A Passionate Apprentice

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The novels, short stories, and essays of Virginia Woolf have always attracted attention from thoughtful critics and writers, but during the 1950’s and 1960’s it was difficult to find copies of her books. There were exceptions; significantly, the highly influential critic Erich Auerbach included an analysis of To the Lighthouse (1927) in his Mimesis (1946; English translation, 1953). In 1962, Edward Albee gave his popular play the title Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In 1972, a biography of Woolf written by her nephew Quentin Bell became a best-seller, an indication that Woolf had begun to acquire a popular audience.

The feminist movement has been so successful in calling attention to Woolf’s talents that any survey of twentieth century British writers will now include Virginia Woolf. All of her novels are back in print and have been translated into more than fifty languages. Her short stories, essays, and reviews have been collected and edited, as have her unfinished manuscripts. Woolf’s autobiographical writing has been edited in a collection entitled Moments of Being (1976) by Jeanne Schulkind. Her letters, diaries, and even her reading notes are being published. Mitchell Leaska’s edition of Virginia Woolf’s early journals thus belongs to the growing body of information regarding Woolf and her works. Leaska’s edition consists of seven notebooks covering the period extending from 1897, when Woolf was fifteen, until 1909, when she was twenty- seven.

Virginia was born Adeline Virginia Stephen, the daughter of Leslie Stephen, the primary editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, a voluminous and monumental reference series describing the lives of writers and public officials in Great Britain. In addition to her parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen, her large Victorian family included Laura Stephen, a mentally deficient daughter from her father’s previous marriage to Minnie Thackeray, three children from the former marriage of her mother, Julia Jackson Stephen, to Herbert Duckworth, and two full brothers and one full sister from the marriage of Julia and Leslie Stephen.

Much has been made of the breakdowns that Virginia described as her “madness,” but her early journals throw no light on this subject. Virginia’s first breakdown occurred when she was thirteen, immediately after the death of her mother in 1895. She was fifteen and already engaged in writing her journals when her half-sister and surrogate mother Stella died in 1897, only two years later. On July 19, Virginia records that George and Vanessa came to tell her that Stella was dead; she comments simply, “That is all we have thought of since; & it is impossible to write of.”

Leaska retains the careful editing procedures established by Anne Oliver Bell in her editions of the later journals, but his interpretive commentary merits critical scrutiny. Of Virginia’s relationship with her half-sister Stella, Leaska says that “Virginia maintained a certain critical attitude towards Stella that put considerable distance between them. For example, there was her odd reaction to Stella’s rallying for a second time on May 9: ’Now that old cow is most ridiculously well & cheerful—hopping about out of bed etc: Thank goodness, nevertheless.’” Although it is conceivable that fifteen-year-old Virginia Woolf described her dangerously ill half-sister as an “old cow,” this statement occurs in an entry that alludes to visits the preceding Sunday from Aunt Minna and Cousin Mia, Duckworth relatives who were not popular with Virginia. In context, the reference to an “old cow” seems more likely to refer to the unwelcome Duckworth visitors than to Stella:

This Sunday a most distinct improvement upon last. Then we were not out of the wood (as Broadbent said) Vaguely unhappy. —Cousin Mia a fixture—melancholy and large in the drawing room, and sympathetic enquirers dropping in every now & then—Now that old cow...

(The entire section is 1637 words.)