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.