English novelist, essayist, feminist, publisher, and critic, Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) was one of the most influential literary figures of the early 20th century. Her most famous works include Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), A Room of One’s Own (1929), and The Waves (1931). She was also a co-founder, with her sister Vanessa Bell, of the Bloomsbury Group, an informal association of English writers, intellectuals, philosophers, and artists.
British writer, translator, editor, and novelist, Susan Sellers is Professor of English and Related Literature at the University of St. Andrews, and co-General Editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of the writings of Virginia Woolf. She is the author of Vanessa and Virginia, a fictional account of the sibling rivalry between Virginia Woolf and the painter Vanessa Bell.
Simply Charly: In addition to being a prominent Woolf scholar, you’re also a writer of literary fiction in your own right. What first drew you to study Woolf? Has her work had any influence on your own?
Susan Sellers: I first read Virginia Woolf as a fourteen-year-old. The novel was To the Lighthouse, and I was captivated by the beauty of the prose and by Woolf’s portrayal of a family on holiday. On the opening page of the novel, young James Ramsay is told by his father that the trip to the lighthouse he has been looking forward to all summer cannot take place because of the likelihood of bad weather. James’ reaction to the insensitive way his father delivers this news is to wish for an ax to kill him! I was hooked by this powerful exploration of the emotions that usually lie concealed beneath the surface. Since then, I have read everything Woolf has written, including her ten novels, volumes of groundbreaking essays, prolific journalism, the diary she kept almost daily, and thousands of letters.
Virginia Woolf has had an enormous influence on me as a writer. She was a literary pioneer who helped expand the novel as a form. She also wrote about the process of composition, and her thoughts on this have often guided me through moments of difficulty and doubt. Woolf knew that murder is the only effective means of silencing all the reasons we give ourselves as to why we can’t create. Perhaps one of her most important lessons is that good writing is the product of multiple, painstakingly reworked drafts—that and wide and avaricious reading.
Virginia Woolf’s inspiration has extended into my fiction: she features, along with her sister, the talented and innovative painter Vanessa Bell, in my novel Vanessa and Virginia. This work explores the intense and sometimes rivalrous relationship between the sisters. They were close in age and grew up in each other’s company, especially after their brother Thoby was sent away to school. They remained intimate even after their respective marriages, visiting or writing letters to each other most days. After reading everything I could, fiction presented an arena in which I felt able to pursue my remaining questions imaginatively and ethically.
SC: Woolf was a member of the “Bloomsbury Group,” an influential group of English writers and artisans in the early 20th century. What would you say was Woolf’s contribution to Bloomsbury?
SS: The so-called Bloomsbury Group acquired its name because the two sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, together with their brothers Thoby and Adrian, rented a house in Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, London, after the death of their father, Sir Leslie Stephen, in 1904. The friends Thoby Stephen had made at Cambridge University came to call, and their visits quickly settled into a pattern of regular Thursday evening soirees, where those assembled would talk until late into the night. As this low-key beginning suggests, the group was fluid, defined by friendship, and never had a formal manifesto. Early visitors to these Thursday evenings included Clive Bell (whom Vanessa married), Leonard Woolf (whom Virginia married), and the writer Lytton Strachey; later ‘members’ included the economist John Maynard Keynes and the art critic Roger Fry.
One very important and often overlooked aspect of Virginia Woolf’s life was the printing press she set up and ran with her husband, Leonard. Initially a hand-operated machine (Woolf became an accomplished type-setter at a time when pages were created by inserting individual lead letters into a wooden frame), the enterprise blossomed into the influential Hogarth Press, which published not only the majority of Virginia Woolf’s writing, but also other important modernists such as the poet T. S. Eliot and the New Zealand short story writer Katherine Mansfield.
SC: Another member of Bloomsbury was Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell, whom you’ve mentioned writing about in Vanessa and Virginia. Can you say a little more about the relationship between the two sisters? Did Vanessa have any significant impact on Virginia’s writing?
SS: Vanessa Bell was a highly talented visual artist. In 1901, when she was twenty-two, she was one of only a small group of students selected for the Painting School of the Royal Academy in London, where she was taught by John Singer Sargent and came under the influence of James Whistler. She was essential to the younger Virginia after the death of their mother, Julia Stephen, and then their beloved half-sister, Stella. As girls, they supported each other’s ambition to paint or write, and the bond between them continued—despite jealousies and betrayals—until Virginia’s suicide in 1941 when she was fifty-nine, and Vanessa was sixty-one.
Vanessa’s interest in innovative forms of art, particularly, post-impressionism, had a profound impact on Virginia Woolf as a writer. Inspired by the experimentation of painters such as Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh (whom Woolf saw at the post-impressionist exhibition organized by Roger Fry in London in 1910), Woolf reflected on the state of the English novel and concluded, in essays like ‘Modern Fiction’, that writers needed to devise a whole new ‘method’ if they were to succeed in conveying the truth about life.
Vanessa also appears as a painter in her sister’s fiction. She permeates the character of Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, whose attempt to finish an abstract painting punctuates and in part records the Ramsay family story before, during, and after the senseless horrors of the First World War. Aspects of Vanessa can be seen throughout Woolf’s fiction, including her debut, The Voyage Out, and (in the figure of the maternal Susan) in the novel many consider her masterpiece, The Waves.
SC: A great deal of your work deals with feminist theory and practice. What would you say Woolf’s contribution was to the feminist movement?
SS: Woolf argued passionately for women’s equality in essays such as A Room of One’s Own, inspiring not only her contemporaries but, perhaps even more significantly, later generations of campaigners. The rhetoric of the all-important women’s rights movements in America and Britain during the 1970s, for instance, is infused with ideas, phrases, and words originally penned by Virginia Woolf.
Perhaps Woolf’s greatest contribution to the cause of equality is her ability to make us feel injustice through storytelling. In A Room of One’s Own, she accompanied her argument—that denying women an education deprives the world of potential riches – with a story of William Shakespeare’s imaginary sister Judith. Every bit as talented as her brother, Judith is destined for a marriage of her parents’ choosing. The only way she can pursue a career as a dramatist is by running away to London. Women, however, are barred from the stage, and she is forced into prostitution, unhappiness, and a lonely and premature death.
SC: Throughout her life, Woolf was plagued by nervous breakdowns and mental instability. Were these difficulties ever expressed through her writing? What were some of the causes of her anxiety?
SS: Woolf’s first breakdown occurred after her mother’s death in 1895 when she was thirteen, and her second in 1904 following the death of her father to whom she was close. Since her suicide in 1941, which Woolf justified in the letters she left to her husband Leonard and sister Vanessa as a pre-emptive step against further breakdown, there has been a plethora of speculation as to the cause and nature of her illness. Perhaps one of the best studies is Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which discusses Woolf’s art and life in terms of what we would today label as bipolar disorder. Jamison is not only a professor of literature and psychiatry but also a bi-polar sufferer herself, so her account carries weight.
Woolf drew on her illness in her fiction, perhaps most tellingly in her novel Mrs Dalloway, in her moving portrayal of the shell-shocked First World War veteran Septimus Warren Smith. Returning from the gas-filled trenches in France where he watched friends and comrades die, Septimus suffers hallucinations and feels cut off from the world. At the same time, he perceives more clearly than anyone the self-serving hypocrisy of those in power and is acutely aware of life’s capacity for poetry and beauty.
SC: What aspects of Woolf’s writing are uniquely her own? What themes and stylistic choices mark her work?
SS: Woolf was a risk-taker when it came to writing. She recorded in her diary the various challenges that each of her novels posed. For instance, in Mrs Dalloway, she sought to find a way of presenting her readers with information about her characters’ past lives while remaining in the present-day of her narration. With The Waves, she was interested in exploring what would happen if she were to write to a musical rhythm instead of a conventional plot. In her final novel, Between the Acts, a group of villagers act out a pageant and in the process question the validity of history. At the end of the pageant, the villagers hold mirrors up to their audience to signify the present day, but the mirrors only reflect the audience in parts, and at odd angles. Woolf’s work has shaped the way we write fiction today, whether we are conscious of this or not.
SC: Woolf was married to a Jewish man, but her work was often criticized for anti-Semitism. What would you say Woolf’s view of religion was? Were these accusations at all accurate?
SS: Woolf lived at a time when anti-Semitism was commonplace, and there are certainly traces of this in her work. However, it’s always important to draw a clear distinction between the author and what she may attribute to one or more of her ‘characters.’ As a novelist, I might write about a mass murderer or a rapist, but that does not make me guilty of these crimes. When accusing Virginia Woolf of anti-Semitism, it’s worth remembering that the man she chose to marry, Leonard Woolf, was a Jew.
Two years ago at a Bloomsbury exhibition in Poland, I saw the SS list of those to be apprehended in the event of a successful German invasion of Britain. It was chilling to read the names of Leonard and Virginia Woolf there, numbered, one after the other. The couple had no illusions about the fate of Jews in Europe at that time, or what would happen if the Germans caught them. (Though Virginia was not Jewish, she had written against the pointless brutality of war.) The Woolfs lived only a few miles from the Sussex coast where it seemed likely a German advance might occur and kept a supply of petrol in their garage to gas themselves to avoid arrest.
I think Virginia Woolf’s attitude to religion can be best summed up by quoting another of her non-fiction pieces, ‘Moments of Being’:
Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.
SC: Woolf is perhaps the most prominent female writer of the early 1900s, but she’s far from the only one. What other early 20th-century female authors would you say rival Woolf in terms of importance?
SS: Virginia Woolf famously confessed in her diary that the writing she was most jealous of was that of the New Zealand-born short-story writer Katherine Mansfield, who died tragically from tuberculosis in 1923 when she was only thirty-four.
Woolf was not the only writer to have recognized Mansfield’s genius. Other admirers include the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and novelists Elizabeth Bowen, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, and Angus Wilson. The American writer Carson McCullers read Mansfield’s stories so often as a student that the library copies she borrowed fell apart. V.S. Pritchett described her as one of those rare writers whose work brings about a lasting change, commending her boldness, her dramatic shift of the point of interest, and her power to conjure a character and situation with speed and economy in a few lines.
SC: What was Woolf’s reputation during her life? Was her work generally well-received by literary critics?
SS: Woolf worried about the reception of her work. Her diary entries in the days prior to publication are full of concerns about what friends and critics will say—peppered with brave notes to herself not to listen! The novel that is often considered Woolf’s masterpiece, The Waves had mostly positive reviews in Britain when it was first published, though initially, it found less favor in America, where it was described as ‘baffling.’ As this example indicates, the reaction to Woolf’s work during her lifetime was mixed.
SC: Of Woolf’s novels, which are your favorite? Which would you recommend to new readers?
SS: One of my personal favorites is The Waves, which is a highly poetic text tracing the lives of six characters from childhood to death. The novel is framed and interwoven with descriptions of the sea in a single day, beginning at dawn and ending in darkness.
Of course, I’d recommend all Woolf’s novels to readers (and her essays and diaries too!), though if I were coming new to her work, I’d probably suggest starting with To the Lighthouse. Woolf was thinking about her mother and father as she wrote the book, and it can be helpful to bear these first, defining relationships in mind while reading.
Orlando often surprises readers because its central character changes sex halfway through the novel, and also lives across a number of different centuries. Woolf’s approach here is playful, and the narrative is full of hilarious pastiche and jibes at history, biography, the aristocracy, patriarchy, the British government, and our smug self-complacency.