Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 06 Dec 2017

Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf

In reading Virginia Woolf’s fiction I have often been aware that it is deeply informed by her own life and family circumstances, that as well as being of Bloomsbury, it is also to some degree about the conditions that gave rise to Bloomsbury, and this has generally been something of a barrier, because it makes me realise that I don’t know enough about Woolf the person to be able to understand the novels fully. And yet at the same time I am reluctant – that is, not interested enough – to read a lengthy biography of her or a history of the Bloomsbury circle.

Well, recently, I finally got round to reading Moments of Being, the small collection of Virginia Woolf’s only autobiographical writings first published in the mid-70s and expanded and reissued in the mid-80s when further manuscript material came to light.

There are five works of reminiscence in the book, the longest being a piece called Sketch of the Past, which Woolf began to draft in 1939 as war loomed, and which she worked on sporadically up to late-1940 – just months prior to her death, in fact. While somewhat scrappy  – these were only intended as notes towards a memoir which she hoped to complete at some point in the future – the piece is fascinating because unlike the novels, where Woolf is present only as a sort of thinking presence, a consciousness, if you like, here you encounter her as an ordinary flesh-and-blood woman who is struggling with not just the high-falutin ideas of Bloomsbury but also with almost overwhelming family and domestic problems of a recognisable kind.

The other pieces – one written as a sort of gift for Vanessa’s first child, another as to be read to a meeting of her circle – are in some respects more fully developed and are complete pieces of writing in themselves.

In my view the greatest service that the book performs is that in barely more than 150 pages it gives a deep insight into the family and domestic life that formed Virginia Woolf the person and the writer – the successive hammer blows of bereavement which saw her, by the age of 24, losing first her mother (a towering, irrepressible figure, the engine of the family), then her older step-sister, then her father and finally her favourite brother.

One also has to understand – as I had failed to – that the vast (but somewhat cobbled together) family house at 22 Hyde Park Gate in fact held what I think Woolf herself refers to as an entire republic – a microcosm of Victorian society, the children (eight in total) of three marriages, and (certainly as far as the children were concerned) two families rather than a single one: the Stephen clan (Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby, Adrian) and ‘the others’ (George, Stella and Gerald, the children of her mother’s first marriage). And if you’re counting, you are right – that does leave one child out: Laura, Sir Leslie Stephen’s daughter from his previous marriage: she was institutionalised in 1891.

The catastrophe which befell the family was the death of Virginia’s mother, Julia Stephen, aged just 49 in 1895, when Virginia was barely thirteen. In the years that followed, this left Virginia and Vanessa especially ‘fully exposed without protection to the full blast of that strange character’ – their father, a desperate, grieving, tyrannical Victorian paterfamilias.

Whatever other causes Virginia Woolf’s mental instability may have had, there can be no doubt that these early bereavements followed by a further seven years of their father’s crushing rages, along with the unwanted sexual attentions of at least one of her two step-brothers, contributed to the nervous breakdowns which plagued her from her teenage years on.

I had thought that Virginia and Vanessa and whoever else had simply wafted from Hyde Park Gate to the first of their Bloomsbury squares on a magic carpet of privilege and inherited wealth. And of course judged by any current standards, there is some truth in this, but I had no understanding of what her early years had held, and even less of the immediacy of the social, intellectual and sexual revolution that she and Vanessa and eventually the rest of the Bloomsbury circle were engaged in.

For one might almost say that Bloomsbury represented two quite different revolutions or experiments in living. For the Bloomsbury circle – largely Adrian’s Cambridge friends transplanted to London and augmented over the years by various kindred spirits – it was largely an intellectual revolution. But for Virginia and Vanessa it was a revolution conducted at close quarters, an almost hand-to-hand struggle to free themselves of a set of social and family conventions that even when their father was alive were fifty years out of date. ‘Two different ages confronted each other in the drawing room at Hyde Park Gate,’ Woolf says. ‘The Victorian and the Edwardian age.’ So distant were they in attitude and sensibility from their father (and the two step brothers, George and Gerald, both impeccable Victorians), that it would, according to Woolf, have been better if there had ‘been a generation between us to cushion the contact’. ‘We were not his children,’ she says; ‘we were grandchildren.’

If you hate Woolf, or find her fiction impenetrable, or loathe the whole Bloomsbury crowd, then nothing will convince you to read this book – I do understand that. But if you find her a fascinating character and are looking for something that will help unlock the riches of her particular interpretation of modernism, then I think you’ll find this satisfying. I have read nothing else about Woolf that has offered the kind of concentrated insights that this book has. Hermione Lee, writing in the introduction, says the book ‘is of the utmost importance for anyone interested in Woolf – or in autobiography, or in women’s lives, or in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century English society…it has changed the way her life story is read, and it throws a strong and illuminating light on her fiction.’ Exactly. Highly recommended for fans, sceptics and the undecided alike.


Alun Severn

December 2017