Spender on Woolf

In The Listener, April, 1941, there is a tribute by Stephen Spender on the death of Virginia Woolf. Below is the full text.


 Vanessa Bell’s Portrait of Virginia Woolf

In these dark times, the death of Virginia Woolf cannot strike her circle of friends and admirers except as a light which has gone out. Whatever its significance, her loss is irreparable. Her strength-and perhaps also her weakness lay in her rare mind and personality. Moreover, the quality of what she created had the undiluted purity of one of those essentially uncorrupted natures which seem set aside from the world for a special task by the strangest conjunction of fortune and misfortune.

Yet when one thinks of what Virginia Woolf achieved, her life appears far more a wonderful triumph over many difficulties than in any sense a defeat. In a different time or in different circumstances, she might well have died far younger and with far less finished. As it is, although she died at the height of her powers, she had completed the work of a lifetime. The history of other writers who have suffered from ill-health shows how much there is here to be grateful for.

Her best novels, or prose poems in the form of fiction, are The Voyage Out, Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves. Although all of these novels have tn common the qualities which distinguish her writing, they differ not merely in portraying different material, but in having different artistic aims. Indeed the artistic aims in Virginia Woolf‘s novels are far more varied than the material, which is somewhat narrow and limited.

Most novelists having achieved, by about their third novel, a mature style, continue to write novels in that style, but covering different aspects of experience. With Virginia Woolf, however, style, form and material are indivisible. With every new novel she was ‘trying to do something different’, especially with time. For example, the whole action of Mrs. Dalloway takes place in one day: the first long section of To the Lighthouse describes a scene lasting for perhaps an afternoon ; this is followed by a very short section describing the passage of several years, illustrated by the decay of an empty house. Orlando is a fantastic account of someone who lives for several hundred years. beginning as a man and turning into a woman. The Waves is a poetic account of people seen through each other’s minds through all their lives, speaking their thoughts in poetic imagery to each other. A new way of writing a book was simply a new way of looking at life for Virginia Woolf : she held life like a crystal which she turned over in her hands and looked at from another angle. But a crystal is too static an image; for, of course, she knew that the crystal flowed.

It is a well known device of composers to take a theme and write variations on it. The same tune which is trivial in one light passage in a major key is profound in a minor key scored differently; at times the original tune seems lost while the harmonies explore transcendent depths far beyond the character of the original theme; now the tune runs fleetingly past us; now it is held back so that time itself seems slowed down or stretched out. This musical quality is the essence of Virginia Woolf ’s writing. The characters she creates – Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay are well defined to be sure, but they are only the theme through which she explores quite other harmonics of time, death, poetry and a love which is more mysterious and less sensual than ordinary human love.

A passage from To the Lighthouse will illustrate the ’ beauty which she could achieve Mr. Ramsay, who is a philosopher – almost a great Victorian – faces the sense of his own an failure: and what are two thousand years? (asked Mr. Ramsay ironically staring at the hedge). What, indeed, if you look from a mountain top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still. (He looked into the darkness, into the intricacy of the twigs.) Who then could blame the leader of that forlorn party which after all has climbed high enough to see the waste of the years and the perishing of stars, if before death stiffens his limbs beyond the power of movement he does a little consciously raise his numbed fingers to his brow, and square his shoulders, so that when the search party comes they will find him dead at his post, the line figure of a soldier. Mr. Ramsay squared his shoulders and stood very upright by the urn. This passage has all Virginia Woolf ’s virtues, and perhaps some of her defects. It starts off by being very faithful even in its irony to the thoughts of Mr. Ramsay. She takes one of those plunges beyond the present situation of her character into the past and the future which strikes one often in her writing as a night of pure poetic genius. But then the focus shifts and the writer has forgotten her character’s thoughts, or perhaps she is regarding him from the outside. But the image of the leader of the expedition in the snow is a little too general, and one begins to wonder whether she hasn’t strayed too far from the particular.

As with the impressionist painters, there are opposing tendencies in her novels. The one is centrifugal, the tendency for everything to dissolve into diffused light and in the brilliant detachment with which their surroundings flow through her characters’ minds. The other is centripetal-the tremendous preoccupation with form which nevertheless holds her novels together and makes them far more significant than if they were just the expression of a new way of looking at life. This doubtless reflects an acute nervous tension in her own mind between a two great sensitivity which tended to disintegrate into uncoordinated impressions, and a noble and sane determination not to lose hold of the central thread.

To have known Virginia Woolf is a great privilege, because it is to have known an extraordinary and poetic and beautiful human being. Some critics describe her as forbidding and austere. Her austerity was not that of a closed-in or a prudish mind. As with all genuinely intelligent people, one could discuss anything with her with the greatest frankness; she was far too interested in life to make narrow moral judgements. Perhaps she was a little too impatient towards stupidity and tactlessness; it is a gift to writers to suffer fools gladly. To be with her was a joy, because her delight and her awareness of everything around her communicated themselves easily and immediately to her friends. What was written on her beautiful unforgettable face was not severity at all, though there was some melancholy; but most of all there was the devotion and discipline which go with the task of poetic genius, together with the price in the way of nervous strain and physical weakness which doubtless she had to pay.

Virginia’s Death


Leonard and Virginia Woolf had retreated from London to their country home, Monk’s House, Rodmell. Virginia Woolf’s apartments at 52 Tavistock Square and 37 Mecklenburgh Square were both blitz damaged and the countryside was more peaceful for both to work in. Rodmell, like Charleston are both located south-east of Lewes.


 Monk’s House, Rodmell

In 1940 Virginia had published a biography on her late friend Roger Fry and in the wartime conditions the, reviews were not abundant and although she had finished the manuscript for her last (posthumously published) novel, ‘Between the Acts’ she fell into depression and was unable to write.


 Virigina Woolf’s writing shed in the garden of Monk’s House. 

Virginia had chosen to take her life and on that day was missing from Monks House, she had left a letter for him. After looking all over the house and garden Leonard was sure she would have gone to the river:

“I ran across the fields down to the river and almost immediately found her walking-stick lying upon the bank. I searched for some time and then went back to the house and informed the police.

On 28 March 1941, Woolf drowned herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home.

Woolf’s body was not found until 18 April. Her husband buried her cremated remains beneath an elm tree in the garden of Monk’s House, their home in Rodmell, Sussex.

On the day of her death Leonard wrote:

I found the following letter on the writing block in her work-room. At about eleven on the morning of March 28 I had gone to see her in her writing-room and found her writing on the block. She came into the house with me, leaving the writing-block in her room. She must, I think, have written the letter which she left for me on the mantelpiece (and a letter to Vanessa) in the house immediately afterwards. 

Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Note to 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. V.

Virginia Woolf’s Letter to her sister, Vanessa Bell.

You can’t think how I loved your letter. But I feel that I have gone too far this time to come back again. I am certain now that I am going mad again. It is just as it was the first time, I am always hearing voices, and I know I shan’t get over it now. All I want to say is that Leonard has been so astonishingly good, every day, always; I can’t imagine that anyone could have done more for me than he has. We have been perfectly happy until the last few weeks, when this horror began. Will you assure him of this? I feel he has so much to do that he will go on, better without me, and you will help him.
I can hardly think clearly any more. If I could I would tell you that you and the children have meant to me. I think you know. 

I have fought against it, but I can’t any longer. – Virginia.


 Front cover of the New York Times, 3rd April 1941.

The news that Virginia was missing was posted in the papers, and although her body was not washed up for two and a half weeks it was presumed she was lost, feared dead.

Below the two quotes are from the diaries of Frances Partridge, wife of Ralph. Although she seams unaffected, it was maybe from being on the outer orbit of the Bloomsbury group.

April 3rd
Opening The Times this morning I read with astonishment: “We regret to announce that the death of Mrs. Virginia Woolf, missing since last Friday, must now be presumed.” From the discreet notice that followed it seems that she is presumed to have drowned herself in the river near Rodmell. An attack of her recurring madness I suppose; the thought of self-destruction is terrible, dramatic and pathetic, and yet (because it is the product of the human will) has an Aristotelian inevitability about it, making it very different from all the other sudden deaths we have to contemplate.

April 8th
Sat out on the verandah, trying to write to Clive in answer to his letter about Virginia’s death. He says: “For some days, of course, we hoped against hope that she had wandered crazily away and might be discovered in a barn or a village shop. But by now all hope is abandoned … It became evident some weeks ago that she was in for another of those long agonizing breakdowns of which she has had several already. The prospect two years insanity, then to wake up to the sort of world which two years of war will have made, was such that I can’t feel sure that she was unwise. Leonard, as you may suppose, is very calm and sensible. Vanessa is, apparently at least, less affected than Duncan, Quentin and I had looked for and feared. I dreaded some such physical collapse as befell her after Julian was killed. For the rest of us the loss is appalling, but like all unhappiness that comes of ‘missing’, I suspect we shall realize it only bit by bit.”

After the funeral of Virgina, Leonard buried her ashes at the foot of the great elm tree in their garden. There were two great elms there with boughs interlaced which they always called Leonard and Virginina. In the first week of January 1943, in a great gale one of the elms was blown down.

Leonard Woolf – The Journey not the Arrival Matters, Hogarth Press, 1969.
Frances Partidge – A Pacifist’s War, Hogarth Press, 1978
New York Times, 3rd April 1941.