Women need their own room - Virginia Woolf
What is the meaning of life? ... a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark. –Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
I have long wanted to write a book entitled “Not to take the stones out.”
I don’t know what the book would be about—trivial matter, that—but I have the title (isn’t that the hardest part of writing a book anyway?)
The title comes from the death of writer Virginia Woolf who, at age 59, wrote a note to her husband, put stones in her pockets, and walked into the River Ouse near her house. Her body was found almost a month later by children playing on the river’s bank.
What an act of will and determination it was not to take the stones out, and what an act of desperation, a coping mechanism she couldn’t, perhaps, be saved from, recognizing the coming signs of the madness that killed her, the madness that no doubt made her a writer in the way that she was a writer, breaking apart from the mold to give us interior worlds in stream of consciousness prose. Before leaving for the river that last time, she wrote to her husband, Leonard:
I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier 'til this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.
It is believed--after the fact, not while she was alive--that Virginia Woolf suffered from bipolar disorder, her first breakdown occurring when her mother died and Virginia was only thirteen. Her half-sister Stella died only two years later. As she would later write in A Room of One’s Own: “The beauty of the world ... has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.”
Her work would be punctuated by periods of great depression until the end: “My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery—always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? What’s this passion for?” (from a letter dated 28 Dec. 1932).
The inscription in my worn, small paperback copy of Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, reads “March 1982.” Twenty-six years ago I met its main character, Clarissa, and followed her through one day of her life as she prepares to give a party, following as she made her way on a walk through London, and as she glanced at herself in a mirror:
"How many million times she had seen her face, and always with the same imperceptible contraction! She pursed her lips when she looked in the glass. It was to give her face point. That was her self--pointed; dartlike; definite. That was her self when some effort, some call on her to be her self, drew the parts together, she alone knew how different, how incompatible and composed so for the world only into one centre, one diamond, one woman who sat in her drawing-room and made a meeting-point, a radiancy no doubt in some dull lives, a refuge for the lonely to come to, perhaps; she had helped young people, who were grateful to her; had tried to be the same always, never showing a sign of all the other sides of her--faults, jealousies, vanities, suspicions, like this of Lady Bruton not asking her to lunch; which, she thought (combing her hair finally), is utterly base! Now, where was her dress?"
Clarissa is a woman with a rich internal life: "It was unsatisfactory..how little one knew people. But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not 'here, here, here'; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter--even trees, or barns. It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death, allowed her to believe that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that...perhaps—perhaps."
I have long loved her description of connection, as Clarissa rests, thinking of her friends: “And they went further and further from her, being attached to her by a thin thread (since they had lunched with her) which would stretch and stretch, get thinner and thinner as they walked across London; as if one's friends were attached to one's body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread, which (as she dozed there) became hazy with the sound of bells, striking the hour or ringing to service, as a single spider's thread is blotted with rain-drops, and, burdened, sags down. So she slept.”
Open my small paperback edition of To the Lighthouse and find pages of notes, the flyleaf covered: “Expansion of self where she becomes the thing she looks at.” “Transference of qualities—joy of mother to refrigerator.” “Magnifies one day in the life of Mrs Ramsey—mere parenthesis of her death.” “Distribution of time distinctly modern.”
I realize as I see my notes in the margins that I read differently now, from a different space and with different eyes, a less academic and more experienced one, one less intent on impressing and more on identifying with. My notes today might not ever use the phrase “transference of qualities,” or “mythological life force,” but might say, “me, too,” or, simply, “yes, yes.”
A writer—I believe it was Annie Dillard—was featured in Oprah’s O magazine some time ago, standing in front of a small, one-room wooden structure in which she writes. As she explained, there isn’t much in it, just a large leather couch for afternoon naps, and a desk. No photographs of children or family because, as she put it, “I must be an orphan when I write.”
As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own: "I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee's life of the poet. She died young--alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh."
And, as Virginia Woolf first told us, we must have a room of our own in which to write, a space internal that is fully and wholly our own, if not a physical space where we can quietly fold our hands, not dishcloths or the pajamas of small children, and ponder. And in our writing, we must strike matches in the dark, starting with the dark that lies within us. Because that dark will connect to the dark of another and another, like the thin thread of a spider web. And those threads connecting will keep us all whole.