Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work Summary

Louise DeSalvo

Virginia Woolf

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

From 1888, when she was six, to about 1904, Woolf was sexually abused by her half brothers George and Gerald Duckworth. She was not the first in her family to suffer the Duckworths’ lust, as her older sister Vanessa was also a target. Indeed, in Woolf’s Victorian family, incest, sexual abuse, and other forms of violent and abusive behavior were common. Because of what she suffered in her family, DeSalvo maintains, Woolf was not “mad,” but she was deeply scarred--so scarred that she ultimately took her own life in the face of Adolf Hitler’s apparently imminent, Duckworthian invasion of England.

While DeSalvo admits that the Duckworth men “were not monsters,” themselves “victims” of a society abusive to children, they nevertheless “victimized in reprehensible ways.” What these “ways” were remain unclear, as details apparently do not exist, but the biographer offers Freudian interpretations of Woolf’s writing to suggest what they may have been. In any case, men (especially Woolf’s father) are the culprits here.

According to DeSalvo’s relentlessly dark vision of Woolf’s childhood and fiction, readers should disregard as her self-deception the positive statements Woolf made about her youth or family. One should not take Woolf seriously when she discusses that “great Cathedral space which was childhood,” for she was deluding herself. One should despise Woolf’s older brothers for seducing her, and yet--like DeSalvo--not find fault with either her older sister Vanessa or the even older Violet Dickinson for taking Woolf as a lesbian lover. DeSalvo’s feminist agenda grounds Woolf’s personality, relationships, and literary accomplishments in socio-sexual pathology, and such a reductive approach severely limits her readings of this great writer’s life and fiction.