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Katie Roiphe
May 3, 2021

On Virginia Woolf Herself

Woolf’s imagination was so capacious that she was curiously unconstrained by her times.

Her ideas about feminism were subtle, elusive, inspired, fantastically complex. She wrote about the forces, psychological, material, cultural, that kept women from achieving artistic greatness.

Aside from being maybe the greatest sentence writer of the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf was brilliant, funny, sharp, judgmental, visionary, elegant, a snob, but very aware of her snobbery — in fact, she wrote an essay called “Am I snob?” — an obsessive diary keeper, a fantastic friend, an original feminist thinker, a sapphist, a devoted wife, a talented gossip, an innovator in style. Though she came from an upper-middle class family that believed in educating girls, she did not receive a formal university education like her brothers who went to Cambridge. Her intimidating intellectual brio was all the more impressive for being self-taught.

Her own biographer, the highly accomplished Hermione Lee, wrote “I think I would have been afraid of meeting her.”

It should be admitted that Woolf was not always wholly supportive of other women or other writers or other people generally; when she wanted to be catty she was extremely skilled at it. About the rising young literary star, Rebecca West, she wrote: “Rebecca is cross between a charwoman and a gypsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes, very shabby, rather dirty nails, immense vitality, bad taste, suspicion of intellectuals, and great intelligence.” She wrote about Radclyffe Hall’s pioneering novel about coming of age as a lesbian, which came up against obscenity laws at the time: “The dullness of the book is such that any indecency may lurk there—one simply can’t keep one’s eye on the page.”

But she also wrote directly about menopause, at a time when the subject was even less talked about than it is now: “the swollen veins—the tingling; the odd falling; feeling of despair. Brain not fully blooded. Hot & Cold.” Her novel Mrs. Dalloway, which charts one day in a fifty-one-year old woman’s life, as she moves through London preparing for a party, is a rich meditation on the raptures and regrets and joys and intimations of mortality that characterize this phase of life.

In a speech in 1931, Woolf said, “Telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet. The obstacles against her are still immensely powerful.”

She wrote a call to arms that should resonate with the our community:

Above all, you must illumine your own soul with its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and its generosities, and say what your beauty means to you or your plainness, and what is your relation to the everchanging and turning world of gloves and shoes and stuffs swaying up and down among the faint scents that come through chemists’ bottles.

Her astonishing success as a writer was shadowed by difficulties. Woolf suffered from serious mental illness, which involved periodic breakdowns. She suffered from disordered eating. She was sexually abused by her half-brother.  She was childless, which at times tormented her (“Never pretend,” she once wrote, “that children can be replaced by other things.”) At age fifty-nine, overcome by the prospect of yet another breakdown, she walked with stones in the pockets of her overcoat into the river Ouse near her house in Sussex.  

If she were a member of our group would she have written an anonymous post about her strange emotional affair with her sister’s husband?

My entanglement with my sister’s husband is clearly hurtful and yet I find I cannot resist it. I can’t help feeling our affection is spilling over from our mutual adoration of her, that she is a part of it, entwined in it, that it is all somehow for her, like a prayer or a pagan offering, and yet I know it pains her.  The three of us are supposed to go to Italy together in April. Am I mad to consider it?

Or her struggle with food.

My husband will not stop hounding me unless I at least pretend to sip four spoonfuls of broth, but it repulses me. The idea of sustenance repels me, but he sees this, perhaps correctly, as my stepping out of the material world, exiting. Has anyone faced down this horror of food?

She certainly would have been a lurker, an avid consumer of women’s stories, a collector of intimate glimpses.

She could have posted her insight on financial independence:

What a change of temper a fixed income will bring about…I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me.

Woolf’s imagination was so capacious that she was curiously unconstrained by her times. She wrote a pioneering novel involving gender fluidity, Orlando, in which the male hero changes into a woman part of the way through. She thought deeply about androgyny and gender non-conformity nearly a century before fourth graders started learning about that stuff at school.

Her ideas about feminism were subtle, elusive, inspired, fantastically complex.  She wrote about the forces, psychological, material, cultural, that kept women from achieving artistic greatness.  Though it was published in 1928, A Room of One’s Own remains one of the most profound and persuasive and freshest feminist texts ever written.

She also wrote a less well known, dazzlingly original meditation on illness called “On Being Ill” which delves into the dark gift of being outside normal human affairs that illness brings us.

But what would Virginia Woolf do about “What Would Virginia Woolf Do?” She would not have always been as tolerant and civilized as the moderators might want. She would have made hundreds of women laugh out loud. She would have made cutting comments about men. She would have cut through the heart of the issue in two devastating lines. Would she have used emojis? Maybe if there was a lady with bun? Umbrella. Tea. Black heart.

She felt strongly that we don’t hear enough about the female side of life. That whole swaths of female experience remain unnarrated because women are too busy or poor or caught up in childcare or daily struggles or “so terribly accustomed to concealment and suppression,” to write them. ” Very little is known about women,” she complained in 1927. She once wrote to a friend, “Very few women have written truthful autobiographies. It is my favorite form of reading.” She thought a lot about the hole in our understanding of human experience, our impoverished literature of women’s intimate voices. In Woolferworld of course, she would have found those voices in glorious variety, in pain or in jest, on deep subjects and on trivial ones, but always out there, unsuppressed.

A summary of her work, from beginning to end:

Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, is a coming of age story set on a ship to South America.  Night and Day explores the vicissitudes of love, marriage and attachment by following the romantic life of two women. Experimenting with form, Jacob’s Room pieces together a modernist portrait of young man seen through the perspective of those of who knew him.  The interior modernist exploration, Mrs. Dalloway charts the thoughts and experiences of Clarissa Dalloway over a single day as she prepares to host a party. Set on the Isle of Skye, To the Lighthouse explores the social roles and power dynamics of the Ramsay family and their guests. The pioneering exploration of androgyny Orlando follows the adventures of an Elizabethan nobleman who, three centuries later, becomes a modern woman of the 1920s. A Room of One’s Own, composed from a series of lectures at women’s colleges, is a sharp, novelistic essay that examines the disadvantages women writers face, and the importance of material and cultural circumstances to creativity. Woolf’s most daring formal experiment, The Waves, is narrated in monologues by six characters after the death of a friend. The novella, Flush, told from the point of view of a cocker spaniel, is a whimsical biographical sketch of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Years details the history of the Pargiter family through the happenings of one day every year for fifty years. In response to three letters, the polemic Three Guineas considers war, women’s roles, and fascism. Published posthumously, Between the Acts takes place during an annual pageant hosted at the Oliver family’s country house, where class, gender and family tensions rise to the surface.


a woman outside

Katie Roiphe is the author of several books, including The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism, Uncommon Arrangements, In Praise of Messy Lives, and The Violet Hour. Her new book, The Power Notebooks is coming out March 2020. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Harper’s, Vogue, Esquire, Slate, and Tin House, among many other places. She has a Ph.D. in literature from Princeton University. She is the director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University's Arthur L Carter Journalism Institute.

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