February 24, 2018

Virginia Woolf's "Dark Cupboard" of Suicide

There is one surviving recording of Virginia Woolf's voice. It is from 1937, a BBC book program called "Words Fail Me." Biographer Hermione Lee (Virginia Woolf, 1999) says that the voice is thin and flat, the tone detached, the accent posh, the impression of an era long gone. Her nephew Quentin Bell, also her biographer, has said that the recorded voice bears little resemblance to the real thing. Others have written similarly: that Woolf's voice was rich and engaging, her laughter often giddy and uncontrollable.

'Voice' was Virginia Woolf's obsessive theme, in literature and life. Her novels are biographical and introspective, a tumble of angles and reconsiderations. Her diary is in twenty-four volumes -- the first thing she salvaged from her bombed-out London house. The diaries document her long struggle with mental illness as an attempt to silence the unwanted voices in her head; her last letters and suicide notes reveal that this enemy within literally talked her to death.

If 'voice' can mean books, the obsession with it ran in Virginia Woolf's family. Her father was the famous Leslie Stephen, the editor and energy behind the sixty-four volume, Dictionary of National Biography. Books of other and all sorts became Woolf's extended family. She never went to school, had a job, or became part of any group or institution. Her time was spent reading, discussing, binding and then, later, reviewing, writing and publishing books. Even her ignorance was rarefied: she later wrote that her only knowledge of sex at sixteen was what she had read about sodomy in Plato.

Image of Virginia Woolf
Virginia and her sister jokingly referred to this bookish march of family, class and culture as "the procession." Their attempts to deflect or negotiate their entry to it reached notoriety in the pre- and full-Bloomsbury years, in the first decades of the twentieth century. It was a pulling back of the "draperies and decencies" of an old world; still, we hear the report that the Bloomsbury Virginia was "all harem-scarem...she don't know what she's got on her plate!" from the maid who brought it. It was during these years that Woolf gradually became a famous talker, able -- when in the mood -- to dominate by topic or cutting comment or uncheckable monologue. Dinner guests would report her as if she was a play not to be missed: "Virginia in high spirits, fantastical...deliciously herself again...I strongly advise you to go and see her."

Underneath and throughout was another self, the mentally ill one, with its own attendant voices. Sometimes these were identifiable -- the birds she heard singing to her in Greek, King Edward swearing in the azaleas. Sometimes they were the common noise of anxiety, though loud and frightening enough to convince her that to step over the puddle in her path would be to step into unreality.

Woolf's mental illness was periodic, of the "manic-depressive" or "bipolar disorder" type. There were five lengthy bouts, most of them involving suicide attempts. We listen doubtfully to the medical chronicle: a pastiche of theories and male condescension, of sedatives and milk cures and teeth extractions. We listen with admiration and horror to Virginia Woolf's own record of her illness, her decades-long attempt to open, as she put it, "the dark cupboard":

1926   Woke up perhaps at 3. Oh it's beginning it's coming ... physically like a painful wave about the heart -- tossing me up.... Down -- God I wish I were dead.
1928   I know the feeling now, when I can't spin a sentence, & sit mumbling & turning. I...go to bed...and such "sensations" spread over my spine and head directly I give them a chance....
1937   I wish I could write out my sensations at this moment.... As if I were drumming slightly in the veins... As if I were exposed on a high ledge in full light.... As if something cold and horrible -- a roar of laughter at my expense -- were about to happen.

And finally, to her husband, on or about the day of her suicide, March 28th, 1941:

    ...I feel certain that I am going
    mad again: I feel we cant go
    through another of these terrible times.
    And I shant recover this time. I begin
    to hear voices, and cant concentrate.
    So I am doing what seems the best thing to do....
Virginia Woolf's contemporaries talked not just of her voice, but of her beauty, her intense gaze, her tall, gawky thinness. In illness she would get even thinner. When the "unreason tingling in my veins" turned to a babble beyond reach of love or cure, it could not have been heard but as noise on bone.

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