|Virginia Woolf, Childhood Portrait|
There rushes at once through my flesh tingling fire,My eyes are deprived of all power of vision,My ears hear nothing by sounds of winds roaring,And all is blackness. -- Sappho
Thick of waist, large of limb, and, save for her hair, fashionable in the tight modern way, she never looked like Sappho, or one of the beautiful young men whose photographs adorned the weekly papers. She looked what she was ...
-- Virginia Woolf in Between the Acts
But often now this body she wore (she stopped to look at a Dutch picture), this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing -- nothing at all. -- Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway
|Virginia Woolf and Violet Dickinson (Top); Virginia Woolf|
Of course, it is dangerous and misguided to pinpoint one event as the source for Woolf’s most revealing writings about abuse and the body, for one could point out that the subjugation she felt as a woman – not able to procure a degree from the University like her brothers -- embittered her, as well as the role her mother and father played in her life (for better or worse) – her mother’s illness, her subsequent absences, her father’s patriarchy and then of course their deaths, her move to Bloomsbury and her marriage to Leonard Woolf.
Psychologists will point out that children who suffer from sexual abuse often express their inchoate feelings and fears in art -- painting and writing. Controversial even today, research on sexual abuse and children relies on the Rorschach test, the artwork of children, the TAT test, children’s’ own stories and other measures designed to assess whether or not a child has been sexually abused. There is no universal sorter to determine sexual abuse of a child but most mental health professionals will agree that a child abused “speaks out about the abuse” in ways not always decipherable by language. It oozes out of them from every corner of their creative side, in their language and their very bodies. And probably, in this way, as a girl, Virginia Stephen learned to suppress her feelings and memories, possibly not feeling she had a safe space to express her feelings openly – except, save, for her art. In her writings, perhaps, she explores dimensions of her own coded body – unconsciously or consciously (it doesn’t make a difference) – in a way that was safe for her to express what was going on inside of her.
We do not need to know the details of Woolf’s traumatic childhood experiences to find in her novels examples of abuse, neglected children and wounded individuals. Nor do we need evidence that she was actually sexually abused. The text deconstructs itself, laying bare the unprivileged body in the mess and midst of mind. DeSalvo mentions that every one of her novels describes a child abandoned, a child ignored, a child at risk, a child abused, a child betrayed (see DeSalvo pg. 14). In Woolf, there is a pervasive feeling that the very self has been invaded from all sides – the woman questioning her position in society in A Room of One’s Own or a boy bitterly confused by his father’s sharp disavowal of his wishes in To the Lighthouse or a woman’s wish to eradicate her own body for another in Mrs. Dalloway or the androgynous awareness of body that metamorphoses in Orlando. For fear of being too ambitious, this paper will only focus on one of Woolf’s work, Mrs. Dalloway – not precluding the possibility of applying this thesis to her other works as well.
The body in Woolf’s work considerably bespeaks of an abused individual, broken off, as it were, from an image of the body that is apparently whole and complete. Many abuse victims speak of being frozen at the time of their abuse, unable to release themselves (or unaware that they are caught) from their past. Their very image of the body, then, becomes frozen, stunted. If writing is symptomatic of the soul; if it gives us a glimpse into fractured humanity, then it is true that the novel, even more so, details the human person even to the point of what it means to be a body in space – perhaps a body broken in space, but a body with a mind – a soul – nonetheless.
But we must ask at this point, “so what?” So what that Virginia Woolf was sexually abused as a child. There is nothing we can do about that now. Everyone who could now speak first-hand about it is dead “So what?” that she expresses her abuse in her life-work and novels – she had to find some way to exorcise these demons, so it is only natural that she would use her work to do so. The question we must ask is, how is this important for Woolf studies? What contribution – if any – did Woolf make for literature, writing about Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus Smith’s body (for instance) as an abused individual? How did she reconceptualize the often-discussed binary of body/mind so prevalent in Western thought into an often overlooked emphasis on body abused and fractured, peeking out from within a text privileged by mind?
When one thinks of Woolf one often thinks of the Modernist project at the beginning of the twentieth century that articulated consciousness. We think of Joyce and Mansfield, literature between the two great wars. We think of stream of consciousness and word play so often talked about in conversations about Woolf and Joyce and others like them. We tend to think of them as lost in their heads, not really concerned with the trappings of the body but more concerned with words and the colorful display of language.
But we must take a second look to see how the text writes the body, as brought forth by the pain and loss Woolf’s character’s feel (and by Woolf’s own pain and loss, as well) although it does, in fact, seem with Woolf (and the other Moderns) that she emphasizes mind over body to a degree that sometimes nears solipsism. “How am I ever going to get out of the mind of Mrs. Dalloway?” you may wonder. It may take a violent explosion. And it does. When teaching Woolf it is often pointed out to students that reading Woolf is hard because you have to follow the thought patterns of various other minds. All too often Woolf is interpreted as being lost in the clouds – a dainty walk in London completely adrift in her own world – an interpretation used to caution students not to get lost themselves in trying to maneuver their way through the text. But we forget the violent explosions in Woolf, the often visceral, shake-you-up episodes where the body is exposed raw. The exposed, raw body, the abused body is present in Woolf, just subtler than the trippings of mind. In Mrs. Dalloway, I argue, the characters of Septimus Smith and Clarissa Dalloway are images of abuse – sexual or physical, although the text does not explicitly reveal what kind of abuse – abuse is there – shaken and raw, speaking their voices from within the text.
In Mrs. Dalloway a violent explosion from outside on Bond Street jerks Clarissa out of her mind and into her body and by a parallel of events, Septimus Smith as well. Clarissa is choosing sweat peas for her party later that evening – her mind is in a whir – then, like a “pistol shot” there is a violent explosion from outside (175). Septimus is walking on the other side of the street with his wife Lucrezia and when he hears the explosion there is the line: “The throb of the motor engines sounded like a pulse irregularly drumming through an entire body.” (176).
We forget the visceral side of Woolf in this scene, often thought of in popular discussions of the novel to be more concerned with how consciousness is involved – how the texts switches between Clarissa’s perception of events and Septimus’s. But what happens to the body here? When the text is deconstructed we can see the playful interplay between mind and body at work. Clarissa, moments before the car crash, allows the soft words of Miss Pym, the florist, to wash over her like a wave to surmount a monster of hatred inside of herself -- and then the violent explosion; she goes to the street, her “lips pursed with curiosity” -- as if keeping the monster inside her body (Woolf 174-176). The monster is the abused, unprivileged body. Clarissa is able to “escape,” keeping the monster at bay and then suddenly, out of nowhere, something from the outside, something external and loud violates her, shaking her consciousness to a mere image of the body.
For Septimus, at the same moment, the “world has raised its whip; where will it descend?” (176). The raised whip is the abuse. Septimus, paranoid, a veteran of the First World War, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, erroneously thinks traffic has stopped because of him. “It is I who am blocking the way, he thought” (176). For Septimus, the violent explosion from the motorcar is like the world’s whip ready to strike him dead, like the tail of Dante’s Minos coiling around the damned bodies in hell. And then again there is that line: “The throb of the motor engines sounded like a pulse irregularly drumming through an entire body.” (176). For both Septimus and Clarissa the violence of the car crash has assaulted consciousness and manifested itself in their very own bodes; as well as the body of the text, the repressed body of coded language and abuse in Woolf. For the abused body, a sound or a touch retroactively brings the body back to the moment of abuse (very similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, as well); like an awful smell that really isn’t there but the memory of it makes it appear as if it really is; that is the stranglehold of abuse and its hold on the body.
In a more subtle way this explosion of body occurs a few scenes before the previous one in which Clarissa is window shopping on Bond Street; here again is an explosion, a rush of visceral awareness that shakes the text slightly, attempts to speaks from its unprivileged position as body (170). Mind is privileged in this novel but body claws its way through the floor boards, lurking in the language and sentence structure, the otherwise words and sentences in the book we would call aporia, unsolvable instances irreconciable with mind. Clarissa is shaken out of consciousness, out of her own head into an awareness of body when she has an intimation of her own mortality, her own transient existence – can she survive the “ebb and flow of things” (171)? She feels her body is contingent and once she dies her body will be gone forever except for the hope that her mind will live on, preserve her memories of Peter Walsh, of Richard – but body attempts to speak over mind, asserting itself in the language as aporia, the missing, abused body that seeks to be recovered (171). Death is incomprehensible to Clarissa; she is terrified to reconcile this body she wears with a final finitude. This observation of death only drives Clarissa to further insecurity, not a religious hope in a life after death.
What prompts Clarissa into an examination of her own finite, insecure body here is that she realizes that she speaks and acts only to please other people, not thinking for herself, but rather playing a part, unlike, she feels, Richard or Lady Bexborough. Clarissa realizes that “no one was ever for a second taken in” by her charms and ladylike manners; she intuits that people see beneath her class-conscious poise (171). Clarissa wants to be free, to be different – not just on the order of mind, but of the body as well – from the life she has been consigned; this is why death frightens her. Characteristic of abuse, she wishes to be someone (or something) she is not, which creates a tremor in the text, a tension between who she is, in essence, to whom we would rather be. She does not wish to have the body she wears, her own body, but rather wishes to wear another body. This is a form of despair. The text jumps from lingering in the realm of mind to actually leaping into the alterity of Lady Bexborough, whom Clarissa would rather be, a body she would rather possess. What is the cause of this radical desire to eradicate your own body? Is there a trauma that would precipitate such a claim?
Woolf herself felt that the greatest catastrophe for a woman was to be married; marriage is the great trauma. Clarissa may have been a different woman if she had not been married. This is a rational claim. Many of us often wonder what our lives would have been like if we had chosen a different path in life. For Clarissa, maybe her desire to be like Lady Bexborough or to be different and independent as Richard is an inverse reflection of the memory of the happiest moment of her life, passionately kissing Sally Seton? Though she still wears the same body, Clarissa believes she can wish body away by fantasizing being somebody else; the spasms continue to haunt her, the explosions still course through her body as when she places the brooch down on her bedroom table; Clarissa feels she can suppress this feeling, as if she can stave off the icy claws (196). Yes, it is true, Clarissa is not happy in her marriage, and possibly wished for a happier life – maybe fantasized a life with Sally Seton – but it is must be said that not only the marriage itself churns disgust about her own body. There is something else.
Still wearing the same body, she may have been a different woman but not a different body; there is something else at stake, besides marriage as the great catastrophe. Something irrational. It is not only a failed marriage that causes Clarissa to wish for Lady Bexborough’s skin of “crumpled leather and beautiful eyes” (172). This wish or desire to be another body is a form of the coded body Woolf employed in her writing, an encryption in the body of the text, abused and broken. In Clarissa’s own eyes her body is narrow and pea-stick shaped “with a ridiculous little face, beaked like a bird’s” (172). Ironically, Clarissa’s body is the favored figure of today’s beauty magazines; the models in the slick pages of popular magazines portray the slim, skeletal body as desirable instead of the fuller, fleshed out body of a Lady Bexborough. Something about Clarissa’s culture – or her own life experience – has informed how her own body should be, adding to her anxiety to want another body just as today’s glossy magazines convince woman to lose even more weight; the slimmer the models in beauty magazines, the slimmer the body-image emblazoned on women’s brains, especially abused woman who already have an insecure image of body. Even Clarissa’s internalized positive image of body is an informed construct; her observation that she holds herself well and that she has nice hands and feet, that she dresses well and so on are just as much informed by the outline traced over her own body as the wish to be a completely “other” body.
When Clarissa stops to look in the window on Bond Street she stops to look at a Dutch picture probably propped up in a display window. In one sentence: “But often now this body she wore (she stopped to look at a Dutch picture), this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing – nothing at all.” Woolf sums up the abused body, both unhappy with body and transfixed by body – even in her loathing diatribe about the ‘body she wears” she is able to stop and see beauty in a shop window despite the fact that the beauty Clarissa notices is outside of herself. Woolf does not describe the Dutch picture in the window; the text parenthetically mentions – in passing, barely noticeable in the text if one is racing through the book – but it is there, this Dutch picture placed in contraposition to Clarissa’s own body, another extension of the fantasy to not only to be someone else’s body but to attach onto an image this same irrational wish! For the abused body, for Woolf herself, spontaneous appreciation of beauty is not difficult, but made difficult by abuse – like James in To the Lighthouse, a disavowal by her father, the smothering patrimony she experienced in the Stephen household prevented her from fully expressing beauty in the open; like Clarissa, Woolf expresses beauty in parenthesis – the image of beauty for the abused is couched by a feeling of having no capacity for anything, nothing at all. While the text does not reveal the root of Clarissa Dalloway’s abuse, whether it is marriage itself, or something deeper in her past, after Bourton, when she felt free with Sally Seton, we can assume that something in Clarissa’s past marred her body, smeared her own conception of body to make her feel as if she is nothing, nothing at all. Like Woolf, traced by her half-brother’s hand, Clarissa’s body has been traced, etched upon, manipulated to the extent that Clarissa no longer feels free to be in her own body.
And Septimus is the same, unable to feel and sense beauty, despite his wife’s exclamation, “Beautiful!” (243). Septimus is not able to see beauty behind a pane of glass, etched by war to loathe his own body. “Where he had once seen mountains, where he had seen faces, where he had seen beauty, there was a screen” (296). Where he once had felt love with a fellow soldier during the war, now there is only his abused body without a friend, “macerated until only the nerve fibers were left; it was spread like a veil on a rock” (225).
This is despair Septimus and Clarissa feel, except Septimus goes one step further: his despair is not just a wish to have another body but actually to extinguish his own body; his body no longer has the capacity to sustain him any longer. While Clarissa merely laments that her body is nothing, nothing at all, Septimus goes one step further into despair. Septimus Smith is an abused body; war scarred and torn up emotionally to such an extreme extent that his friendship, his love for Evans, a fellow soldier during the war, nor the love of his wife or child can release him from the pain he feels. And when he cries out Evan’s name there is no answer, only the sound of mice squeaking and a rustled curtain, the voices of the dead (296). Throughout the novel, Septimus has discourse with the dead: with the dead Evans, with dead bodies dressed in grey; Septimus can’t stand the voices of the dead in his head, crying, “It was awful, awful!” (226). It is no wonder that Septimus is reading Dante’s Inferno, literally septic as his name implies; the Inferno, death, is his only consolation, that which helps him not to be afraid (243). This body they both wear, Clarissa and Septimus, are what they both share in common. While Clarissa, the upper class British society woman, lives, the middle class soldier with a wife and child dies. The poet dies so Clarissa can live. Clarissa is able to maintain her body (even though she doesn’t do the best job at it) while Septimus is unable to continue wearing this body.
“Fear no more, says the heart in the body; fear no more,” thinks Septimus (290). The pain and the abuse come to a head, despite his own self-consoling, Septimus flings himself onto “Mrs. Filmer’s area railings” (299). But Septimus is not afraid. The stranglehold of abuse may have gotten the best of him, driven him to suicide, but he is not afraid of death like Clarissa. The last image we have of Clarissa is holding onto the banister at the top of the stairs, finally able to give her party. The final image of Septimus is a mangled body. Clarissa is able to stave off the monsters inside of her, for a time. Or is she? Just because Clarissa lives and Septimus dies does not exonerate Clarissa. Septimus’s death releases Lucrezia; she sighs relief when he dies. His death exonerates his pain. Clarissa has to face her problems. Clarissa still is not free. Clarissa is not yet able to say to the heart in the body, fear no more, fear no more. Yet both Clarissa and Septimus are both heroes in this story, because they speak to victims of abuse, at whatever stage in life, not in the saccharine words of “have hope” or “get over it” but in the visceral, raw ways abuse manifests itself in a body.
In this way, Mrs. Dalloway is a deceptive novel, especially on a second or third reading because what we expect the novel to be in fact turns out to be much more than a feminine version of Joyce’s Ulysses. When I first read the novel I read it as a discourse on mind, not paying attention at all to body. It was only on a second reading that I saw body peeking out from hidden corners and I wondered if there was something to the claim that this book is more about abused bodies than just about a trouble woman organizing a party. Then reading about Woolf’s own sexual abuse as a child informed my reading again of Mrs. Dalloway and I noticed the voice of not only body, but a body abused and fragmented. The sentence in the novel that struck me as filled with images of an abused person is the sentence I quote at the top of this article: Clarissa stopping to look at a Dutch picture. The other image is the pervasive trembling of body that courses through the entire novel. From the explosion, the Dutch picture, the aeroplane coursing through the sky, the monsters and spasms that haunt Clarissa and Septimus alike. This lead me to a deeper reading of Septimus, a character unthought of in the novel by readers despite his really important presence, as a figure very much akin to Clarissa and also in contraposition to her. After linking these images in my head, the novel stuck out for me as the image of body, sneaking behind the text, trying to get an upper hand on mind that I had been unconsciously looking for in the text. The novel is so richly woven and so well planned out that that first reading skips over the subtler images in the text. This is not a univocal novel with one story to tell; it is multifaceted and rich in texture and depth. The tension in the text between body and mind is rich and multi-layered in ways that this small essay cannot completely mine fully, but even this small examination could show that Virginia Woolf is definitely not a simple walk in the park. She is a fierce thinker whom I think displays passionately and compassionately the pain and loss of humanity, not just for those who have suffered from sexual abuse or any kind of physical or mental abuse, but for all of us who are looking for an articulation of the pain we feel in our bodies, like Mrs. Dalloway, “buying the flowers herself” or Septimus, finding the courage not to be afraid anymore.
 Interestingly, DeSalvo, on page one, asserts that Woolf was a sexually abused child and an incest survivor. She then proceeds to give her two intentions for writing the book: first, to use Woolf’s work to form a portrait of the world of the child and adolescent as she understood it. Second, to form a portrait of how Woolf perceived and described herself and her experiences as a child and adolescent by using both works that she wrote during these time periods, and works that she wrote in her maturity describing them (xiii).
 These sketches can be found in the book Moments of Being, a collection of Woolf’s autobiographical writings. “A Sketch of the Past,” “Old Bloomsbury,” and “22 Hyde Park Gate” all contain primary source concerning Woolf abused by her half-brothers. Other sources that can be consulted are a letter that she wrote to Ethyl Smith and a letter she wrote to Janet Case.
 George was fourteen years older and Gerald was twelve years older than Virginia.
 In James King’s biography, Virginia Woolf, he places the aforementioned photographs of Woolf alongside one another.
 Diana L. Swanson has an article in this book: Creating Safe Space: Women and Violence. “hence Woolf developed writing strategies of coding, self-censorship, and splitting of event and affect (pg. 85).
 These children appear on the page for a moment -- as the baby in the carriage of the nanny who sits next to Peter Walsh in Mrs. Dalloway, as the children that Daisy, Peter Walsh’s lover, will lose if she divorces.
 In Mrs. Dalloway there are many romps into the mind of another person: Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Smith, Lucrezia Smith, Mrs. Dempster, Mr. Bentley, Peter Walsh, Richard Dalloway, among others.
 It should also be mentioned that sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder carry with them similar symptomatic behavior of abuse. For example, persons suffering from both sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder often have a visceral reaction to touch and acute sounds.
 See Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble for a fuller understanding how an outline is traced upon the body by performance and repetition, especially by society. Our identity as gendered people, even our biological sex, according to Butler, has been traced upon our bodies.
 The Sickness Unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard has a detailed section about how wishing to want a body not your own is one of the root causes of despair.
 As is common in Woolf, death happens suddenly. There is no prelude to Septimus’s death. He undramatically jumps from the railing.
Bass, Ellen, and Laura Davis. The Courage to Heal: A Guide to Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. New York: Harper, 1988. This book serves as a general reference for women; it is a good text to use to debunk common misconceptions about abuse and women.
Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. 2 vols. in 1. New York: Harcourt, 1972. The official biography by Woolf’s nephew can’t be left out in a works cited page because it is the biography that started all the other biographies on Woolf. It does mention her childhood sexual abuse but not with the vigor of DeSalvo -- he mentions it, but correlates it to her same-sex attraction for women.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble.
Colman, Andrew, editor. Companion Encyclopedia of Psychology. Volume 2. John Wiley and Sons. 2004. This resource gives clinical definitions of psychological terms and explanation of theory and application; helpful in gleaning data about body image and women.
DeSalvo, Louise A. Virginia Woolf, The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse On Her Life and Work. Beacon Press, c1989. According to the author, Woolf was a sexually abused child and an incest survivor that deeply impacted her life and work.
Ender, Evelyne. “Speculating Carnality, Some Reflections on the Modernist Body”. Yale Journal of Criticism. 1999. 12.1. 113-130. This article convinced me that I could write a paper connecting Woolf’s sexual abuse to her conception of a fractured body in space because Ender here does a similar thing with illness and the modern conception of body in Woolf and Proust.
Gordon, Mary. “Bodies of Knowledge” in The Mrs. Dalloway Reader. Harcourt. 2003. 97 - 100. This very short article is included in the Mrs. Dalloway Reader. It is a helpful interpretation of the Waves as a brilliant first-person narrative in league with Notes from Underground and Remembrance of Things Past.
Hilsenroth, Mark J. and Segal, Daniel L. Comprehensive Handbook of Psychological Assessment. Volume 2: Personality Assessment. “Detection of Child Sexual Abuse”. John Wiley and Sons. (2003?) 459-461. Gives background on various methods and analysis of psychological testing and evaluation, i.e., how does one conclude that a child has been sexually abused?
Hussey, Mark. Virginia Woolf A to Z: A Comprehensive Reference for Students, Teachers, and Common Readers to Her Life, Work and Critical Reception. Facts on File. 1995. This book is very handy for quick Woolf facts that one needs on the fly.
Johnson, Manly. Virginia Woolf. Frederick Unsgar Publishing. 1973. Published a year after Bell’s biography, this book is a very short introduction to Woolf’s life and some criticism on her work that was helpful as a contrast to later biographies.
Pipher, Mary, Ph.D. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Ballantine Books. 1994. Popular book that addresses problems facing young adolescent girls today and what adults can do to help girls survive in a male oriented society. These kinds of books have been popular recently; even spawning boy counterparts like Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys.
Swanson, Diana. "Safe Space or Danger Zone?: Incest and the Paradox
of Writing in Woolf's Life." in Creating Safe Space: Violence and Women’s Writing. Ed. Tomoko Kuribayashi and Julie Tharp. Albany: State U of New York P, 1997. 79–99. Writes about how when victims of sexual abuse speak “out” about their experiences it may at times have oppressive rather than liberatory consequences.
Ward Jouve, Nicole. "Virginia Woolf and Psychoanalysis" in The Cambridge companion to Virginia Woolf edited by Sue Roe and Susan Sellers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 246-252. This is a an extract from pages in The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf that provided a psychological reading, especially, of Woolf’s own biographical work.
Woolf, Virginia. Moments of being: unpublished autobiographical writings, 1882-1941. Provides invaluable insight into Woolf’s conception of her own body as she herself viewed it from different stages in her career.
----------------------. Edited by Francine Prose. Mrs. Dalloway Reader. Harcourt. 2003. This critical edition not only provides the complete text of the novel but also includes invaluable selections from her journals, letters and early prose works like Mrs. Dalloway’s Party and a delicious map of Mrs. Dalloway’s walk. The article by Mary Gordon (see cit.) was very helpful in my paper’s evolution.
----------------------. To the Lighthouse. Harcourt Brace. 1955. Probably Woolf’s most taught book in schools, it is a family drama on a rocky beach in Scotland divided in three parts. In this essay I focus on James and his relationship to his father and how his father disavows his wishes to go see the Lighthouse.
----------------------. Orlando. Harcourt Brace. Woolf’s most playful piece on the body in space; the body in this novel metamorphoses from man to woman -- Orlando is not ashamed of her body, not afraid of standing in front of the mirror in awe.
-----------------------. The Waves. Harcourt Brace. Considered one of Woolf’s most difficult books, it is probably the chef d’oeuvre of her life’s work, especially the portrayal it gives of abuse; the novel is the disembodied voice of six narrators replete with metaphysical images of the sea and waves.