by Perry Meisel
THE UNKNOWN VIRGINIA WOOLF. By Roger Poole. Cambridge University Press. $11.95.
BLOOMSBURY: A House of Lions. By Leon Edel. Lippincott. $12.95
THE LETTERS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF: Volume Four. 1929 – 1931. Edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $14.95.
Whether or not Virginia Woolf was mad no longer seems a seductive enough question to hang a whole book on, and yet Roger Poole has used it to write the most dramatic and provocative study of Woolf to appear in years – no small achievement in the continuing glut. Poole’s book rekindles the problem of Woolf’s madness by denying its existence; but instead of casting her as an R.D. Laing’s Mary Barnes, he explains her distress by tracing it to its origins. The result is an act of profound imaginative sympathy and the most sustained interior portrait of Woolf as a woman that I have ever read.
What about Quentin Bell’s authoritative biography or recent NBA nominee Phyllis Rose’s Woman of Letters? These are both sane, reasonable books, next to which Poole’s is obsessive in its intent, and apparently malicious in carrying it out. No wonder, since Poole’s argument is that Woolf was not “the ‘queen’ of Bloomsbury” at all, but, as he puts it, "its Antigone." That means we need a Creon, a rationalist enforcer, and he arrives, alas, in the person of Leonard Woolf, no longer his wife's saintly keeper, but, in Poole’s view, the domestic embodiment of the stifling effects of Bloomsbury-at-large on Virginia’s sensibility.
Poole argues that instead of being a hip bunch of pals, the male-dominated, Cambridge-educated Bloomsbury Group tended to slam its women against a wall. With little use for them sexually (Leonard became the frustrated exception), it found its pleasure in abusing them intellectually. As disciples of the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore, nitpicking positivist and rationalist par excellence, male Bloomsberries like Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Saxon Sydney-Turner, and Woolf himself were accustomed to testing intelligence with the technique of Moorish interrogation, responding to Virginia's flights of conversational fancy with the perennial retort, "What exactly do you mean by that?" They believed, says Poole, that she was simply "talking nonsense." "Far from being the most brilliant adornment of Bloomsbury," he concludes, "Virginia Woolf was working like an undercover agent in enemy-occupied country. The strain on her was terrific."
Thus the famous move from Kensington to Bloomsbury in 1904 following the death of Virginia's father, the eminent Victorian (and Cambridge) rationalist Sir Leslie Stephen, is no longer, as the usual argument goes, a moment of liberation. Instead, it was a renewal of the same grip in which she had passed her childhood: The supposedly liberated Bloomsberries embodied the "rationalist-reductive consciousness" of her father's Cambridge all over again - the precise kind of consciousness, argues Poole, that her visionary and largely subjective art sets out to explode.
Why Virginia periodically flipped, then, can be traced to the same root that caused her to write so much: the wish to escape the brutality of an emotional and intellectual confinement every bit as suffocating in mature life as it was in childhood. For Poole it is her writing that constitutes "the only strand holding her sense of identity together," and it is to her writing and reading ("morphia," as he calls them) that she learned habitually to fly as a respite from the tormenting atmosphere in which she had to live out her daily life. Poole sets out with telling force the familiar conflicts between "fact" and "vision" in the fiction - Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, Septimus and the psychiatrists in Mrs. Dalloway, Bart and his sister Lucy in Between the Acts - with the primary effect less a reduction of the novels to biography than the heightening of biography through the aid of fiction.
Accompanying the tyranny of rationalism in Poole's casebook are those genuinely traumatic events in childhood and youth that Woolfians have known about for some time, the sexual molestations by Virginia's half-brother Gerald Duckworth when she was barely pubescent, and further assaults during late adolescence and early womanhood by her other Duckworth half-brother, George. "Her body is not really hers," says Poole. "It is public property."
Hence her frigidity when it came to men, Leonard included, a frigidity that seemed to melt (exactly how much, it is difficult to say) when she found herself enthralled with women - most famously, Vita Sackville-West, or, in the period covered by the new, fourth volume of Letters, Ethel Smyth. That Virginia's mind and emotions thawed along with her body in the presence of such women is added grist for Poole's case, a case the new Letters confirm with distressing clarity when we see Virginia reflecting in a 1931 letter to Smyth on the need to keep her mouth and heart shut in the company of those with whom she was supposedly most at home:
"Everyone I most honour is silent - Nessa [her sister Vanessa], Lytton, Leonard, Maynard: all silent; and so I have trained myself to silence; induced it also by the terror I have of my own unlimited capacity for feeling . . . I find that you are perhaps the only person I know who shows feeling and feels. Still I cant [sic] imagine talking about my love for people, as you do. Is it training? Is it the perpetual fear I have of the unknown force that lurks just under the floor? I never cease to feel that I must step very lightly on top of that volcano."
From this point of view, Virginia's apparent jokes in other letters about her "lack of reasoning power" should be read as expressions of that "I," as she puts it in another letter to Smyth, "in whom Cambridge has bred a large measure of unalloyed melancholy." Or witness this sarcastic series of remarks to Saxon Sydney-Turner, arch-Bloomsberry and Cambridge personified, whom Virginia seems to be paying back for verbal abuses suffered at his hands:
"I suppose in these 5 days you would have read Plato through. What a pity it is that we cant pool our reading! - I mean, if I could attach a little sucker to the back of your neck and drink through it without any effort, all your knowledge, I should be able to die content. . . . I heard of you making the Baboons howl at the Zoo with Roger [Fry]. How much does it cost to become what you are?"
Poole's radical perspective not only deepens the possibilities of meaning in the Letters, but deepens them, too, in the already rich psychoanalytic world of Leon Edel's broader (and infinitely more artful) portrait of all the citizens of Bloomsbury in his long-awaited House of Lions. If Poole's masterstroke is the Laingian/phenomenological discovery of Virginia's concrete victimization, Edel's is the more classically Freudian discovery of the displacements and repositionings at work in the already complicated structure of the Stephen family romance. Here we can see how Bloomsbury reconstituted in still another fashion the structure of Virginia's childhood, this time in the curious way that Vanessa and Virginia's older brother Thoby recreated the image of Virginia's parents when they became the heads of the new household at 46 Gordon Square following Sir Leslie's death in 1904 - the new Bloomsbury life, at least at the start, as an exponent rather than a resolution of Virginia's Oedipal anxieties. And when Thoby died young, of thyphoid, in 1906, the repetition is raised to a higher power still again - the father dies a second time, much as the mother, Julia, had already died a second death with the passing of Virginia's half-sister Stella in 1897.
The links that Edel only implies between Virginia's "powerful anger" and her "inability to love" may be linked in turn to Poole's interpretation of Virginia's coldness and withdrawal in later life as veiled protests against Leonard's rationalist belief in her insanity and his perpetual alliance with that string of psychiatrists who refused to listen, as a psychoanalyst might have, to the details of her thoughts and visions. "That there was something wrong with Virginia, I do not for a moment deny," writes Poole; "but no attempt seems to have been made to discover what was wrong with her, and how she saw her own situation." Given that Leonard had been supervising James Strachey's translation of Freud since 1924, his refusal (or was it Virginia's?) to seek psychoanalytic rather than psychiatric aid is especially ironic. It suggests that Leonard held Moorish rationalism to be a finer instrument than Freud throughout his life.
The pitilessness of the Cambridge point of view grows terrifying as Poole details Virginia's interview with her last doctor only days before her suicide in 1941. "Frightened, afraid of the power of doctors to order rest cures, Virginia, half-undressed, tries to bargain with her judge. Here is one of the subtlest and most perceptive minds of her time being treated just like a child, threatened with a hated rest cure, and 'being sent up to bed.' " Yet careful as he is to be true also to Virginia's manifest love for Leonard, Poole interprets her famous suicide note to him ("I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been") as "the most generous fraud, and the most magnificent deception, in modern literature"; a successful attempt to assure Leonard of his innocence and to assure posterity that theirs really was a marriage of true minds.
To call the famous suicide note a "fraud," of course, makes the end of Virginia's life sound something like the end of Heart of Darkness, when Marlow intentionally lies to Kurtz's Intended to keep the living happy while the dead sleep. Poole's detractors, however, will want to insist on the difference between fact and fiction, although to insist on the facts here will land them just where they don't want to be - squarely in Poole's trap. For despite numerous lapses in the construction of Poole's analysis (apparent haste in composition, occasionally excessive reduction of the work to clinical data, intrusive bursts of phenomenological and Lacanian vocabulary), it has the kind of rhetorical playfulness and effect we usually expect only from fiction.
It is the issue of Leonard, however, that keeps itching, although to deal with this requires not so much an appeal to the usual facts as it does an appeal to the discoveries Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey made in the rhetoric of biography proper. However sloppy it may be, Poole's book is, after all, part of a literary mode that includes Woolf's Orlando, Strachey's Eminent Victorians, and Freud's case histories, all of them progenitors in turn of the climate that has produced in our own day the New Journalism, the nonfiction novel, and a contemporary notion of biography itself as what Phyllis Rose calls "imaginative understanding," "the recognition that a life is as much a work of fiction - of guiding narrative structures - as novels and poems." To want only the righteous truth about the Woolfs as friends and relatives knew it is to propose that the official Victorian biography be reinstated, and that one of Bloomsbury's most significant - and most genuinely shared - achievements be discarded entirely.
Originally published in The Village Voice, July 16, 1979