Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Manic Depression and the Life of Virginia Woolf
(Griffin Trade, March 2001)
“My God, how does one write a biography?” The question is Virginia Woolf’s, and she grappled with it throughout her lifetime. She kept the most detailed of diaries, and many of her introspective novels are literary tapestries of experiences and memories. Yet she never published an autobiography. The art of “life-writing,” as she calls it, requires a window on the soul, not just the facts of one’s life. Finding access to that inner self was a perpetual preoccupation for Woolf, and she was ever aware of the discrepancy between this private persona and the “fictitious V.W. whom I carry like a mask about the world.”
In “Art of the Biography,” one of her Collected Essays, she recognizes the bias of culture on the generation of a life story, observing that biographical descriptions are subject to multiple reworkings over time. “These facts are not like the facts of science—once they are discovered, always the same. They are subject to changes of opinion; opinion changes as times change.” Such has been the fate of her life story. Many biographies of Woolf have been written, viewing her from many angles: a great modernist writer, a feminist, a victim of sexual abuse, an eccentric genius, a madwoman. Hermione Lee, in her substantial 1996 work, presents a complex portrait of Woolf that diligently and humbly avoids simplification.
Unfortunately, Peter Dally, a retired British psychiatrist, resorts to a far more superficial rewriting of her life. Dubiously armed with psychiatric insight into mood disorders (the science of which has hardly been immutable), he reviews her diaries and letters, trying to force her behavior into a neat temporal map of cyclothymia: comparatively mild depression from January to March, elation in the summer, and depression again in September. He argues that episodes of full-blown major depression of mania, eventually culminating in Woolf’s 1941 suicide, requires the superimposition of emotional stressors during these precarious months.
Many of Dally’s assertions seem unjustified and contradictory. For example, he states with certainty that Woolf inherited her mood disorder genes wholly from her father. Yet Woolf’s mother Julia, who was remarried to Leslie Stephen after her first beloved husband died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage, repeatedly became quite melancholic, at times so severely that she “believed death would be the greatest boon.” Can we really presume to posthumously define genetic influence anyway?
Dally also glosses over other complexities of Woolf’s experience. He dismisses the sexual indiscretions, first of her half brother Gerald, who “explored her private parts at age 5," and then of her 36 year old half brother George, who continued to live with 13 year old Virginia after her mother died. George would enter Virginia’s bed when she was half-asleep, and behave, in Virginia’s words, as “her lover.” Without exploration, Dally states “there is no evidence Virginia was distressed by it,” postulating instead that she may have “enjoyed the fondling.”
When her father died of colon cancer, a bereft Woolf turned to an older woman, Violet Dickinson, for support. Their relationship intensified, and Woolf wrote passionate love letters describing the “hot volcanic depths” aroused within her upon their embrace. Dally states without reservation that “it is wrong to see the relationship in terms of adult sexuality. Virginia craved intimate mother-love, not the erotic.” Surely the two are not mutually exclusive, and “hot volcanic depths” seem to demand a bit more attention. After all, Clarissa Dalloway’s most cherished memory is of a kiss with another woman. Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway as she began a love affair with the renowned lesbian Vita Sackville-West, to whom she dedicated Orlando, her 1928 novel that makes a game of the relationship between fiction and biography.
The ambiguous title of Peter Dally’s book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, presumably refers not to Virginia Woolf’s mixed state of elation and depression, but to her actual marriage to Leonard Woolf. Yet compared to Harmony Lee’s subtle exploration of the couple’s struggles with intimacy and independence, Dally’s portrayal of their relationship lacks depth. “Ideally, every manic depressive needs to be protected from stress” reads the book jacket, and Leonard is presented one-dimensionally as his wife’s vigilant protector, critical to her creativity and survival. Though Leonard Woolf was also a writer, Dally states that there was “never any hint of rivalry” between them, and that Leonard looked on Virginia “as a child, ‘never completely sane.’”
While acknowledging that “it is impossible to know what transpired in the Woolf’s bedroom,” Dally freely hypothesizes, elaborating “a possible sequence of events” in their sexual relationship. Later, Dally presents evidence that Leonard Woolf did not allow his wife to have children, believing, in spite of initial psychiatric recommendations to the contrary, that motherhood would exacerbate her illness. Leonard eventually found psychiatric support for his viewpoint. Dally states Leonard was “right to doubt Virginia’s ability to cope with childbearing,” and then feels qualified to state that Virginia Woolf’s “desire for children was not deeply rooted. She expressed a wish for them only when she was depressed.”
While Woolf may have been ambivalent about becoming a mother, it is clear she carried deep resentment toward her husband and doctors for their restriction, as her mockery of the psychiatrist in Mrs. Dalloway suggests: “worshipping proportion, Sir William not only prospered himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalized despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views, until they, too, shared his sense of proportion.”
In a particularly interesting chapter, Dally describes how the Woolf’s publishing house, The Hogarth Press, took over the International Psycho-Analytic Library, prompted in part by Leonard’s interest in Freud. Many of their Bloomsbury contemporaries were analyzed by Freud, though Virginia was considered too unstable to withstand the strain. Virginia Woolf’s privacy was also too precious to her to engage in such an intimate relationship. In On Being Ill, which Dally quotes, she wrote, “There is a virgin forest, tangled, pathless, in each [of us]. Here we go alone and like it better so. Always to be accompanied, always to be understood, would be intolerable.”
Woolf kept meticulously detailed diaries and letters, yet she also kept much to herself. She was well aware of the difficulty of actually knowing someone, and as Hermione Lee quotes, “She would not say of anyone in the world that they were this or they were that.” Though Dally provides intriguing descriptions and life details, his attempt to define Virginia Woolf as “a cyclothymic” does not do justice to the richness of her persona. Michael Cunningham, in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1998 novel, The Hours, draws from the historical record of Woolf’s life, yet allows her spirit to emerge in powerful, complex ways. He may have heeded Wolf’s advice. Recognizing the discrepancies between “two kinds of truths,” the “husk” that is revealed in the orderly presentation of live events, and the “atom” which is ever elusive, she wrote: “Let the biographer print fully, completely, accurately, the known facts without comment; then let him write the life as fiction.”
Eve Leeman is a writer living in Manhattan.