” and, discovering her need of “someone stronger and wiser than herself,” married. It is not surprising perhaps that, in her examination of Virginia’s childhood, DeSalvo manages completely to ignore this not uninteresting fiction.4 This then is what I have called the censor.

An example of what I call mythogenic power will be found in DeSalvo’s essay on Gerald Duckworth. DeSalvo’s readers will have noticed that she couples George and Gerald Duckworth as equal partners in depravity. I have already given one example. The case against Gerald is contained in a letter from Virginia to Ethel Smyth written in 1941, and further in A Sketch of the Past, also written at the end of her life. In the letter to Ethel Smyth Virginia examines the difficulty that women have in discussing sex:

so much of life is sexual—or so they say—it rather limits autobiography if this is blacked out. It must be, I suspect, for many generations, for women; for its like breaking the hymen—if thats the membrane’s name—a painful operation, and I suppose connected with all sorts of subterranean instincts. I still shiver with shame at the memory of my half-brother, standing me on a ledge, aged about 6, and so exploring my private parts. Why should I have felt shame then?5

The passage in A Sketch of the Past is substantially similar, but it tells us that the half brother was Gerald, then about eighteen, who

explored my private parts…. I remember resenting, disliking it—what is the word for so dumb and mixed a feeling? It must have been strong, since I still recall it.6

If Gerald had broken the hymen in the course of his nasty investigations his victim would I imagine have felt something more than resentment and dislike; she might well have let out a howl that would have brought family and servants to the spot. In fact there is no evidence that he did any such thing. Virginia did know how to use the English language and it is perfectly clear that the phrase about breaking the hymen does not refer to Gerald’s activities. Professor DeSalvo seems herself to have some doubts about what he did; she suggests that Gerald did break the hymen but that Virginia forgot about it. By the middle of the paragraph she has convinced herself that the worst had indeed happened. Gerald “had robbed her of her virginity.”

It would be interesting to know why DeSalvo is so anxious to make a nasty story still nastier. We cannot tell, but this appears to be her aim and, as I have said, she treats the two brothers as being equal in infamy, and persuades herself that from the age of six until her twenties Virginia was the victim of continual sexual abuse from both. This seems to me very doubtful. In collecting evidence I found that it was George and George alone who was blamed for overstepping the bounds of brotherly love, so much so that when I read Virginia’s letter to Ethel I took it for granted that it referred to him (A Sketch of the Past had not then been discovered). In the same way when someone, presumably Vanessa, told Virginia’s doctor Sir George Savage what had been going on, it was George, not Gerald, who was called to account. DeSalvo tells us nothing specific about the Duckworth brothers; she infers a great deal.

Virginia’s life was in many ways an unhappy one and yet both in her conversation and her writing laughter is never far away. This is a truth which those who approach Virginia through DeSalvo’s writing might find it hard to believe, and although her cold dank pall of misery is very likely preferable to a bright facetious manner, still it does give a rather false impression. Take the “Terrible Tragedy in a Duckpond” which was first described in Virginia’s journal for 1899 when the Stephen family was staying at Warboys in East Anglia. The account, which was later sent in an extended form to her cousin Emma Vaughan, is based on fact. Virginia, her brother Adrian, and Emma, who was staying with the Stephens, rowed out one evening in an old punt upon the duck pond on the grounds; they were in high spirits and managed their vessel so ill that it capsized, throwing them all into the water; after a moment of real alarm they scrambled ashore and the adventure ended as it had begun, with laughter. Virginia, parodying a provincial journalist’s style, described the accident, concluding that all three navigators had drowned. Later she sent a fair copy of this account to Emma together with “A Note of Correction and Addition to the above by One of the Drowned.” This gives so cheerful a report of the whole business that DeSalvo omits to mention it. According to her Virginia is sending a cry for help to Emma; she is imagining her own death; it is a “dress rehearsal for what Woolf would do to herself in 1941.”

DeSalvo attaches the greatest importance to the word “disorder,” a word which seems to have the most fearful implications and which she has found in the text (I myself have been unable to find it), and she continues: “The person that she names here as directly responsible for her condition is her father.” But Virginia names no one. Again, according to DeSalvo, the three people missing in the disaster are inexplicably enlarged to four. This fourth person must, of course, have been a Duckworth, “if not in fact, then surely in effect,” and what with the Duckworths and the duck pond and the duckweed, DeSalvo can suggest terrible things. Virginia, it would seem, had been, or imagined that she had been, “forced into oral sex” by one of her brothers. The reasoning escapes me (it has to do with being smothered in duckweed), but one may let it go since it depends upon the introduction of this mysterious fourth casualty who does not exist.

Finally let us consider a passage which is so entertaining that it deserves to be rather closely examined. Stella Duckworth, Virginia’s half sister, had the misfortune to be the object of J. K. Stephen’s affections. J. K. Stephen was Virginia’s cousin. He had been a very bright young man at Eton and Cambridge and had written some light verse which, at the time, was very much admired. Then he went mad. His behavior became increasingly eccentric and violent. His father, a very stern old judge, told Leslie that if the young man proved troublesome they should forbid him in the house. DeSalvo, it would appear, would have been equally stern, but then she does not simply regard J. K. Stephen as mad, but considers him the blackest of black characters, a misogynist, a rake, a rapist. That he was a misogynist is shown by the fact that he wrote a cruelly mocking poem about a female undergraduate; whether it is equally significant that he wrote a companion piece, an equally cruel poem about a male undergraduate, I do not know. DeSalvo does not notice it.7

But, says DeSalvo, there is further evidence. In J. K.’s collection of poetry, Lapsus Calami and Other Verses; there is a poem called “The Last Ride Together.”8 DeSalvo writes,

The double entendre of the ride introduces one of the standard Victorian images for rape. In Victorian pornography, women assumed the images of horses [and DeSalvo assumes that “The Last Ride Together” is pornography]. In several pornographic novels of the time, women are “repeatedly subdued and tied down so they can be ‘mounted’ more easily, and they always end as grateful victims, trained to enjoy the whip and the straps, proud to provide pleasure for their masters.” [The reader is here referred to “Gynaecology, Pornography, and the Antivivisection Movement” by Coral Lansbury.]

Eager to know how one ties down a horse (surely a difficult operation) I opened Lapsus Calami and read “The Last Ride Together (From Her point of view).” I was disappointed. I still don’t know how to tie down a horse. I think that amateurs of pornography will also be disappointed in these verses. DeSalvo really asks too much of the reader’s imagination.

We encounter a woman who agrees to take one last ride with her rejected suitor; we are told how, as she “stirred the fire,” her lover stole a kiss. No, says DeSalvo, he did much worse: “‘the hem of her dress’ is swept up ‘over her hips’ and she is sodomized” (this is Ms. Lansbury again). And how does the lady react to this monstrous outrage? “I own,” she says, “I was extremely vexed.” Well I never! If he had gone any further, she might have been downright angry.

Then we come to the horses. The symbolism seems a little odd. He has a horse, but then so does she. Who, one asks, is raping whom? However managed, it seems a quiet sort of business. He seems very much cast down and remains uncommonly glum; she, the victim, is chatty, sociable, and a little bored. She recalls how in similar circumstances but with a different partner she had whipped his horse and made it shy:

   t’was a scurvy trick,
But I never could do with that young man:
I hope his present young woman can.
Well, I must say, never, since time began,
Did I go for a duller or longer ride.

He never smiles and he never speaks:
He might go on like this for weeks:
He rolls a slightly frenzied eye
Towards the blue and burning sky,
And the cob bounds on with tireless stride.
If we aren’t at home for lunch at two
I don’t know what Papa will do;
But I know full well he will say to me
“I never approved of Mr B.:
‘It’s the very devil that you and he
“Ride, ride together, for ever ride.”

Is this the sort of thing that embarassed men buy for large sums in dirty bookshops? Surely not. But that quadrupedantical meter and those concluding lines produce a certain feeling of déjà lu; are we not reminded of a greater man than J. K. S.? Louise DeSalvo, says the blurb, is a professor of English. She should be able to help us, not only with her erudition, but because she has held a copy of Lapsus Calami in her hands and, looking for this poem in the table of contents she will have noticed that it falls under the heading of “Sincere Flattery”; and the person flattered is one R. B. Yes, this is a parody of one of Browning’s most celebrated works.

His are the horses, and Browning is the beast: think of all that nasty business between Aix and Ghent, and sweet Porphyria strangled, and all those poor children lured into a cavern and of course abused; and then wasn’t his wife an incest victim? It all adds up and seems entirely convincing if only you will look at the evidence in the right spirit.

This Issue

March 15, 1990