The International Writers Magazine:On Writing
Virginia Woolf in the Flesh
Before she began her day’s work Virginia Woolf began to write painstakingly yet in a beautiful old-fashioned script in her diary...
‘Madness is not a proper sitting-down affair like a dinner or high tea. Its black wonder, in all its glorious power and kingdoms (the ‘arthritic’ kingdom, the ‘counter-productive’ kingdom, the ‘body double’s’ kingdom), the onset and expedition into ageing, all are written on the body and in the mind of the creative. I am placed in the centre of it. I am the key that unlocks its history. I know even when I am anxious I must be loyal to my soul’s progress by letting things go. Skill comes with the potential of the ‘floodgates’ of each emotional curve opening up and freeing me.Instead of hitting your head against the formidable of all formidables, the brick wall that you seem/I seem to effortlessly cling to will cave in with consummate ease and we will transcend those dazzling boundaries of what we once occupied. All I feel is winter at the back of me, draping itself like a cool shroud over me, shutting out the white light, swirls, cloud-bursts of air as heavy as moss draining me of energy, leaving me to ask myself that marked question of all marked questions, has my time come, is it my turn, is my time up? I am conscious of the time of day. It is nearly time for my afternoon walk. Faces joined to bodies hard at work in fields peer out at me with picture-perfect clarity.
I don’t know them, they do not fit or belong in my world so I go on my own merry way and pretend I don’t see them. Or is it nearly time for my customary nap or to have a little light supper with Leonard and talk about Hogarth Press, its cumulative progress and the writers he is currently printing.
I climb hills with style, sucked into this new earth with each step.
When I feel most not of the flesh is when a spell of madness comes upon me. All around me the universe becomes a ghostly sphere. Stars are unfailing witnesses to the elements of my hallucinations. As I write this in relatively solitary confinement, in my room, I can see crystals of light evaporate in winter rain outside my window. Look, look, pressing with an index finger into the middle of the flushed salmon-pink of the palm of my right-hand as if I am investigating stigmata, I am living proof that even melancholy can elevate you. Why is it always the impoverished, the most vulnerable citizens of our environment, what that unflinching symbol of loss means to us, what is it about the lives of Outsiders that speak to us?
Head touching sky, feet touching ground, breathing in a lungful of the healthy countryside air (it feels as if it is sliding through me, the fruity richness of my organs, my blue veins) these are some of my most precious moments. Where would I be without you? All around me are the immortal heights of nature. To rest, I have the throne of a tree to lean against and the sky, even the scenery of the land is poetic. What would I do with jewels, red rubies, sparkling sapphires, gold when today I’ve seen shades of the world through a pair of brand new eyes? When you’re older, you are more forgiving, stronger, amazed at your voluntary spontaneity to smile and engage with other ‘artists’ when you are at your best at public gatherings.
Is the world really so full of life, so bright that it can hurt, cause you to weep, sob uncontrollably, can it draw a feint line of subterfuge between your sacred contract with your god and a most natural creative gift that is also relevant, compelling and unique? Here I am, hiking up my skirts, mud on my shoes, my hair plastered in an unladylike fashion against my forehead, enjoying exerting myself, finding pleasure in it, my limbs trembling, the ‘lady of the manor’, balanced yesterday precariously between the hell of mental illness and the eternal damnation of it all. With the last vestiges of my childhood all but removed, who was left to blame for my fragile state of mind. Mental illness had me once rigidly on fire and here I was a child again in my secret garden.
Walking, even if it was a width of a thread of our cottage, seemed to toughen my spirit from the inside out. I have learned to endure solitude (it has me hooked); even the silence has not lost its diamond-shine. So I suffer in the silence that always seems to navigate its way to meet me in minuscule explosions in my prescence and I did not presume that infertility was a fierce punishment or that it was a lesson in disguise. It was an earthquake offering me quiet torment before it became an uninvited guest sequestered to the attic. It was just a misunderstanding poured between my cells and platelets. Perhaps even the social discord of spiritual interference was melded to my bones, sinew and flesh and not just the biological.
In some ways there is still ‘the subdued girl’ about me, no Goth, no siren am I with flaming lips. I feel I have risen to the occasion brilliantly, as eternity has wanted me to by making a beautiful career of it. As I write this leaves are falling like pure drifts of snow and one day I know this diary will be held up for eternity, like so many others before my time, before my country, to public scrutiny. Newspaper hounds, scholars and pundits will declare ‘it’, my diaries and excerpts from them literature. They will say Virginia Woolf was a woman ahead of her time. If there is a worthy truth to that statement I am certain I shall not know of it in my own lifetime.’
She’s always lived like this with the winters of loneliness. She called it ‘perfection’, ‘bliss and the art of survival is found in an artist’s creative expression’, ‘a natural habitat for a woman writing fiction’, ‘I am an artist and all writers are artists and all artists are writers’, ‘I find so many things useful in the cold comfort of my rituals before I sit down to work. The ritual of creating, of living, of the invincibility of routine and silence, that inner space that you are most conscious of’.
In her mind’s eyes she tells herself to shut her eyes, to believe the voice of her alter-ego and everything it is telling her. It is telling her, selling her, her invisible doppelganger’s visions until she could even feel it in her heart. She was not tethered to anything in the material world. ‘The only possession that I came into this world with and am leaving this world with is this physical body.’ She had told her sister, Vanessa, who had been her most ardent companion during their childhood and adolescence. She lived in books and without them she would be lifeless, loveless and in their fundamental education they had given her she saw images of the wisdom she would one day come to possess.
‘Write this down. Write this down. Make notes.’ She tells herself. Her hands are numb because she has been writing for so long. She had not even been aware that the light had been failing until she looked up and there was a knock at her door. ‘Virginia, if I didn’t know any better I would be inclined to think that you wanted to be held up from your work, with a few day’s rest in bed from catching a cold in this drafty room.’ Her husband walked across the room and stood behind her.
‘You can’t read it yet Leonard. When it’s ready, then I’ll show you.’ Virginia raised a clenched fist to her mouth and coughed.
‘Aren’t you tired yet? It is nearly time for supper. Are you feeling hungry? I’m famished.
Maybe you can eat a little something? You’re looking so pale and thin. Would you like some warm milk before you go off to bed later?’
‘Don’t fuss so. You know I hate it.’
‘Did you take your walk today? I didn’t hear you come and say you would be off.’
‘I didn’t want to disturb you, that’s all. You were working.’
‘My dearest Virginia continually amazes me. You know you wouldn’t have intruded.’
‘I am so undeserving of you. I worship you; you know that, don’t you?’
I’m a mess, is what Virginia really wanted to say.
How do you put up with me? How do you forget? How can you stand me when I can’t fall asleep, when I bump into furniture in the middle of the night, when you reach out for me beside you in your bed and you just hit air? Was I not made to be a wife, to be obedient but I created this countrified mayhem and this chaos that once charmed me now shames me and the only way for me to keep my head above water is to write?
‘Do you miss the city, those scenes, that crowd?’
Yes, yes, yes she wanted to scream, a primal scream, instead she shook her head.
Although it is cold and she has pulled a shawl over her knees under the desk, although it is raining and she has closed the window, lit the lamp, although there are leftovers for supper, a cold meat pie from lunch waiting for her, her tea in the pot with its cheerful tea cosy has gone cold, she cannot stop. She cannot make sense of it all yet. To her it seems a futile exercise but she continues to write unabatedly in the silence of her room. Far away from the world around, the farming community, cattle grazing in the fields, seed planted in one season and now being harvested in another, she wrote about fantasy coming to an end in relationships, the exploding suns in a dying marriage, a countryside framed by the sun, she distilled the cold lines of the anatomies of its robust inhabitants.
It was late but she knew she would not be disturbed. The house was fast asleep. She sat at her desk and began with a rippling ribbon of thought.
‘Writers are mostly voyagers with clean perceptions, clarity of vision when faced with the parallel world, elements of the darkest parts of humanity. We hold each other up with the rites of public scrutiny; tell ourselves criticism will be the death of us (what does that mean to the most inexperienced). I want to drown. I want that experience. The experience of being compelled to sacrifice that loveliness of the haunting game of connecting truths to the politician who is at the core of you. No half-life lived for me. Give me a manual for being fragile, a manual that will teach me how to react to a husband’s expectations so I can disable and correct all the information effortlessly on these cold lines.
Still the past nourishes me even when I fail to strip reality from my dreams. I have a voice and the mystery of that sustains me. Let me journal and read everything and so I know I will triumph because since childhood I have been an apt pupil pouring its knowledge into a distillate, standing at the edge with stars in my eyes. If it was a bleak childhood, if it left you with grit, the memory of the ghost of potatoes pushed to the side of your plate. If you feel darkness in moments of being, if you feel the loss of your ego, it diminishing, that the only possession you will leave this world with is your physical body, then this is a journey you must remain loyal to, to its progress.
When I don't eat, when I don't sleep there's an intelligence that is given substance in the madness. There's a reason for everything under the sun. Emancipation always leads to conversation even if it is on the other side of the world. The question I ask myself most often these days is, what are other writers thinking, examining here, what do their soul's look like, what is the most poetic/emotive thing to come from their background and what is most sacred thing to them and about the information they are giving me through their literary world? We're sitting on millions of years of creation here. Of healing, art, earth, sky, heritage, diamonds, rage, literature, vision, feminism, summer. There’s a writer born every second. Most of all we need each other.’
‘Good morning, midnight, hour of blue.’
She wrote about the seriousness of traumas, casualties, triumphs, laughter, ghoulish vampires of boys with forked tongues who couldn’t keep their wanton hands to themselves, off their underage, pale, virginal victims who usually found themselves lost in those most tragic of circumstances (almost to the point of making themselves ill by throwing fits and hysterics) – the loss of the age of their innocence.
So Woolf forgot about her planet and when it shattered at her feet.
© Abigail George November 2011