You gotta love you some online classes, every once in a while. I banged this out over the weekend for one of mine, destined for a professor who specifically asked that we creative types showcase some our talents. Well, he asked for it:
[In response to suffering through Between the Acts by English author and early feminist Virginia Woolf, a book written within a single day’s timespan of a family and their home, just days before the outbreak of World War II.]
First off, I gotta apologize for my ramble. I’ve always been on the long-winded side to begin with, but this writing business with my thesis project is definitely bringing it to an all-new level of annoying, I’m sure.
I’m trying to get down every detail possible right now in creation mode, sort it all out later. It’s hard to shut that switch off once you let it loose, so sorry if this gets even longer and windier than my usual. To those of you already familiar with my work, welcome back. The those of you not: I’m um…well–how should I put this?–sorta like a cheap beer. It takes some getting used to, dealing with the awful taste, but you find yourself numb to it after a while, even a bit amused at times.
Yeah. A cheap beer…
Hmmm. That sounds pretty good, actually. Be right back…
(gulp) Ahhhhh…. You just gotta LOVE you some online classes.
Now, let’s get to it: Because my books were taking their sweet time arriving this semester (apparently Winter Storm Inga shut down book retailers, too), I wound up researching Virginia Woolf and this book a lot more than I probably would have otherwise. Other than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which I didn’t even realize until far later than I probably should have, she didn’t even write. Some dude named Albee did. I think I was supposed to read either that Albee book or something else Woolf actually DID write as an undergraduate way back when. Let’s just say I wasn’t nearly as dedicated to my school work back then as I tend to be nowadays.
Who knows? Maybe if I had these (gulp) online classes back when…
[FYI: We didn’t even have Internet when I was in school last, believe it or not. Not yet, anyway. I still marvel at all of this now.]
Not to shut off the laugh track I have running in my head, but what I read about Woolf and this particular book was quite disturbing, truth be told. One can’t help wondering if it was just the times in which she lived or if she was truly that unbalanced.
Long story, short: Virginia Woolf pretty much finished this book, called her publisher one last time and then went outside to off herself. I’m not talking drinking a flask of poison or taking some pills or pulling a trigger. That would’ve been easy. No, this was meticulous. Thought out. She walked around outside finding rocks and placing them into the pockets of her dress. Who knows how long that must’ve taken, but with each new find, she had to bend over, grab it, and stuff it into a pocket, probably jostle herself or bounce a bit, just to size up the weight, knowing all the while knowing the ultimate purpose behind her macabre scavenger hunt and not once backing down.
After she felt she had a sufficient amount of rocks, she walked to the beach. Now I’m sure in some parts of the world rocks and shoreline are a little more tied together than they are here. And England, based on pictures I’ve seen of the place, is definitely one of those places where rocks and water are a lot closer together than they are here. Still, she didn’t live on the water. Based on the descriptions I read, she probably walked every bit of four or five miles—with or without rocks weighing down—until she got to the water’s edge, swam out into the bay and drowned herself. She did such a good job of it, they didn’t even find her body for more than a month.
And these were the last words on her lips, the final images in her mind, as she slowly worked it out–silent, slow, deliberate—eventually, the plans began to fall into place. These were the last things that she chose to share with the world. That’s how I read every page, when my copy book of this book finally showed up.
As I’ve already read/heard from some of you, Yes, it’s passages: poetic; it’s symmetry: scattered, even confusing at times; and those many characters: often a muddled lot themselves, caught between uneasy fears and uncertainty at what may come and the common complacency any of us might have, never truly expecting the world to completely upend the way theirs did back when, always assuming someone with more power than us would do something, anything, to keep everything as it always had been.
History, of course, tells just how wrong they were about to be, both in the story and, sadly, in real life, for the author, who was recognized by writers and academics just Thursday on the 136th anniversary of her birth.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I heard, within the personalities of her story, a tormented mind grasping at possibilities, working through every possible outcome in her mind even to the point of distraction. Those many characters, whose logic and motivations aren’t always evident in the story, were but voices in the deafening soundtrack playing way too loudly in her own addled mind, something she never could quite turn off.
Her successful suicide wasn’t her only try at it. In fact, she’d been institutionalized several times in her life for her battles with depression and past attempts to kill herself. She’d taken all the latest treatments for women like her—fad diets, blood-letting, isolation in sunlight, isolation in darkness—the psychiatric arts were still in very rudimentary stages back then. Most important to its task was keeping the crazies away the innocent public. The patient’s welfare was secondary to the first directive; their improvement, possible, though no one was exactly sure how. Not yet. The wonder drugs that may have allowed her a normal life wouldn’t be discovered for years still.
Of course, her outspoken nature and proneness to defy the establishment—Woolf was a feminist before there was such a thing—no doubt was something, especially in those days, they attributed to her regular bouts with madness. Surely, no person in her right mind would be that obtuse just for kicks, right? I mean, who did she think she was? A man?
Woah. Feeling. Light. Headed. I’m pretty sure a few of you just sucked all the air from the room. Can you believe he just wrote THAT?
It’s not my opinion, trust me. But it was most definitely THE opinion, back then. Women may have gotten the right to vote a few years prior—still a sore subject for many a private man gathering of the day, no doubt—but they were still mostly homemakers, mothers or nuns. No one had yet heard of female corporate executives, Women’s Professional Baseball (There’s no crying in baseball!), nor the “We can do it!” campaigns with “Rosie the Riveter” (who, for anyone who may have missed it, died from cancer last week at her home in Longview, Wash., at the age of 96. The famous “Rosie the Riveter” photo was taken of Naomi Parker Fraley while she was working as a factory worker at California’s Alameda Naval Station, one of millions of women who filled the workforce during World War II. Ironically, that picture, shot by a man, was intended to deglamorized women and show them in proper workplace attire).
Still, Woolf’s outspoken nature can’t have been well received during its day, which no doubt complicated things for her even more. Her first big battle with depression (and nut houses) followed the sudden death of her mother and sister in 1895 and continued through her life whenever she lost someone close, such as her surrogate mother, Stella Duckworth, and brother, Tobey, not long after those first two. The death of her father, noted author William Makepeace Thackery, in 1904 would lead to one of her worst depressive bouts yet.
Although losses of those close can be hard on anyone, something she later wrote about that many now attribute as the source of problems and ever-shifting moods was the sexual abuse of her and her sister at the hands much older half-brothers. Although no doubt a contributor to her ailments, nothing was ever proven one way or another with regard her mental health. Talks on the subject now are merely speculative.
But to make matters even worse, she was a central figure in what was called the Bloomsbury Group of Intellectuals, which may sound harmless enough, but seemed to encapsulate in England what would become known as the Roaring Twenties here in the USA, rife with all its parties and drink and jazz. The group also encouraged sexual freedom between members, couples swapping and in the 1920s when such a thing was deemed illegal, encouraged open acceptance of homosexuality. In later letters to her husband, Woolf admits to one such relationship herself, something many scholars now believe likely went on well through the 1930s.
On top of it all, the war had started. The Nazis were bombing her beloved London daily, and her youngest brother, Leonard, enlisted to her staunch disapproval. Combat of any sort went completely against her pacifist sensibilities. And if that weren’t enough, her latest book, a biography on her late friend Roger Fry, was also bombing.
So she finished the book she was working on, Between the Acts. She called her publisher and had a disheartened talk on the biography’s lack of sales. Hung up and wrote one last thing before she walked outside to gather rocks and ultimately did the deed:
Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
Her husband actually got this book to the publisher to have it printed, and based on what I read, the few edits he made were things they’d discussed quite extensively and he was fairly certain she would’ve wanted in the final manuscript…