By Viola van de Sandt
More than seventy years after her death, Virginia Woolf continues to be a source of inspiration, analysis, interest, and admiration. Emphasis on a small number of famous events in her lifetime has turned her into a mythological figure that, at times, may have little resemblance to the flesh-and-blood woman behind the brand. Yet besides the stories of her breakdowns, her ‘madness,’ her snobbishness, her suicide, and the sexual abuse she suffered, there’s much more to tell about the writer who was at the forefront of twentieth-century Modernism.
1. When Virginia and Leonard Woolf, who together ran the Hogarth Press, received the manuscript of the first chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses, they turned it down for publication because it was impossible to print the entire book on their handpress. Although she later came to appreciate some aspects of the book, having read it through the first time, she was hardly enthusiastic: ‘First there’s a dog that p’s – then there’s a man that forths [i.e., orgasms], and one can be monotonous even on that subject – moreover, I don’t believe that his method, which is highly developed, means much more than cutting out the explanations and putting in the thoughts between dashes.’
2. An often told, and no doubt often embellished family anecdote recalled how James Pattle, Virginia Woolf’s great-grandfather on her mother’s side, notoriously drank himself to death. As a member of the Bengal Civil Service, Pattle had to be sent back to England in a cask of rum. During a storm, however, the cask exploded, and his widow, at the shock of seeing her late husband’s body in such a state, died instantaneously. The soldiers aboard the ship, or so the disputed story goes, drank the rum.
3. Virginia Woolf had very mixed feelings about Thomas Hardy’s skills as a writer. ‘I think he had genius & no talent,’ she wrote in 1936, and although this may sound harsh, her judgement was not entirely derogatory. Although she thought his novels were ‘full of inequalities,’ ‘lumpish,’ and ‘dull,’ she praised his capacity for ‘moments of vision’ in which ‘a single scene breaks off from the rest.’ The title of her own autobiography, Moments of Being, is a clear tribute to Hardy.
4. In April 1935, Virginia and Leonard Woolf decided to drive through Germany as part of their annual holiday. Although they made light of the possible dangers of this endeavour, in Bonn they found the streets lined with Nazi supporters awaiting the arrival of Hermann Goering. Leonard would later recall that, for miles, he ‘drove between two lines of corybantic Germans’ who, at the sight of their pet monkey Mitz, delightedly shouted ‘Heil Hitler!’ and ‘gave her (and secondarily Virginia and me) the Hitler salute with outstretched arm.’ Virginia, for her part, raised her hand and waved back.
5. T.S. Eliot, friend and regular correspondent of Virginia Woolf, often sent her funny rhymes, satires, or jokes about the differences in their reputation. In October 1937, she received the following missive:
Viola van de Sandt is a postgraduate student in English literature at King’s College, London. She loves writing about women in English and American novels, and does exactly that on her own blog, “Broken Glass”.
Image: Christiaan Tonnis ~ Virginia Woolf / Oil on canvas / 1998, Christiaan Tonnis, share-alike licence.