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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman


ISSUE:  Autumn 1976

Virginia Woolf’s first book is not generally recognized as belonging to that fictional genre which describes the author’s own youthful emergence, the making of the artist. Yet its heroine is nearly a self-portrait. She is a sensitive young woman with artistic propensities, her creator’s intellectual preoccupations, and an anxiety over the problem of marriage which was Woolf’s own. While we do not attend the entire course of Rachel Vinrace’s brief history, we witness the final stages of her journey towards selfhood as a metaphoric as well as literal “voyage out.” The novel resembles the versions of autobiography being composed at nearly the same moment by Joyce and Lawrence. Both Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Sons and Lovers stop at the threshold of that later time in which the hero will be transformed into the author who writes the story. But the passage onward is, in each case, still uncertain, haunted by the anguish of the arrival; it has nearly cost all for Stephen and Paul to have come through. Lawrence, particularly, was not confident, writing so hard upon the experience he recorded, that he could guarantee his hero a new life; he spoke of him as being “left in the end naked of everything with the drift towards death.” Rachel does actually die at the end of The Voyage Out, of a fever caught in the tropical country to which she voyaged. It is as though her creator could not see how this almost-self might survive into the new life she had discovered. This is the only explanation that makes sense of the way the novel terminates. Virginia Woolf had survived her growing-up to the point of marrying, as Rachel was planning to do. The writing of her book itself affirmed for the author her seizure at last of creative identity. Yet a positive sexual character had even then, at 30, only uneasily established itself in her nature. As for the novel, it had taken nearly six years to be written and gone through seven versions, its composition interrupted by periods of nervous illness. The selfhood formulated at last was held in a grasp still tremulous, one that would loosen now and again in the breakdowns that occurred throughout her life. The curious ending of The Voyage Out with Rachel’s seemingly gratuitous death may be related to the fact that it represents its author’s unsurety about her own prospects of further being, prospects even more problematic than those offered the male artist of her generation. For a properly parallel case one must go back to another female writer of the previous century and think of the similarly “arbitrary” death which concludes The Mill on the Floss; George Eliot seems not have been able to imagine the successful development of Maggie Tulliver to the full measure of her emotional and mental potentialities. The frustration that threatened both women writers had been so real that though they gained for themselves personal love and creative expression their imagined representatives could not be allowed a similar victory.

Quentin Bell has called Night and Day, which succeeded The Voyage Out, a “recuperative work”—an exercise done from the top of the mind, more conventional in form and less dangerously exploratory in theme than her earlier book which had expressed a vision of the depths of personality and had been full of strange symbolic overtones. Yet despite the second novel’s reversion to the mode of a comedy of manners and discussion, it recapitulates also an inner history of youthful development, again, the author’s own. This is true despite the fact that the confessional impulse was consciously deflected; Night and Day’s central young woman was intended to be not Virginia but Vanessa Stephen, and the heroine’s mother, by another displacement, was not made to resemble the mother of both sisters but their aunt, Lady Ritchie. Just the same, Katharine Hilbery’s slow and uncertain discovery not only of the sensation of love but of her own character seems drawn from the author’s recent struggles to polarize her responses to art, politics, and sex. It is certainly much less truly about Vanessa than her third novel, Jacob’s Room, was about their brother Thoby. That novel, which Jerome Buckley has identified as a Bildungsroman, does indeed begin in childhood as its predecessors do not, and so more classically fulfills the form, yet it lacks the identification of hero and author which is the psychic spring of David Copperfield or Jude the Obscure as well as of Joyce’s and Lawrence’s autobiographic novels of education. It is autobiographic of course, in another sense, for it registers the inaccessible mystery of Thoby’s masculine personality and the meaninglessness of his sudden death, experiences that promoted the development of the philosophic skepticism which persists throughout her subsequent writing,

Because they are not full developmental studies but begin close to the end of the first stage of life, Woolf’s first two novels reveal that her comprehension and purgation of her past were yet incomplete. It was not, in fact, until she had written To the Lighthouse that she dared to include in her retrospective vision her sense of her childhood and its tensions. This novel derives its peculiar force, stronger than that which stirs from the pages of anything else she ever wrote, from the way the elements of personal memory were boldly molded at last into a fuller myth of self-discovery. For the first time she brought her parents into fictional being (those figures she has masked from view with the images of others in the earlier books)—and so faced the origins of her own early difficulties—and these, we realize, are the parents needed to explain the peculiar problems of Rachel and Katharine. Perhaps by this act of giving life again to the dead she finally resolved and expiated the hostility that mingled with her love of Leslie and Julia Stephen. She also projected herself more clearly than before not only in the Ramsay’s daughter Cam, but in the painter Lily Briscoe whose ambiguous emotions towards Mr.and Mrs. Ramsay can only be understood if one realizes that she is psychologically, if not literally, also their daughter. Thus seen, the novel is a record of Woolf’s own eventual triumph over the sense that both her father and mother had nearly prohibited her from further life (“His life would have entirely ended mine,” she wrote; her mother, nearly as threatening, was probably imagined as “The Angel in the House” whom she refused to imitate: “Had I not killed her she would have killed me.”) And so, To the Lighthouse continues the life of Rachel Vinrace beyond the cruel terminus of The Voyage Out. Virginia-Rachel-Katherine-Lily is at last reconciled to the parental forces that once threatened her—and paints her picture, writes her novel. We have reached at last the true closure of the novel of development when, as for Joyce’s and Lawrence’s heroes, the tyrannical authority of the father is lifted, the mother’s tender reproach no longer suspires from the grave. Yet the price of Lily’s victory—spinsterhood—is greater than that Woolf herself was willing to pay.

II

Aside from such fictional allegory, Woolf left no auto-biographic record beyond that which emerges in her letters and journals, only fragmentarily published till now. Though they were the basis in full of Quentin Bell’s biography, they are present in his narrative chiefly as the source of an interpretation which tends towards the factual and the external; her voice as it is heard in these documents is, naturally, only occasionally present in his quotations. Yet letters also reflect the vital process of self-formulation; in a journal an hypothesized reader is the recipient of projections into language of the ego’s fluid outline. The recently published first volume of a projected 6-volume edition of her letters, edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $14.95), includes what has survived of the letters she wrote up to 1912 and is of primary interest because it is another version of the voyage out described in her fiction.

Of course, she is silent just where we most want revelation, perhaps because many letters from this earliest period are missing, but more likely because there never were any to light up the darkest passages. Her bouts of insanity are, naturally, not represented by letters from her. Two early disasters, the death of her mother and the death of her half-sister Stella in 1895 and 1897 are without direct report; her first breakdown had followed Mrs. Stephen’s death and a near-collapse of nervous anxiety and resentment had, as Quentin Bell relates, engulfed her as Stella died, There was a delay before her plummet into madness after the death of her father, but the letters exhibit only stoical endurance of his protracted final illness. As Thoby lay dying and even after his death her letters show her fabricating a pretense of his recovery for the benefit of her correspondent, a friend herself critically ill, and it is difficult to tell whether the performance is an exhibition of supreme coolness or a legitimizing of the urge towards phantasy which obviated the need for another breakdown.

Certainly the letters do not display the tensions that must have racked the Stephen household and enforced their lessons upon her. There are, of course, no letters to her mother, since she was only 13 when Julia died, but more curiously, there are in the whole of this volume only two passing references to Mrs. Stephen. That there are no letters to her father is more disappointing, for he died nine years later and it would have been interesting to hear the exact tone of her address to him. Discussion of him appears only during the misery of his last illness, but this is rarely more than comment upon the vicissitudes of the sickbed. What alone is revelatory is the sharp self-reproach that she felt when he was dead: “The dreadful thing is that I never did enough for him all those years. He was so lonely often, and I never helped him as I might have done. This is the worst part of it now.” The masculine claims of Mr. Ramsay still exerted their power upon her and her resistance filled her with guilt.”If one could only tell him how one cared, as I dreamt I did last night.” She was able to make a charitable estimate of Stephen’s personal qualities when she wrote Vanessa five years later, “I believe he was really very modest; he was certainly not selfconscious in his work; nor was he an egoist, as I am. He had very few sympathies though, and practically no imagination.”

There is nothing in the letters concerning those erotic assaults upon the Stephen sisters by their grown-up half-brother George Duckworth about which Bell has written, taking warrant from some much later remarks by Virginia; the editors of the collection question, indeed, whether Bell’s assertions are not too emphatic, and point to the affectionate tone of her notes to George during the period when he was supposedly molesting and terrifying her. In any case, her mother had died—exhausted by too much giving, as To the Lighthouse represents, and abandoned her if not to this fraternal aggression, then to other alarms. Stella had almost become one of those sacrificed spinster daughters, the widower’s prop; she had managed to get married by exerting her will heroically against Stephen’s self-pity, and then had fallen sick and died, as though not mere accident but some merited punishment had descended, or else as though the struggle with her step-father had exhausted her capacity for continuance. It was Vanessa’s turn next, but though she stood up to Stephen’s mixture of tyranny and lachrymose dependence, she was released only by his death—at which she felt a relief she was strong enough to acknowledge. What Virginia thought of these varieties of female behavior there is no direct way of telling.

To Vanessa, the most rebellious and independent of the Stephen women, she would always have a special closeness, yet no letters between them were kept until Vanessa herself married. Perhaps a biography of Vanessa may provide a fuller picture than we yet have of this sibling who was nearly her twin in appearance and shared her impulse towards artistic expression, but who differed strikingly from her in personality. Vanessa would attain in time a poised and liberated sense of being, a freedom of behavior which lay beyond Virginia’s reach. Her view of Vanessa’s character is stated in one letter in this volume: “You are much simpler than I am, How do you manage to see only one thing at a time? Without any of those reflections that distract me so much, and make people call me bad names. I suppose you are, as Lytton once said, the most complete human being of us all; and your simplicity is really that you take in much more than I do, who intensify atoms.” What rivalry combined with identification in their early years it is hard to tell, but clearly Virginia’s response to her sister’s marriage is implicit in the flirtation with Clive Bell which his son has described. Again, the complexities are elusive. It is not certain how much she was jealous of her sister’s sexual fulfillment. Or how much she was resentful of Clive for intruding upon elder-sisterly love with its element of the maternal solicitude which, once lost, she sought forever after in other women.

Better recorded in the letters is the young Virginia’s effort to relate her growing feminine personality to the example of her beloved brother Thoby, soon away at school, like Maggie Tulliver’s Tom. One sees her following his interests, collecting insects, searching out the books he was reading in her father’s ample library. Fifteen-year old Virginia gets a thesaurus from her father and tries to make her letter elegant as she offers Thoby a description of a London walk on an afternoon when the Queen was passing—the letter has a stiltedness of which she is aware, for far in the future lies the liquid prose that describes such a walk in Mrs.Dalloway. She concludes her letter sadly, “I do a few lessons with Stella every morning but they are nothing very great.” That autumn, however, she began to attend Greek and Latin classes at King’s College and later there were further private lessons in these languages. But it was hardly the same schooling Thoby was receiving. When she was 17, he was at Trinity. She can only ask for advice about her readings in Greek tragedy and when she has made an audacious comment on Cymbeline, draw back with “Is this my feminine weakness in the upper region?” She knows what she is missing and later writes him, “I have to delve from books, painfully and all alone, what you get every evening sitting over your fire and smoking your pipe with Strachey etc. No wonder my knowledge is scant. There’s nothing like talk as an educator.” It is talk as education that she will seek, as we know, when she and her sister and brothers set up a new kind of household in Bloomsbury and plan to invite only the friends able to provide it.

That famous revolt against the Victorian family had been made possible, of course, by Leslie Stephen’s death—but it had been prepared by the gradual shaping of her desire to be a working writer despite all interdicts. Her sense of feminine options was reinforced by her observations not only of her mother, Stella, and Vanessa, but of other women within and outside her family. There was her aunt Caroline Emelia Stephen, of whom Bell has stated, “she was an intelligent woman who fell, nevertheless, into the role of imbecile Victorian female.” Her heart had been broken by unreciprocated love when she was 23, and she had become an invalid and an old maid for life at a stroke, devoting herself thereafter to good works and the Society of Friends. Virginia’s letters are full of impatient references to this good-natured but irritating relative, and it is not difficult to see why she seemed a horrid cautionary example. When Virginia was helping F.W.Maitland gather material for his life of Leslie Stephen, she came across old diaries of her grandmother’s in which the child Caroline is observed always making haste to agree with her brother “and offer Lellie her best toy when he has broken his!” This nervous subservience continued into their adult lives and seems generally to have irritated Stephen; Virginia also found the poor woman a bore. During her father’s last illness the visits of “Nun,” as Virginia called her, were oppressive. With her Quaker clothes and unremitting spirituality, she appeared to Virginia as “a huge black female . . .who wants disgusting details—but won’t have ‘em.” She had the Stephen attachment to the ink-pot, but out of hers flowed only inspirational works with such titles as Light Arising: Thoughts on the Central Radiance (1908), and Virginia commented that she was “a sort of modern prophetess” who all her life saw “ghosts, or rather disembodied souls, instead of bodies.” She clearly appeared to her niece as a terrible warning of a mind misused.”I quite understand—only too well— Father’s point of view about her. I don’t know why it is; but I can sometimes hardly sit still, she irritates me so. She is perpetually flowing with rather trivial talk, which nevertheless she takes great, and painful, care to express well, and pronounce exquisitely. Also I disagree entirely with her whole system of toleration and resignation and general benignity, which does seem to me so woolly.’

III

More important than such a negative example from the previous age were the women, still somewhat older than Virginia, but young enough to be her friends, who offered one or another solution to the problem of female intellectuality. Kitty Maxse is generally held to have been the original of Mrs. Dalloway, both in The Voyage Out, where this character briefly appears, and in the novel of which she is the center. Married to the editor of the National Review, Kitty was close to people who “counted” as well as being “Mayfair.” She had the best graces of aristocracy and was sincerely fond of the orphaned Stephen girls, whose mother had been her friend; she tried to steer them into social avenues of prestige and refinement. She had a distinct amount of personal attractiveness, represented in the fiction, which shows how well she could charm a young admirer. But Virginia’s final estimate of this friend is shown in a sentence of dismissal in one of the letters: “Her attitude is the world’s.”

Then there was Lady Robert Cecil, who had a similar aristocratic elegance and seemed to provide a demonstration of the incorporation of active intelligence in a life led at the upper social levels. Nelly Cecil was in fact a professional writer as well as pretty, witty, grand, and rich. She wrote book reviews, and her example and counsel were important in helping Virginia to start her own career as a reviewer. They became colleagues as well as friends and planned at one time to edit jointly a book-column for the Cornhill. Nelly also tried to write a novel, chapters of which she showed to Virginia who praised them, though it was never published. Yet in the final estimate her example was no more liberating than Kitty Maxse’s. By 1911, when Virginia had cut herself away from the social world to which both Kitty and Nelly belonged, she compared them with some degree of greater tolerance for Nelly: “There is no doubt that she is the best of these elderly aristocrats. . . . What mind she has is quite honest . . .gave me to understand that Kitty is a foolish thimble-pated woman, living in a swarm of smart people she doesn’t care about, but quite happy. You see Nelly is a good deal above that.” But in the long run there was not so much to choose between them.

More important than these women were closer female friends. Madge Vaughan was identified by Vita Sackville-West as the original of Sally Seton, Mrs. Dalloway’s passionate first attachment. That intensity is no longer evident in the letters we read which belong to a later date when Madge is married to Virginia’s cousin Will Vaughan, Headmaster at a school in Giggleswick, Yorkshire. The daughter of John Addington Symonds, Madge was herself gifted and aspiring, but visiting her, Virginia was prompted to observe, “I cant conceive a drearier life for anyone—let alone Madge . . . . She is like a starved bird up here, and it is quite pathetic how eager she is to talk, and how full of ideas and theories—which have to be silenced the moment Will comes in to the room—or he would call them “morbid,” . . . . Here comes a maid to say that the gardener is taken very ill, and may she go for a doctor. Madge of course has to go off in the snow to the gardeners cottage—Will wont let her take brandy unless the doctor orders it. So here she comes back again; the doctor does order brandy . . .she makes another journey, and then the maid tells her she must have a char in to help—and so it goes on— and the unfortunate novel which Madge is longing to write at, having the mood on her, wont get much done to it this morning.”

She recognizes the enemy in her friend’s husband, the good Will.”Will is an excellent old Blunderbuss, very sterling and honest, but thickheaded and conventional, till, as I say, he rivals his cousin George.” That Will reminded her of George Duckworth was particularly damning—quite probably George’s worst offense against her was not, after all, his incestuous fondling, but his utter conventionality, his stultifying good intentions which consisted in dragging her to society dances and dinners—much duller ones than those recommended by Kitty Maxse—so she might put herself on the marriage-counter. She and Vanessa had hated and resisted his efforts, and the new menage established in Gordon Square in 1904 put a final end to his interference in their lives. After successive rejections George’s wife—he had married a peeress related to the Herberts, of course—wrote Virginia, “I quite understand. Shant expect you at Devonshire House or Osterley or anywhere.” And Virginia remarked, “A snub? I think so—but we had to bring it upon us, and the sooner the better. And now we are free women! Any form of slavery is Degrading—and damage done to the mind is worse than that done to the body.” Later her opinion of Will Vaughan softened and she acknowledged Madge’s domestic happiness, but as her own commitment to literature took hold she continued to urge her friend to write, though “how any woman lives who has 4 children, I cant imagine; I stagger along, like a washerwoman with a basket on her head—and yet I am single . . . . Are you writing? I always ask that question and you always tell me it is better to be married.” Increasingly, through the years covered in this volume, one feels the pressure of this question—is it “better to be married”? It seems significant that Virginia’s first article written for publication was composed in 1904 during a visit to Madge in Yorkshire— perhaps Madge’s condition provoked her to the effort; it is certainly interesting that it is a description of that spot sacred to the memory of spinster female genius, Haworth Parsonage.

From this point on, at any rate, her attitude towards writing was thoroughly professional, that of a woman who expects to earn her own living by her competence. A few months later she wrote, “I am realizing the ambition of our youth and actually making money . . . I am writing—now for my boast—for the Times Lit. Supplement, The Academy, The National Review, The Guardian— aint that respectable?” These early reviews and essays, written mostly to order, were a schooling in craft and gave her the habit of regular production. They also gave her a persona—a voice which will be heard in her fiction. Whimsically witty and vivid, it is the narrative presence of The Voyage Out. She also discovered her viewpoint about fiction in reviewing novels, and in reviewing biography, which she seems to have preferred to any other assignment, she practiced the evocation of a personality in a quick sketch. How accomplished and prolific an essayist and critic Virginia Woolf was is seldom realized. The standard bibliography of her writings lists 465 contributions to periodicals, of which the majority were reviews. She did these in good years and bad to the end of her life, sometimes, as in 1918 and 1919 publishing more than 40 a year. By 1912 before she had published any of her fiction, she already had 60 pieces in print.

IV

She must have been occupied early in attempts to write fiction. Her close friends were shown samples of this effort and it is clear that it represented a greater problem of self-definition than her essays. The challenge of fiction writing was more searchingly personal. To Madge Vaughan, who had been critical of some of these early experiments, she wrote, “My only defense is that I write of things as I see them; and I am quite conscious all the time that it is a very narrow, and rather bloodless point of view. . . . I could explain a little why this is so from external reasons, such as education, way of life, etc. And so I may get something better as I grow older. George Eliot was near 40 I think when she wrote her first novel—the Scenes (of Clerical Life). But my present feeling is that this vague and dream like world, without love, or heart, or passion, or sex, is the world I really care about, and find interesting. For, though they are dreams to you, and I cant express them at all adequately, these things are perfectly real to me. But please dont think for a moment that I am satisfied, or think that my view takes in any whole. Only it seems to me better to write of the things I do feel, than to dabble in things I frankly dont understand in the least. That is the kind of blunder—in literature—which seems to me ghastly and unpardonable: people, I mean, who wallow in emotions without understanding them. Then they are merely animal and hideous. But, of course, any great writer treats them so that they are beautiful, and turns statues into men and women. I wonder if you understand my priggish and immature mind at all?”

To someone else she commented, “Madge tells me I have no heart—at least in my writing: really I begin to get alarmed. If marriage is necessary to one’s style, I shall have to think about it. There is some truth in it, isn’t there?—but not the whole truth. And there is something indecent, to my virgin mind, in a maiden having that kind of heart.’The air is full of it’ says Madge: but I breathe something else.” She was trying to write in terms of her own sense of exterior and interior reality, however undeveloped. Curiously, Madge’s criticism, as we can infer it, seems to have resembled the charges critics would lodge against the later works of Virignia Woolf—that they were “bloodless,” or “poetic” in an uncomplimentary sense, that they left out the world of the common emotions, principally sexuality. A defense against those later charges can be made, but what gives interest at this point is the hint that Woolf herself felt that some deficiency in her writing did derive from a personal cause, a limitation of experience or even of instinct. She had not yet discovered how to express— and so free herself from—the obsession with her parents that still blocked other emotions.

Certainly her sexual responses had developed slowly and her emotional relations tended to be cast in infantile forms. Perhaps the loss of her mother had made her unable to love in any way but as a child longing to be held and comforted. It is surely no accident that all her closest friends up to this point had not only been female but older than herself—Madge had been 13 years older. The quality of her love-relationships is best seen in the letters which constitute more than half of those contained in this volume, those to Violet Dickinson. Violet was 17 years her senior and had known Virginia since her childhood, having first been Stella’s friend, but their intimacy did not begin until Virginia was 20 and her mother and her mothering half-sister (13 years older) were both dead, This friend was an awkward, almost comical figure, 6 feet, 2 inches tall, but gifted with a power of sympathy to which Virginia responded with ardor: “You are the only sympathetic woman in the world. That’s why everybody comes to you in their troubles.” When Virginia was mad during the whole summer of 1904, Violet took her into her own home and nursed her until she was well enough to be able to say, “Sorrow, such as I feel now for Father, is soothing and natural, and makes life more worth having, if sadder. I can never tell you what you have been to me all this time.” Virginia was in love with Violet for several years and perhaps there was an expressed physical side to this love, though it is hard to say for certain how erotically literal she is when she declares, “I am devoted to every hair, and every ridge and every hollow, and every spot upon your body.” They had a language of affection between them which, if it seems erotic, also seems that of a little child and its mother. Virginia signed her letters with nicknames that emphasized smallness and helplessness, most frequently sparrow or sparroy, She pictured herself as a baby wallaby, longing for the pouch of its kangaroo mother— writing, for example, when Violet was ill, “Wallaby goes to bed with wet eyes thinking of his lean mother lying out in the brushwood with alien foxes round her. He is a dear little beast and loves his mother.”

From all accounts Violet was not only an affectionate but a clever woman, who, though she published only one book, an edition of the letters of her great-aunt, Emily Eden, was probably still another example to Virginia of the stultification of female ability. She served Virginia as a regular audience for her first attempts at writing and introduced her to the editor of The Guardian, which published the Bronte article already mentioned. After a while Virginia’s letters to her became more impersonal, and it is clear that emotional dependence was no longer an important element in her affection. What had happened, of course, is that she found new sources of support and reasons for independence. To Gordon Square came her brother’s friends, including Lytton Strachey and Clive Bell, both of whom she tried hard to charm and impress—and succeeded. In her early letters to both men she is self-consciously, elaborately literary; she seems to feel that their respect, to be gained with difficulty, would be the affirmation she needs. With Lytton the game of mutual enchantment goes so far as to bring him for one preposterous moment to the point of proposing to her, homosexual though he was, and of her accepting him, probably, indeed, because he did not really threaten her sexually (his proposal was no doubt promoted by the fact that she, similarly, did not greatly threaten him). With Clive the game was more dangerous, for though she was apparently safe in her flirtation with Vanessa’s much-in-love husband, he was a confirmed womanizer, and responded, and she jumped out of the fire just in time, one guesses. But if Clive had at first seemed to threaten to deprive her of Vanessa’s mothering, he himself became a fostering influence; it was to him she submitted the first drafts of The Voyage Out, and from his intelligent encouragement she found the confidence to push it towards completion. To Clive she sent a first proud, half self-mocking declaration of her destiny: “I shall re-form the novel and capture multitudes of things at present fugitive, enclose the whole, and shape infinite strange shapes.”

Everyone had been repeating Madge’s advice that she marry, and to cheer herself up she had collected a few proposals, like any deb. A young man named Hilton Young was rather callously encouraged, only, it would appear, to sustain her self-regard in the world of coupling men and women. Then, her letters towards the end of this volume become sometimes nasty with a vein of wicked gossip spewed forth in a manic stream that suggests in one or two cases the moods of madness, a phantasy of sexual suspicion. But, recuperating from a dip into nervous collapse in 1910, she observes to Clive, “With regard to happiness—what an interesting topic that is! My conclusion about marriage might interest you. So happy I am it seems a pity not to be happier; and yet when I imagine the man to whom I shall say certain things, it aint my dear Lytton, or Hilton either. It’s strange how much one is occupied in imagining the delights of sympathy.”

These delights, of course, were to be realized for her in the person of Leonard Woolf who would offer heterosexual love along with a truly maternal caretaking. The letters written to him as they debate their issue are wonderful in their strenuous honesty, their leap towards a further hope and reach of being, a willingness to hazard what she has.”I didn’t mean to make you think I was against marriage,” she writes.”Of course, I’m not, though the extreme safeness and sobriety of young couples does appall me, but then so do the random melancholy old maids. I began life with a tremendous, absurd, idea of marriage, then my bird’s eye view of many marriages disgusted me, and I thought I must be asking what was not to be had, But that has passed too, Now I only ask for someone to make me vehement, and then I’ll marry him!” Or: “The obvious advantages of marriage stand in my way. I say to myself, Anyhow, you’ll be quite happy with him; and he will give you companionship, children and a busy life—then I say By God, I will not look upon marriage as a profession. . . . I sometimes feel that no one ever has or ever can share something—it is the thing that makes you call me like a hill or a rock. Again, I want everything—love, children, adventure, intimacy, work . . . . So I go from being half in love with you, and wanting you to be with me always, and know everything about me, to the extreme of wildness and aloofness.”

The aloofness was surely partly sexual also. She could tell him brutally, “I feel no physical attraction in you.” Yet she accepted him with no compromise of her anticipations of expanded self: “We both of us want a marriage that is a tremendous living thing, always alive, always hot, not dead and easy in parts as most marriages are. We ask a great deal of life, don’t we? Perhaps we shall get it; then, how splendid!” She took the risk upon her own hopes for herself as well as his confidence. The writing of The Voyage Out and its sequels would bring her voyage out to an end.”My novel is just upon finished,” she told Violet, “L. thinks my writing the best part of me.” She dedicated it to him.

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