Virginia and Leonard Woolf

I’ve been reading about the Woolfs’ marriage and I can’t decide what to make of it; whether it was a triumph of love over circumstance or an eccentric and faintly tortuous co-dependency. It was certainly the most glorious and bizarre example of suffering for the sake of art, and it makes me feel that Leonard Woolf is one of the unsung heroes of the twentieth century. Without his selfless, tireless and continuous support of his wife, I do wonder whether Woolf’s creativity would have resulted in so many landmarks of modern literature.

Virginia Woolf seems to have been one of those people genetically, circumstancially and fatefully destined to be unstable. There was madness in her family and her father, tyrannical, melancholic, insomniac, was a powerful influence. Her mother died young, and she was sexually abused by her half-brother, George Duckworth, for many years. Certainly until she was 22 she suffered his unwelcome attentions and they contributed in part not just to her lifelong frigidity, but also to her first severe mental breakdown that followed the death of her father in 1904. Her fragility was undoubtedly part of her charm, and although in photos Woolf has a strange kind of face, as if she were always raising her eyebrows in a perpetual expression of quizzical surprise, she was described in her early years as possessing a certain delicate beauty. As with so many women of that age she was naïve and emotionally immature, scared of men and horrified by the thought of enduring the torments of the marital bedroom. But by the time she was in her late 20s, spinsterhood was yet another item on the list of things bringing Woolf down. She wrote to her sister, Vanessa: ‘I could not write & all the devils came out – hairy black ones. To be 29 & unmarried – to be a failure – Childless – insane, too, no writer.’ And at this point Leonard Woolf came along.

Leonard Woolf was the son of a distinguished Jewish barrister, a Cambridge graduate, and the chief administrator for a southern province in Ceylon. The latter had been one of those colonial outpost jobs that sort the men from the boys; according to Virginia, he’d ‘ruled India, hung black men, shot tigers’ and also written a novel. Although he was doing well at this job and it promised him a fine career in the Colonial service, he cheerfully abandoned it in the hope of persuading Virginia to marry him. Certainly she put up some stiff opposition, not least because he was a Jew. ‘You seem so foreign,’ she told him. ‘And then I am fearfully unstable…As I told you brutally the other day, I feel no physical attraction in you. There are moments – when you kissed me the other day was one – when I feel no more than a rock. And yet your caring for me as you do almost overwhelms me. It is so real and so strange…’ Extraordinarily, Leonard took this letter as an encouraging sign, and clearly he must have had some kind of insight into her character because by the end of the same month, Virginia had agreed to marry him.

How do you look after a dangerously insane, asexual, creative genius who lacks the resilience to bear you children? Easy; Leonard put himself second with an astonishing consistency, neglecting his own work as a journalist, editor, publisher and politician to care for Virginia in the most dedicated, hands-on fashion, timetabling her every day, masterminding her work and nursing her through her terrible crises of madness. He also surrounded himself with dogs, which were clearly surrogates for the children he couldn’t have. Woolf’s breakdowns were severe and dramatic and comprised two stages: a manic stage that began with headaches and the inability to concentrate and descended into hyper-excitement and delusions in which she heard voices and was oblivious of everyone else. (Quentin Bell records how in one of her earliest attacks she heard ‘the birds singing in Greek and [imagined] that King Edward VII lurked in the azaleas using the foulest possible language.’) In the depressive phase that followed she was in the depths of despair, refusing to eat and attempting to commit suicide. Yet despite three suicide attempts, Woolf interspersed the crazy times with about 25 years of golden creativity. Each book brought her to the verge of nervous collapse (The Voyage Out and Between the Acts tipped her over), but through them all the faithful Leonard read her and encouraged her and supervised her creative energies and emotional investments. He even tolerated the two quasi-lesbian affairs that Woolf had with Katherine Mansfield and Vita Sackville-West. These really deserve a post of their own, being hugely emotionally complex relationships coloured by artistic jealousy and identification. With Mansfield, Woolf had no more than an intense if intermittent friendship, but the liaison with Sackville-West had a physical dimension too, if one that undoubtedly failed to appeal to Virginia Woolf any more than heterosexuality did.

These accounts I write of artistic marriages never fail to leave me amazed as to the extraordinarily odd, baggy, shapeless relationship that is marriage. How it can be abused and damaged and neglected and yet the bond it creates is still tenacious, whether as a lifeline or as a shackle. In the Woolfs’ case, the obstacles to their simple happiness and the trials they went through together left them bound in a deep, mutual love that seems to have weathered madness, celibacy, childlessness and lesbian intrigue. When Virginia Woolf finally managed to commit suicide, she left Leonard the following note:

‘Dearest – I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will, I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you.’

Her body was recovered three weeks later when some children saw it floating in the Great Ouse. Leonard Woolf’s greatest achievement, his five-volume autobiography, was published between 1960 and 1970, after his wife’s death.

15 thoughts on “Virginia and Leonard Woolf

  1. Thanks for this, litlove. Every time I think of Leonard Woolf, I pause to thank him for his steadfastness. There is no way that the world would have To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway without him.

    There is a line at the end of Leonard’s biography, which I have just searched frantically for but could not find, that expresses his sentiment that despite all the great efforts he made and his decades of work, he felt that he had accomplished practically nothing. Clearly, this is false.

    • Infuriating when that happens – you are probably thinking of the paragraph (page 158) towards the end of his autobiography The Journey Not the Arrival Matters :
      “Looking back at the age of 88 over the 57 years of my political work in England, knowing what I aimed at and the results, meditating on the history of Britain and the world since 1914, I see clearly that I achieved practically nothing. The world today and the history of the human anthill during the last 57 years would be exactly the same as it is if I had played pingpong instead of sitting on committees and writing books and memoranda. I have therefore to make the rather ignominious confession to myself and to anyone who may read this book that I must have in a long life ground through 150,000 and 200,000 hours of perfectly useless work.”
      He goes on to ponder this and (page 173) concludes “but in one’s own personal life, in terms of humanity and human history and human society, certain things are of immense importance: human relations, happiness, truth, beauty or art, justice and mercy.”
      Those 200,000 hours Leonard Woolf spent working and fighting to establish a just and merciful society surely was and remains a worth-while and even noble way of conducting one’s life. Without such men (or women) how else can a civilised society be created or maintained? If there are no men or women prepared to follow the (page 163) “classical instances in which individuals have risked everything in a fight for justice, mercy, toleration, and liberty against the entrenched forces of kings and emperors, states and establishments, principalities and powers” life for the majoriy would indeed be pitiless, brutal and short.
      By spending a lifetime fighting for justice Leonard Woolf was indeed ‘one of the unsung heroes of the twentieth century’.

  2. Oh Ted, that really tugs at my heart! He was so clearly the finest of men; self-sacrificing, caring, loyal, and tremendously creative himself. Who among us could say as much?

  3. I simply must read a biography of Woolf — there are so many of my favorite writers, Woolf included, whose biographies I must read! This is a very interesting post — I’m grateful to Leonard too, but I have to say I’m also pleased to be reading a story where the man is the one who makes the sacrifices to nurture someone else’s talent, instead of the woman, as it usually is….

  4. I clearly need to read a biography of Woolf. What a fascinating marriage. I’m with Dorothy and Ted on this one, thank goodness for Leonard Woolf for his sacrifices. And thank you for this!

  5. Dorothy – you’re right! It is an unusual way around, although there is no real reason why this should be so. And most of my information comes from a very good book by Jeffrey Meyers called Married to Genius. I can thoroughly recommend it! Gentle Reader – I’d recommend the same book to you, too, but there are also fantastic biographies of Woolf available, like Hermione Lee’s for instance. And you are very welcome!

  6. Leonard Woolf was a patient, loving, saint. He grounded Virginia in a stability she would never have otherwise achieved. He sacrificed his own writing for hers. Every crazy woman writer needs a stable, centered man like Leonard in her life to keep her going. Too bad what she needed at the end he could not provide: effective medication for bipolar disorder that was not yet available. I find the way her bipolar experiences pervade her writing fascinating, both as a psychotherapist and writer. I love your blog. Just added it to my new blogroll.

  7. Virginia Woolf’s letters and journals have been my recurrent bedside reading for so long I can’t remember when I first started and one of the things that I think comes over most consistently is Woolf’s own awareness of the importance of Leonard to her stability even in those times when the world seemed to be going well with her; that and her deep gratitude to him for his love and care. Does gratitude ever amount to love? I don’t know. But it seems to me that in the light of what she says about him both when writing for herself and to others she appears to be very close to it. There may have been little or no physical closeness there, but what there was seems infinitely precious to me.

  8. I’ve read Woolf’s suicide note before, and it never fears to give me chills, and make my heart ache for both parties involved. I really need to read Woolf…I have to confess only to reading the piece, A Room of One’s Own.

  9. Individual voice – hello and welcome to the site! I am extremely interested in psychotherapy so I shall certainly be paying you a return visit! And I did wonder about Woolf’s lack of medication – but it makes sense if the necessary drugs did not exist at the time. I’m not so very crazy, but I wouldn’t mind a Leonard Woolf in my life 🙂 Ann – I didn’t know you were a bedside Woolf journals person! I quite agree with you – he does seem to have been the constant presence and the light of her life. Relationships can take all manner of forms without sacrificing their quality. Courtney – then you have made a very good start with Woolf, as I love that little essay. I think Mrs Dalloway’s a reasonable place to start, but others will say different. Follow your gut instincts.

  10. Maybe I’ll get Hermione Lee’s bio, because I’ve heard she’s great–I know people who really love her bio of Edith Wharton. But Married to Genius sounds good, too. Thanks for the suggestions!

  11. So often literary husbands are villified for their wives’ suicides (I have to admit, often deservedly). How refreshing that you’ve chosen to write about the supportive husband, and I agree with Dorr about it also being refreshing to read about the husband doing the sacrificing. I still have to question, though: how many men of the time would have felt they were holding back their wives the way Virginia obviously felt she was holding back her husband?

  12. Gentle reader – you’re very welcome! Emily – what a good question, and I wish I could answer it! I shall have to hunt about in my information on literary husbands to see whether there’s one who acknowledges the investment made in his career by his wife. It may take some time… But yes, it is nice to come across a Leonard Woolf every now and again!

  13. A remarkable marriage. I read an article once somewhere that actually dared to accuse Leonard of making Virginia ill and eventually driving her to suicide. I’m sure he made mistakes but I am sure he loved Virginia deeply and would never do anything to purposely harm her. I think his personal sacrfices allowed some of the most creative and thoughtful work to be born into the world.

  14. I definitely want to read Married to Genius. I’ve always admired both Woolfs, and wondered how modern bipolar medications might have changed both their lives (maybe not even for the better).

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