ON SEPTEMBER 28, 2021, CHANEL posted a video on YouTube, which seemed to serve a single purpose: The French fashion powerhouse posited that beyond the ‘femininity’ of its perfumes and watches, makeup and skincare products, it also wanted to further an enabling ‘feminism’. Sponsors of ‘Rendez-vous littéraires rue Cambon’ (Literary Rendezvous at Rue Cambon), Chanel invited Jeanette Winterson to pay tribute to Virginia Woolf. With actor Keira Knightley starting with a reading from ‘Professions for Women’, a 1931 lecture Woolf had given at the Women’s Service League in Britain, the stage was once again set. Virginia Woolf, always hungry for truth, for change, was now coming back for seconds.
Knightley never did exaggerate the drama of Woolf’s original text. She didn’t have to. ‘Professions for Women’ still has a kind of bite that can wound patriarchy. In her speech, Woolf refers to ‘The Angel in the House’, a paragon of female docility and submissiveness that Coventry Patmore had conjured for his popular 1854 verse-novel. Every time, Woolf says, she sat down to review a novel by a famous man (she regularly contributed to the Times Literary Supplement) she was forced to battle the phantom of Patmore’s ‘The Angel in the House’. Woolf writes that she could feel the apparition whisper: “My dear, you are a young woman. You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.” Woolf’s protestations soon become aggressive.
Rather than ignore or silence this voice, Woolf decides she can only get on with her task if she kills ‘The Angel in the House’: “I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.” A little more than 90 years on, many writing rooms of women authors are still such haunted houses, and in her tribute, Winterson says that Woolf’s struggles seem modern, “not only because those problems are still prescient, are still with us, are still things that all of us, men and women alike, need to grapple with, but also because her mind was so ahead of itself. It was so fresh!”
Woolf doesn’t need a Chanel broadcast to speak to us again. But seeing Winterson and Knightley sit across a coffee table and reinvoke Woolf’s almost blinding luminosity, one feels forced to ask even more far-reaching questions: While it seems certain that there is much that Woolf can tell us about how we write, and even about how we live, how would she respond to the world of today, if she were here to see it? More importantly, perhaps, how would the world have reacted to her? Even as Winterson and her colleagues keep finding hope in the reservoirs of Woolf’s literature, is Virginia, really, ‘woke’ enough?
BEFORE IT WAS appropriated and abused, “stay woke” was once a watchword that Black Lives Matter activists in the US used to warn one another of sudden police brutality. While it is hard to pinpoint a time or place when “woke” became shorthand for all leftist ideology, it quickly started to define and delineate a moral steadfastness that was all-prevailing, all-perfect. In recent years, social media has provided ‘wokeness’ the many ethical referendums it has needed to thrive, but with its critics always ridiculing its ambitions as naïve utopianism, dismissing its strategies as high-handed, the term now, strangely, also implies its own critique. Ethics are one thing, but moral correctness can soon start to seem too preachy and pedantic, unseemly and unnecessary. Large swathes of woke activists have had to fight the impulse of becoming gatekeepers they despise.
We find in so much of Woolf’s writing—be it her novels or short stories, essays or diaries, letters or lectures—lines and passages that demand moral and societal transformation, but nowhere do we find the sanctimony of a woke proselytiser, or for that matter, the anger of an unthinking rebel.
Not one to suffer mansplaining pedants, Woolf, however, seemed aware that a sizeable portion of her readers were men. In his essay, ‘Anger and Conciliation in Woolf’s Feminism’, Alex Zwerdling sets us off by saying, “Virginia Woolf’s two discursive books about women’s lives, A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), are both attempts to find a vehicle to accommodate her twin needs in writing those works: the urge to vent her anger about the subjection of women, and the urge to conciliate the male audience she could never entirely ignore.” While there is no denying the rage that informs her work, Woolf, at many points, is seen softening her blows. Though she seems resolute in her belief that directly expressing her anger will kill her art, Adrienne Rich once wondered if Woolf cowered because she saw even in a room full of women, an inescapable shadow of her male listeners.
Rich says she was left “astonished” by the “tone” of A Room of One’s Own: “I recognised that tone. I had heard it often enough, in myself and in other women. It is the tone of a woman almost in touch with her anger, who is determined not to appear angry, who is willing herself to be calm, detached.” In her criticism, Rich, a feminist poet, seems to suggest that Woolf consistently dragged herself back from a precipice whose conquest would have been radical for both the author and reader.
Like Rich, today’s woke attitudes are often predicated on a keen, brimming wrath. Our tweets that oppose oppression and discrimination must be incensed. Our posts bank on outrage when trying to go viral. Woolf’s desire for anonymity, especially in her later years, might well have made her renounce social media altogether, but to think of her avoidance of anger as inadequacy, or even cowardice, will force us to miss a crucial point. A Room…, for instance, campaigns for a woman’s right to equality and education with a sharpness that very few of Woolf’s successors have since been able to replicate. Woolf would never let a male voice, “now grumbling, now patronising, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone,” muffle her own.
THE TRULY ‘WOKE READER’ might find in Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style of fiction a few hidden keys that unlock the universe, or at least the selves and societies we inhabit, but an author’s life seems to matter as much as her art today. Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf, for instance, explains Woolf’s aversion to anger with great nuance. Manic-depressive, or ‘bipolar’ as we would now call her, Woolf associated anger with the extremities of her manic spells. Blaming herself for the rage that invariably engulfed her, she considered her madness a crime, and without the advent of Lithium or any other mood-stabiliser, Woolf’s regime for recovery was in and of itself a punishment: dark rooms, rich food, bed rest, and yet more cripplingly, no writing.
Lee writes, “Virginia Woolf was a sane woman who had an illness. She was often a patient, but she was not a victim […] On the contrary, she was a person of exceptional courage, intelligence and stoicism, who made the best use she could, and came to the deepest understanding possible to her, of her own condition. She endured, periodically, great agony of mind and severe physical pain, with remarkably little self-pity.” One can only wonder what the internet would’ve made of someone who seemed more interested in picking up the pieces rather than counting them, one who acknowledged the sexual abuse of her childhood, without ever making it a badge.
In retrospect, one marvels at Woolf’s support system, too. Led by her husband, Leonard, and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s network of carers even included the likes of Vita Sackville-West, a fellow writer who Woolf loved, ardently and amorously. Lee tells us that Woolf wrote much of To the Lighthouse pining for Vita. First published in the October of 1928, Orlando then tells the story of a poet who changes sex from man to woman, lives for centuries, hobnobbing with the best and brightest the English literary scene had to offer. Both satire and parody, Orlando is first a tribute to Vita Sackwille-West, a woman whose love and lust together left Woolf nourished and transformed.
We find in so much of Virginia Woolf’s writing, passages that demand moral and societal transformation, but nowhere do we find the sanctimony of a woke proselytiser, or the anger of an unthinking rebel
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In Orlando, which tackles themes that several communities—‘L’, ‘G’, ‘B’, ‘T’, ‘Q’ and ‘I’—can identify with even today, Woolf offers us a rare model of mobile androgyny that inches us closer to a more holistic understanding of sex and gender: “Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.” Woolf seems to be hinting at one universal, human truth each time she addresses her protagonist: There is an Orlando in every one of us.
VIRGINIA WOOLF KNEW about the power of pronouns long before it came to disrupt the zeitgeist. One passage in Orlando reads, “Orlando had become a woman—there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.” Woolf’s instinctive use of “their” in Orlando shows not only her iconoclasm, but also her deep sensitivity to matters of gender. Her father’s bigotry and parsimony may have denied her a formal education, but it is her dogged quest for clarity in the face of complexity that makes her bigger than any group she belonged to—Bloomsbury or otherwise.
Despite its campaign for plurality, ‘wokeness’ sometimes demands too much of its proponents. Today, it isn’t just enough for someone to believe in the good. They would have to have done so perennially. Woolf played to an ever-changing beat that refused easy simplifications. She might have been a snob at times—she dismissed the fiction of Katherine Mansfield as shallow and sentimental when she felt threatened—but by setting up the Hogarth Press with Leonard, Woolf gave many authors, several of them women, a loyal audience they might have never had. Even if she did, at times, censor herself and her anger, she made sure her women colleagues never had to.
We all know how the story ends. “I have often thought about Woolf, witty, brilliant, despairing, filling her pockets with stones and walking into the river,” writes Deborah Levy in her memoir Real Estate. “I don’t know why it is her suicide in particular that so personally hurts and haunts me.” We, too, ask similar questions. Should we think of Woolf as brave or weak? Should we think of her demons or the war? The answer, perhaps, lies elsewhere, somewhere deep in her fiction. Ali Smith, for one, prefaced Genius and Ink, a collection of Woolf’s TLS literary criticism, by saying, “Woolf is a writer for whom, for instance, in To the Lighthouse, a mere cupboard, with some drinking glasses in it which suddenly clink for what seems no fathomable reason, marks a reverberation so far away that it hardly registers on human consciousness but will all the same shake us to the core, will mean a world war, a great and terrible loss, a momentous understanding. This is a writer for whom everything is invested with life and death and the imagination it takes to read and write both.” If asked to join the woke ranks, Woolf, one feels, would have agreed to sign up only if she were guaranteed “wakefulness” first.
About The Author
Shreevatsa Nevatia is the author of How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia
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