In the wake of Virginia Woolf
For 59 years, Virginia Woolf lived fruitfully, despite having to endure recurrent mental and physical illness. On the 80th anniversary of her death, I celebrate her courage and determination, and the luminous work -- often shimmering with water imagery -- that she created.
When I imagined Virginia Woolf's suicide, I couldn’t help envisioning John Everett Millais’ famous, prettified painting of the death of Ophelia. I would overlay Woolf’s youthful profile, as captured in the famous photo by George Charles Beresford – the heartbreakingly sensitive face framed, as Ophelia’s is in the painting, by abundant hair. The river itself I imagined to be like Millais’ – bucolic, fringed with reeds and softened by a velvety bank.
I knew I was romanticizing. But it was a still a shock to discover that the River Ouse -- at least the stretch where Woolf died on 28 March 1941 -- could be described as an inhospitable ditch. It defies romanticising and wears, nakedly, the ugliness of the event for which it is notorious.
The Ouse has greener stretches to the north. But the southern section, a few minutes’ walk from Woolf’s home in the village of Rodmell, is a bald channel, angular and unswerving, unadorned by trees or foliage.
Spiky grass bristles on its steep banks. The brackish water is subject to powerful currents from its mouth, located a mile away, on the English Channel at Seaford. The first time I saw the Ouse, at high tide under glowering March skies, the water looked corrosive, as if a limb dipped in would emerge skinless.
Its brutality is starker for the beauty of the countryside that surrounds it.
The South Downs, a series of rolling hills, lie here at the foot of England like a cast-off eiderdown. They billow, russet and radiant green in winter, sun-bleached gold in summer. In the exquisite light of a long June evening, they shimmer and fairly vibrate with beneficent energy. “Too much for one pair of eyes,” Woolf wrote in the 1930s, “enough to float a whole population in happiness if only they would look.”
Happiness was elusive in 1941, as war cast its fearful darkness over the England, and Woolf’s fragile mental health unravelled. The Germans were conquering the continent, beating toward England like an unstoppable black tide. Their bombers bruised the sky above Rodmell, and, I imagine, flew so low that Woolf could have out the perverse black crosses, like maimed birds, on their wings.
She and her Jewish husband, Leonard, were Nazi targets, their names inscribed on a list of those the enemy would come for after the conquest -- a palpable prospect in 1941.
The river drew her in.
* * *
From early childhood, water was essential to Woolf, and to her work. Throughout her writing, water themes and images lap and gleam. She often expressed the act of writing with metaphors of swimming -- plunging, diving, and bringing up pearls -- and her mental state as boiling, bubbling or freshly flowing. It’s no wonder that her signature mode of literary expression was the stream of consciousness.
The crucial experiences of her life were set against rivers and the sea, and three locations in particular lure anyone who wants to swim in her wake.
The first is St Ives, Cornwall, where she spent long childhood summers surrounded by the incessant sighing of the wind and pulse of the sea. She described a seminal moment:
"If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.”
Cornwall was ecstasy of physical freedom and release from the strictures of Victorian London. But the idyll ended abruptly with the death of Woolf’s mother when the author was 13. It triggered the first of her debilitating mental ailments, accompanied by physical distress, that recurred throughout her life. She suffered further difficulties in her teens: her beloved half-sister and mother figure, Stella, died suddenly. Her half-brother sexually molested her.
In her early 20s, she was bracingly liberated, along with her sister Vanessa, from stifling family constraints by the death of their domineering father. Swimming during this period was a physical expression of the freedom Woolf had attained from societal constraints. It mirrored her plunge into important friendships with her brother’s Cambridge classmates, including Leonard Woolf, and her thrilling immersion into writing, literature and ideas.
The nineteenth-century Romantic poet, Lord Byron, had famously swum in Cambridge, at Grantchester Meadows, in a pool of the River Cam -- and Woolf and her friends followed, including a notorious skinny-dip that Woolf shared with the poet Rupert Brooke, whom W.B.Yeats described as the handsomest young man in England.
Neither of them left an account of the experience, but you’d imagine it to have been slightly fraught if not painfully awkward – the repressed young Victorians playing at paganism. Brook and Woolf both are noted for their hesitant and amorphous sexuality – so it’s hard to conceive the dip could have been very comfortable or carefree.
The two artists may have been attuned to the paradox: immersion in a lovely, natural pool is wild, sensuous, hedonistic and primal. But at the same time, the cold water and exposure to the English elements, even in summer, mortifies the flesh – reminiscent of mandated cold baths at boarding school.
Woolf was always keenly aware of such duality; and she recognised that water, the source of life can also devastate and destroy.
Early in her life, water figured in a moment of existential darkness that cast a lifelong shadow on her consciousness. In her novel The Waves, she relives the moment through the character Rhoda, whose turbulent mental state mirrors Woolf’s during periods of illness. The description reflects Woolf’s childhood experience, as recounted in her private writing.
“There is a puddle, said Rhoda, and I cannot cross it. I hear the rush of the great grindstone within an inch of my head. Its wind roars in my face. All palpable forms of life have failed me. Unless I can stretch and touch something hard, I shall be blown down the eternal corridors forever. What then can I touch? What brick, what stone? and so draw myself across the enormous gulf into my body safely.”
In a further passage, Rhoda evokes garlanded Ophelia and prefigures Woolf’s fate as she imagines casting blossoms – and then herself – into the sea: “The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling me over the waves will shoulder me under.”
Of the key water sites of Woolf’s life, the Ouse has the most striking duality – part fresh water, part salt; partly beautiful and partly hideous. The two-hearted river; bracingly invigorating and vital, but holding the power to subsume and drown.
Today I honour Woolf's gift for holding the dualities of light and darkness, health and illness, life and death, and transforming them into incadescent works of art.
Gallery: On a hot afternoon in July 2018, I celebrated Virginia Woolf with a swim in the River Ouse together my friends Sharon Massey and photographer Sarah Saunders, who took these pictures. Clockwise from top left: the Ouse near Rodmell, view north to Lewes; swimming against the high-tide current in the brackish water; the bridge at Southease, the village just south of Rodmell ; beneath the chilly water; surfacing; post swim.