In retrospect I see it might have been a mistake to reread Sketches in Pen and Ink by Vanessa Bell and then pick up the biography Virginia Woolf by Anthony Curtis at the same time as I was supposed to be reading Susan Sellers's fictional account Vanessa and Virginia for the last NTTVBG.
Perhaps don't try this at home.
The final meltdown culminated in Crisis Saturday when no matter how hard I tried to read more of Vanessa and Virginia I just couldn't overcome my qualms about this fictional account of the reality, and though I may have done the book a great disservice by throwing in the towel, I also realised that all reading has to be for pleasure, and that this is what often happens with book groups. You can't like every book and it wouldn't be right if someone didn't pitch up with a failure to report.
It was all Anthony Curtis's fault, (not mine I'm sure) because Virginia Woolf is unlike any other biography I have read on her, with its focus on the life and writing, but scant if any mention of mental or physical illness and rest cures and madness. There were essential references to it of course, but so often this aspect becomes the focus of any book on Virginia Woolf's life, a sort of raison d'etre hook on which to hang anything else that happens as the story moves inexorably towards its grim finale, but all perhaps veiling so much more that may be of interest along the way.
I remain quietly, though perhaps simplistically, convinced that unrecognised grief and loss were at the root of many of Virginia's lifelong troubles and the joy of Anthony Curtis's book was the space in which to formulate those opinions (rightly or wrongly) for myself.
Looking at the timeline proved useful. The loss of her mother in 1895 when Virginia was just thirteen, still a child, then her sister Stella two years later, her father Lesley Stephen in 1904 and then her brother Thoby in 1906. A London family decimated in less than eleven years, with barely the time and space to account for and mourn one loss and build some resilience for coping with the next before it happens.
Virginia's breakdowns often seem to follow rapidly on the heels of those deaths too,
A child's life journey is irrevocably changed by the loss of a parent or a sibling and we know so much more about loss in adolescence now too and how teenagers can end up in what Phyllis Silverman calls 'a no-man's land of grief.' Old enough to know that 'everyone dies and bad things happen' yet 'too young to fully synthesize these thoughts or be certain how life will go on.' Though teenagers hadn't been invented in Virginia's time, the principle remains the same, typically they close down emotionally and the support of the remaining parent or another adult is now considered paramount to better outcomes.
A nation also on the cusp of change, perhaps Victorian ways of mourning being replaced with something less stringent but with Lesley Stephens's profound grief at the loss of his wife proclaimed so overtly, and the ongoing emotional and almost childlike demands he made on those around him, all making it hard to identify quite where Virginia may have found that essential support and how little space there may have been for her to express her emotions to another adult.
Doubtless also a good-enough reason to keep a diary eventually but who can begin to imagine the excruciating and debilitating pain of those successive losses.
It's only in recent years that loss and bereavement care has moved towards the recognition that continuing bonds with the dead person are necessary if complicated grief reactions are to be avoided, I doubt Virginia Woolf was blessed with such an understanding in those around her at the turn of the twentieth century, where maintaining a healthy connection with the dead person may have been at odds with the prevailing attitudes .
I doubt these are original thoughts, I can't believe there isn't PhD on it somewhere, but it all made for interesting speculation as I read, and with Anthony Curtis's focus on each book and its background I can see that I could now reread them with this focus in mind and probably glean new insights
I've already mentioned the beautifully integrated photographs, many that I hadn't seen before, an object lesson in how to create the right atmosphere and set off a text to perfection and offering a gentle backdrop to this book.
London on a wet evening...Kensington High St in 1906...a nocturnal view of the Victoria Embankment in 1929...the family on holiday in Cornwall.
A beautiful book in so many ways.