Virginia Woolf at Night

Leonardo_portrait-silverpoint

Well, no, the image above is not a portrait of Virginia Woolf. I suppose, properly speaking, it is not even a portrait per se, but is simply one of Leonardo’s many studies drawn in silverpoint as he collected figures he thought he might use one day in a painting—or perhaps to  capture an expression, a cast of mouth, a glance that he saved for later use in his art. His days were long before there were any means of preserving what was seen—except by marks made by hand. This drawing is obviously unfinished, both insofar as her hair, shoulders and back are mere sketches, and also as her left eye is somewhat too large relative to her right eye. From our contemporary point of view, the drawing is masterful, immediate and expressive—and worth a fortune. But there is no indication that Leonardo considered it up to his standard for the serious business of his art. It is just a study, like the many others he has crammed together on scraps of paper, and in his notebooks, of old men, hags, grotesques, young men and women, anatomy lessons, and far-fetched inventions. 

Virginia Woolf, for her part, and in service of a different art form, worked on her human studies in her Diary. She favored writing while seated in an easy chair with a writing board in her lap. She used an ink bottle and a steel-tipped dipping pen, and wrote by hand at considerable speed without making corrections, editorial revisions, or authorial re-considerations. It is in this sense of immediate impression that I mean to emphasize when I call her Diary a daily series of studies: she is sketching her conjectures of people, in a prose style instant and unpondered, using diction that occurs to her on the spot, at that moment, to express ideas she is capturing just as fast as she can write them down.

Those contemporary readers new to her Diary might be most interested, at least at first,  in her observations of famous people. For example, the first time she met T.S. Eliot occurred on November 15, 1918, and she writes: Mr. Eliot is well expressed by his name—a polished, cultivated, elaborate young American, talking so slow, that each word seems to have special finish allotted to it. Beneath the surface, it is fairly evident that he is very intellectual, intolerant, with strong view of his own, & a poetic creed. Here is a penetrating estimation of Eliot’s character, formulated over a half-hour social exchange, which remains prescient even after a further century of research into the poet’s letters, prose writings, poetry and biographical study. As she indicates, she sees through surfaces, however refined, and incisively sums up what she finds hidden down there.

She is delighted by social absurdities, such as an exchanged conversation told to her when King George V, during a Royal visit, at one point turned  & asked Princess Victoria where she gets her false teeth. “Mine”, George exclaimed, “are always dropping into my plate: they’ll be down my throat next” Victoria then gave a tug to her front teeth, & told him they were as sound as could be—perfectly white and useful. Even in an era of personal disclosures among American political figures, whom you’d think would know better, comparisons of false teeth are pretty funny. In this vein she also reports discussions regarding self-abuse, incest and the deformity of Dean Swift’s penis.

More commonly she relates the quotidian ebb and flow of English life around her. And though she is not a naturalist, she does write frequently in the early years of her Diary about the full moon—though probably not for reasons you might imagine. She begins her journal in January, 1915, stops it six weeks later on February 15th, (for reasons I’ll get to later) and then resumes it again in earnest in October 1917. During these years, the First World War was raging, and German airships—chiefly zeppelins at that time of the war—floated across the English Channel to bomb London when the city might be illuminated by moonlight. Without the moon, nighttime visibility was impossible, insofar as the lights in the city were otherwise blacked out. In a characteristic entry, Virginia wrote on October 22, 1915  that “The moon grows full, & the evening trains are packed with people leaving London. We saw the hole [caused by a bomb detonation] in Piccadilly this afternoon. Traffic has been stopped, & the public slowly tramps past the place, which workmen are mending, though they look small in comparison…Windows are broken according to no rule; some intact, some this side, some that.

On December 6th, the moon rose later, after 11:00pm, so the zeppelins did not arrive until 5 in the morning: I was awakened by L[eonard] to a most instant sense of guns: as if one’s faculties jumped up fulling dressed. We took clothes, quilts, a watch & a torch, the guns sounding nearer as we went downstairs to sit with the servants…wrapped in quilts in the kitchen passage…Slowly the guns got more distant, & finally ceased; we unwrapped ourselves & went back to bed. In ten minutes, there could be no question of staying there…Up we jumped, more hastily this time….In fact one talks through the noise, rather bored by having to talk at 5 a.m. than anything else. Guns at one point so loud that the whistle of the shell going up followed the explosion. Cocoa was brewed for us, & off we went again. Having trained one’s ears to listen, one can’t get them not to for a time; & as it was after 6, carts were rolling out of stables, motor cars throbbing, & then prolonged ghostly whistlings, which meant, I suppose, Belgian work people recalled to the munitions factory. I have never been bombed, never had to flee the prospect of floating airships intentionally dropping high explosives on me to wipe me out, and devastate my habitable city. But if I ever am to be bombed, I hope I have enough courage and civilizing imagination to allow hot cocoa, shared among companions, to assuage my anxieties.

As I suggested earlier, most of her entries center on human observations in situations when she is not actively under fire. Here is one of many attempts to register the points of character of Lytton Strachey—a friend, and the author of Eminent Victorians: He is one of the most supple of our friends; I don’t mean passionate or masterful or original, but the person whose mind seems softest to impressions, least starched by any formality or impediment. There is his great gift of expression, of course, never (to me) at its best in writing; but making him in some aspects the most sympathetic & understanding friend to talk to. Moreover, he has become, or now shows it more fully, curiously gentle, sweet tempered, considerate; & if one adds his peculiar flavor of mind, his wit & infinite intelligence—not brain but intelligence—he is a figure not to be replaced by any other combination. She is writing about mere friendship here, which she considers at length, with sustained perception. She is not casual about her friends, but derives a nourishing pleasure from them, and with them, which does not diminish over time, but is consequential, and abiding in substance. She can be vigorous, humorous, entertaining, frank, unsparingly critical—but never trivial.

With that said, she was not merely concerned to write about friends in her Diary, and about people in high society, but she was interested in everyone. In Spring of 1917 she and Leonard were able to buy their printing press, which they set up at Hogarth House (Hence Hogarth Press), and thereafter spent some time trying to hire people to help them set type. Every single letter, punctuation mark, and space between words had to be set by hand, which required sustained attention to detail, and a certain strength of mind against tedium—which was not possessed by everyone who applied for the job. Barbara was one such person: Happily no apprentice today, which gives us a sense of holiday. We have had to make it rather clear to Barbara that this job may not be followed by another. She refuses payment for last week. So there’s no fault to find with her. No one could be nicer; & yet she has the soul of the lake, not the sea. Or is one too romantic & exacting in what one expects? Anyhow, nothing is more fascinating that a live person; always changing, resisting, & yielding against one’s forecast; this is true even of Barbara, not the most gifted of her kind. Virginia is never one to pull punches, which makes her obvious empathy and delight all the more authentic. Nothing is more interesting than a live person.

It is worth noting that she did not extend that interest toward introspection. She writes about others, not herself. That stoppage I mentioned in her Diary starting in mid-February, 1915, was prompted by her descent into a particularly virulent lunacy. On Monday, February 15th, she writes with her usual perspicacity about the people she encounters in the London shops, meeting Walter Lamb by chance, and rambling down to Charing Cross in the dark, making up phrases & incidents to write about. Which is, I expect, the way one gets killed. The very next day on the 16th she had a headache, which heralded her slippage into madness. By the first week in March she required professional care, and for months thereafter she was incoherent, violent against herself and others, and so densely insane that professionals and family alike doubted she could ever return to anything resembling a normative state of mind.

She did return, of course, and resumed writing her Diary in early August 1917. However, she never provided a single solitary word about the reason she lapsed in her daily discipline of keeping her Diary. She never mentions that she had a break in her sanity, never made an observation about the nature of her mental state, no word to characterize the quality of her consciousness, no statement of what it felt like, no memories of delusions, no lamentation about lost life during those awful months, no promises, no allusions, no apologies to others for her behaviors, no regrets for the harm she inflicted on other people. No mention whatsoever. One day in 1915 she writes about touring London shops for books, and the next entry on October 8, 1917 in her Hogarth House Diary she begins with another accidental encounter with Walter Lamb in London. A seamless continuity belying the one-and-half years silence.

Her creative imagination, even in her personal Diary, operates on principles quite other than contemporary intentions and aesthetics. At the bookstores we now have our choice among works focusing at length on lawn sprinklers in the author’s childhood, professors analyzing their lives among students and fellow teachers. IRL Streamers entertain their audience in realtime with attempts to pick up young women encountered on the street. Being offensive is the point of the entertainment. Virginia Woolf in her private, unpublished moments thinks about people who are other than herself. Apart from the healthy display of empathy, what a basis this is for a political stance.

Author: Brad Crenshaw

I am a poet and literary critic. I have written two books of poetry: 'Genealogies' was published in April 2016. My first book of poetry is titled 'My Gargantuan Desire'. I also have two chapbooks: 'Propagandas', and 'Limits of Resurrection'. I am working on a manuscript titled 'Medical Life’, which is book of creative non-fiction. I have worked as a neuropsychologist for many years in a New England tertiary care medical center, and in the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services. 'Medical Life' reflects my encounters with people who have had neurological insults of various sorts, and the problems that result. When I am not writing, or working, I'll be out in my ocean kayak in either the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. The unconstructed world.

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