There are two inaccurate common views of Virginia Woolf. The first is that her depressions were episodic and that she was in her better moods free of melancholy, and the other is that she lived her life in darkness, with only partial and infrequent remissions from severe depression. The fact of her charm can blind us to her persistent agony, and the fact of her suicide can blind us to her enduring ecstasy. Both her work and her life demonstrate an extraordinary entwining of these qualities; for Woolf, all experience is permanently suffused with relentless vitality and blunt tragedy. While what clinicians would describe as depression may have been intermittent in her life, a sense of everything’s sadness hums through even her work’s brightest evocations. Sadness need not obscure beauty; indeed it often enhances it. Nor does it contravene the ineffable bliss inherent in the very fact of awareness, a bliss as strong in the awareness of sorrow as in the awareness of joy.
This potent dualism is evoked with particular intensity in her underrated early novel Jacob’s Room. In the very landscape she notes it: “No doubt if this were Italy, Greece, or even the shores of Spain, sadness would be routed by strangeness and excitement and the nudge of a classical education. But the Cornish hills have stark chimneys standing on them, and, somehow or other, loveliness is infernally sad. Yes, the chimneys and coastguard stations and the little bays with waves breaking unseen by anyone make one remember the overpowering sorrow. And what can this sorrow be? It is brewed by the earth itself. It comes from the houses on the coast. We start transparent, and then the cloud thickens. All history backs our pane of glass. To escape is vain.” The ubiquity of this sadness is likewise summoned in every genre scene, where it seems almost ludicrous. “Yet she had the rapt look of one brushing through crowds on a summer’s afternoon and the tumult of the present seems like an elegy for past youth and past summers, and there rose in her mind a curious sadness, as if time and eternity showed through skirts and waistcoats and she saw people passing tragically to destruction. Yet, heaven knows, Julia was no fool; a sharper woman at a bargain did not exist, and she was always punctual.” Finally and explicitly, it surfaces in the heart even of the most engaged and well-adjusted of men, Jacob in this case simply looking out the window at strangers walking in the street below: “Their lack of concern for him was not the cause of his gloom, but some more profound conviction – it was not that he himself was lonely, but that all people are.” This desolation, inherent in the human condition, seems strange when it reaches consciousness, irrelevant to the concrete experiences it constantly shadows, inconsistent with the practical reality of our capacity to function. It is our folly to think of bargains when the world is full of such deep stuff – or perhaps it is our redemption, the very thing that allows us to continue in the fabric of our lives.
Five years after Jacob’s Room, Woolf published To the Lighthouse, and in it describes over and over again the impossibility of reconciling these extremes of sentiment. She acknowledges not only the sadness, but also how that sadness may be forever within view of happiness. “Always, Mrs. Ramsay felt, one helped oneself out of solitude reluctantly by laying hold of some little odd and end, some sound, some sight. She listened, but it was all very still; cricket was over; the children were in their baths; there was only the sound of the sea. She stopped knitting; she held the long reddish-brown stocking dangling in her hands for a moment. She saw the light again. With some irony in her interrogation, for when one woke at all, one’s relations changed, she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much her, yet so little her, which had her at its beck and call (she woke in the night and saw it bent across their bed, stroking the floor), but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!”
It is in the moment of feeling sorrowful that such optimism suddenly dawns, as dramatic an opposite as when Jacob’s sadness manifests in the thick of contentment. Ultimately, the Ramseys will leave the Hebrides; Mrs. Ramsay will die; and as every sad moment has had this tinge of glory, so each happy one will be compromised by dismay. “Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul.” This longing for resolution, which drives human enterprise, is a course of irresolvable frustration. We quest with exquisite desire after a vision that will mitigate our aloneness. Here is Lily Briscoe: “And, what was even more exciting, she felt, too, as she saw Mr. Ramsey bearing down and retreating, and Mrs. Ramsey sitting with James in the window and the cloud moving and the tree bending, how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it, there, with a dash on the beach.” Such resolution is always proximate and always elusive, and though it seems like a lasting truth, it is transient. “It seemed now as if, touched by human penitence and all its toil, divine goodness had parted the curtain and displayed behind it, single, distinct, the hare erect; the wave falling; the boat rocking, which did we deserve them, should be ours always. But alas, divine goodness, twitching the cord, draws the curtain; it does not please him; he covers his treasures in a drench of hail, and so breaks them, so confuses them that it seems impossible that their calm should ever return or that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear word of truth.” Woolf narrates life throughout her work in a vocabulary of yearning, always gazing at truth and never able to touch it.
In Orlando, published the next year, Woolf is at her most exuberant, and love grants her a view behind that parted curtain. “It cannot be denied that the most successful practitioners of the art of life, often unknown people by the way, somehow contrive to synchronize the sixty or seventy different times which beat simultaneously in every normal human system so that when eleven strikes, all the rest chime in unison, and the present is neither a violent disruption nor completely forgotten in the past. Of them we can justly say that they live precisely the sixty-eight or seventy-two years allotted them on the tombstone. Of the rest some we know to be dead though they walk among us; some are not yet born though they go through the forms of life; others are hundreds of years old though they call themselves thirty-six.” This attempt to be within and of the moment, to live in the present and the past with a nod to the future, is the great quest, but it eludes almost everyone. Orlando is finally capable of this purity – but then this is a fairy tale. Woolf describes a moment of true peace: “The whole of her darkened and settled, as when some foil whose addition makes the round and solidity of a surface is added to it, and the shallow becomes deep and the near distant; and all is contained as water is contained by the sides of a well. So she was now darkened, stilled, and became, what is called, rightly or wrongly, a real self, a real self. And she fell silent. For it is probable that when people talk aloud, the selves (of which there may be more than two thousand) are conscious of disseverment, and are trying to communicate, but when communication is established, there is nothing more to be said.” Woolf would not have been immune to the irony that in the work of a writer whose very fabric of existence is words, silence is represented as the ultimate achievement, and that silence is itself evoked and narrated in words. The state desired is evinced in its opposite.
Orlando may have arrived at the genius of silence, but for Woolf, there is always more to be said, precisely because such harmony remains obscure. Near the end of her life, she wrote in The Years, “Take notes and the pain goes away.” It is as though Woolf imagined her entire oeuvre as a release from the slavery of her own sorrow, as though the language that flows when there is no true communication among the two thousand selves were both a symptom of and a balm for despair. In her suicide note to Leonard, she said, “I am wasting your life. It is this madness. Nothing anyone says can persuade me. You can work, and you will be much better off without me. You see I can’t write this even, which shows I am right.” The failure of language for her was the inability to make the pain go away, the failure to find in her own wordlessness a noble silence like Orlando’s. People are always interested in the documents that are left behind by someone who commits suicide. While such documents are usually descriptive, in Woolf’s case they (the books, the suicide note, all of it) are emblematic. She does not so much use language to make a statement about her decision to end her own life as demonstrate through language why her self-abnegation had become inevitable. Like Lear, Woolf has words as the mechanism of her demise. “These changes of mood wear us out,” she wrote in Jacob’s Room.
In Between the Acts, her final book, published posthumously, she wrote, “Thoughts without words, he mused. Can that be?” It’s as though her own strategy of note-taking is being called into dramatic question. The irreconcilable permanent contrasts about which she had written so often were becoming intolerable: “Love and hate – how they tore her asunder! Surely it was time that someone invented a new plot, or that the author came out from the bushes…” This could as easily have read that joy and despair were tearing her asunder, that this duality had become unbearably oppressive. Reality is alien to the human intelligence that longs for purity, for reconciliation, for a single powerful truth: for the hare erect; the wave falling; the boat rocking. Woolf describes the author of the play: “She wanted to expose them, as it were, to douche them, with the present-time reality. But something was going wrong with the experiment. ‘Reality too strong,’ she muttered. And then the rain fell, sudden and profuse. No one had seen the cloud coming. There it was, black, swollen, on top of them. Down it poured like all the people in the world weeping. Tears. Tears. Tears. They trickled down her cheeks as if they were her own tears. But they were all people’s tears weeping for all people. The window was all sky without colour. The house had lost its shelter. It was night before roads were made, or houses. It was the night that dwellers in caves had watched from some high place among the rocks. Then the curtain rose. They spoke.”
As if a curtain had lifted and the artifice had returned, as if reality had been shunted away for the moment, Woolf tried to save herself through art, and her writing sang in the hope of relinquished pain. The more pain she fled, the more beautiful the celebratory prose became, until she wrote that suicide note which does not merit its own apology. Her choice of water as the medium for her death is striking given all it had meant throughout her work, and this strong final equation of rain and tears. Between the Acts is no sadder than her other books. If suicide is the option chosen by those who believe the pain of life outweighs its pleasure, then Woolf’s suicide was one born of acute shifting between the states. She had, in the end, a clinical condition that was intolerable and debasing, but the insight drawn from that condition imbues her work and is directly implicated in the radiance she could achieve when the curtain rose. Perhaps the clearest evidence of this mix of pleasure and suffering is belied by Leonard Woolf’s writing to Vita, in a letter included in this exhibition, “I don’t know whether it is a strange thing, but I keep on thinking how amused Virginia would have been by the extraordinary things people write to me about her.” This idea of a Virginia Woolf who would have laughed even in the wake of her own suicide conjures someone for whom the persistence of binary opposites was itself the source of delight and despondence.