Woolf's works are providing inspiration for a new generation of women writers. Photo: CHRISTIAAN TONNIS/Flickr (Licensed under Creative Commons)

A room for two: how a new generation of women writers are seeking inspiration from Virginia Woolf

Amidst a campaign to fund a lifesize statue of Woolf in Richmond, a series of new books have found a different way of engaging with her work
April 3, 2019

“We think back through our mothers if we are women,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, lamenting women’s absence from the literary canon and the history books. But since her suicide in 1941, at the age of 59, Woolf herself has become an icon: her life and work are the subject of regular homage, from academic studies and biographies to novels, television series and a recent ballet. In 2018, a major exhibition inspired by her work opened at Tate St Ives and travelled to Sussex and Cambridge (places strongly associated with Woolf), while the film Vita and Virginia, exploring her affair with Vita Sackville-West, is set for release in July. Woolf’s legacy is thriving; she remains a powerful figurehead for generations of women to “think back through.”

Woolf herself spent significant time contemplating how posterity would view her and her friends. She spent most of her life in London, yet noted sardonically how the cityscape reminded her, at every turn, of women’s exclusion from public affairs: wandering through the streets, decorated with images of hoary statesmen to celebrate their service to the British Empire, she was intrigued by the occasional appearance of a woman’s statue, which seemed to represent an alternative history in which she might be able to locate herself. Recent campaigns to erect a statue of Millicent Fawcett outside parliament, or feature Jane Austen on a bank note, have also stressed the importance of such representation (less than three per cent of Britain’s statues feature non-royal women), and followed Woolf’s own call for women to take their rightful place not only in their country’s institutions, but in its physical landscape.

Today, Woolf herself is commemorated by the National Trust’s preservation of her Sussex home, Monk’s House, and a bust by Stephen Tomlin in Bloomsbury’s Tavistock Square, her address between 1924 and 1939. An enterprising local arts charity, Aurora Metro, has launched a campaign to raise £50,000 to install a life-size statue of Woolf in Richmond, the borough where she lived from 1914 to 1924. If funding targets are met, Woolf will sit for eternity on a bench, gazing peacefully out over the River Thames.

In his short book, published in association with the campaign, Peter Fullagar is keen to contradict the general view that Woolf disliked Richmond. The fiction, he argues, was propounded by Michael Cunningham’s 2002 film The Hours, in which Nicole Kidman’s character insists that “if it is a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death”—the words not of Virginia Woolf but of the screenwriter David Hare. Rather, he suggests, Woolf’s decade in Richmond was extremely productive and personally fulfilling.

Fullagar’s brisk portrait retreads ground familiar from other biographies and Woolf’s autobiographical writing: her early desperation to escape her cloistering family home in Kensington for the promise of Bloomsbury independence, her close friendships with fellow writers and artists, the recurring periods of “mental instability” that dogged her. In 1914, driven to the point of collapse by the strain of writing her debut novel The Voyage Out, she and her husband Leonard moved to Richmond to provide her with a calm sanctuary in which to recover. Hogarth House, for Woolf, vacillated between being a place of peace or confinement. Yet she wrote several significant works there—including Jacob’s Room and Mrs Dalloway, both novels inflected with the recent horror of war—and it was in Richmond that she and Leonard became publishers, soon printing over a dozen books a year from the press that stood on their dining room table.

If Fullagar’s book is light on analysis, it’s because it is really a vehicle for extended, contextualised snippets from her diaries and letters of this time, which show Woolf at her coruscating best, trying out techniques she would later adopt in her fiction, analysing herself and those around her, and charting the minutiae of everyday life with a sharp and curious eye. He concludes that “life in Richmond gave Virginia freedom in her writing, freedom to grow as a person and the freedom to think for herself again”: a worthy basis on which to call for a statue.

But Woolf’s more potent and nuanced legacy lives on not only in static objects, but in the intangible influence she continues to exert on both writers and readers. Recent years have seen the emergence of a popular genre of non-fiction, sometimes called “bibliomemoir”: an intimate blend of memoir and literary criticism exploring, in more or less personally revealing ways, the influence of a particular writer or book on the author, and (often) the therapeutic benefits of a continued relationship with beloved literature. Among recent examples are Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, Nell Stevens’s Mrs Gaskell and Me and Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure.

It’s a difficult genre to pull off—the thrusting of biographer and subject into a personal connection risks eliding significant differences, while the search for contemporary parallels can come at the cost of rigorous engagement with the work in question. Yet at its best the genre can offer a radical insight into the act of both reading and writing, exploring how our engagement with books is deeply affected by the circumstances of our reading, as well as the way the material conditions under which books are written shape their texture indelibly.

“Perhaps there is one book for every life,” suggests Katharine Smyth in her preface to All the Lives We Ever Lived. For Smyth, that book is To the Lighthouse—a novel which, to her, “tells the story of everything.” Following the loss of her father, Geoffrey, Smyth looks to Woolf’s novel for a lens through which to confront her conflicted memories of their relationship, and to process her grief at his early death. The deaths of Woolf’s parents at a formative age—her mother died when Virginia was 13, her father when she was 22—were crucial to her sense of herself, and she remained obsessed by their memory for years. She later wrote that To the Lighthouse, through its portrait of the archetypal mother Mrs Ramsay, “did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients,” expressing a feeling and laying it finally to rest. It was not until 1939, when she began to read Freud, that Woolf could put a word to her emotions surrounding her father: “that this violently disturbing conflict of love and hate is a common feeling; and is called ambivalence.”

*** Though Smyth doesn’t draw explicit comparisons between her father and Woolf’s, ambivalence might also characterise her feelings towards Geoffrey Smyth. As a child, she hero-worships him, considering herself “the daughter of a god.” Yet after his diagnosis with kidney cancer, when Katharine is 11, her memories of a perfect childhood are supplanted by an adolescence and adulthood marked by regular visits to hospitals, and the fury and helplessness of watching him continue to drink and smoke as his health fails.

Her father had seemed “impossibly wise” to her; seeing him through adult eyes, Smyth lays bare in raw and moving prose the impossibility of reconciling her idealised image with the man before her, an alcoholic whose indifference to his own life exerts an unbearable toll on those who love him. “To grieve,” writes Smyth, “is to be floored, again and again, by a series of epiphanies that, put to paper, sound painfully banal.” The progression of her father’s long illness is charted in exhaustive detail that is painful to read, but not banal: Smith is an elegant and powerful writer, her sentences suffused with attention to detail and rich with self-interrogation.

Yet the book’s premise is something of a red herring: it’s not until its final third, after her father’s death, that the connections between her story and Woolf’s begin to swim into focus, and even then they remain somewhat oblique, if not tenuous. As Smyth builds up her portrait of her father through a mixture of long and short vignettes, parallels are hinted at with Woolf’s characters, only to recede: is Geoffrey the ineffectual patriarch Mr Ramsay, paralysed by his sense of failure? When Smyth discusses her parents’ marriage, he may briefly be Paul, the young lover in whom Mrs Ramsay invests her hopes for the future; after his death, at the age of 59 (the same as Woolf), he becomes a version of Mrs Ramsay herself, the comforting mother with a “core of darkness” who holds the family together, and whose death leaves them “diminished.” But really this is not Woolf’s story, but Smyth’s own: not only an exploration of grief and family, but an effort to understand the complexity of experience and relationships, and to follow Woolf in her “ongoing struggle to find truth and meaning in a world where both are infinitely shifting.”

In a way, Smyth’s role here is analogous to that of Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse—the artist trying to make sense of her grief through her painting, to understand Mrs Ramsay in order to revive her, somehow, through art. Smyth builds an impression of her father through snapshots of childhood memory: building fires, playing tennis, ice-skating, swimming and sailing. Their summer house on Rhode Island is the repository of most of Smyth’s happiest recollections, just as Talland House in St Ives (Godrevy Lighthouse visible from the end of the garden) represented, to Woolf, the perfection of days with her mother, before tragedy sundered the family.

Later, Smyth learns from friends about Geoffrey’s charmed early life, before he became her father—parties with David Hockney, road trips across America, founding an influential architecture magazine. But more significant still are the parts of his being to which Smyth has no access: the hidden histories and secret depths which elude record. Smyth is aware that she cannot know her father fully; she can’t be sure what her father meant to the old friends who speak at his funeral, whose tributes she barely recognises, or understand the bonds of misery and connection that characterised her parents’ marriage.

These questions—how we can know others, or ourselves—exercised Woolf deeply: her fiction is populated by characters whose sense of self is uncertain, their inner lives at odds with the persona they present to the outside world. How, wonders Lily Briscoe, “did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were?”; she eventually resigns herself to understanding others by “the outline, not the detail.” Like Lily, Smyth finds herself longing “for ritual, for structure, for some organising principle by which to counter the awful shapelessness of loss”—the writing of this book, and the rereading of To the Lighthouse, form her anchors in this turbulent present.

The book’s subtitle is “seeking solace in Virginia Woolf,” but the relief Smyth finds in her reading is not so much a feel-good comfort as a validating sense of solidarity. Whether or not Virginia Woolf is awarded a new statue, she lives on forcefully by the way she can still seep into our consciousnesses, her work’s uncanny ability to resonate at the most unexpected moments.

Virginia Woolf in Richmond by Peter Fullagar is published by Aurora Metro (£16.99)

All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf by Katharine Smyth is published by Atlantic (£17.99)