Monday, February 7, 2011

Virginia Woolf -- Aquarian

Virginia Woolf is obviously one of the originators of the modern novel, a ground-breaking writer whose personal life was nearly as interesting as her work.

I think that would embarrass Virginia, to be honest.

The best biography of this fascinating woman (and Aquarian) is the one by Hermoine Lee (who is  Pisces, if we want to go on...).

Her family was a very strong connection for her, and had a huge impact on her as an artist and a woman. Her father was a Victorian phenomenon, well-known throughout London and a very opinionated man.

Lee's biography contextualizes Woolf's work within her life and within the nexus of a post-Victorian world. WWI changed everything--in essence, ended everything--about the world Woolf had grown up in. Clearly, Woolf also had a recurring mental disorder; whether she was bipolar, clinically depressed, or manic-depressive is unclear. There was also the possibility that she and her sister were sexually abused by their half-brothers, although nothing was documented at the time and there is no conclusive evidence. She remained close to her sister Vanessa throughout her life.

In 1900, she was first published; her first novel was published in 1915. In 1912, she married Leonard Woolf. Around 1910 was the forming of the Bloomsbury Group, where Virginia found herself in a mix wth writers, artists, and contemporary critics. In 1917, Leonard and Virginia founded The Hogarth Press, where her novels were subsequently published.

Her novels are experiments in space and time, where the narratives twist around and the notion of "story" is something other than it was during her childhood, in the great novels of Dickens and James, for example. Perhaps this is in part because she is a woman writing in a post-WWI world. Her suicide in 1941 rather brackets her work between the wars and captures a time and mindset of the 1920s and 1930s in Britain, perhaps Europe, in the same manner Fitzgerald and Hemingway capture the American point of view.

Her novels are difficult. Reading them is an exercise in mental gymnastics, in the best possible way. I am still working through them, thanks to Lee's biography which reignited my interest.

I find it amazing that despite the depression, she was so productive. In her time, the solution to her depression was to refrain from writing... which must have made her worse, as a creative person and a driven artist. But no chemical solutions, either. Bed rest and no work... and yet she continued to write and write innovative structures and narratives. Wow.

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