The Measure of Life: Virginia Woolf's Last Years

The Measure of Life: Virginia Woolf's Last Years

The Measure of Life: Virginia Woolf's Last Years

The Measure of Life: Virginia Woolf's Last Years

Synopsis

This elegantly written and richly detailed biography tells the story of Virginia Woolf's last ten years, from the creation of her great visionary novel, The Waves, to her suicide in 1941. Herbert Marder looks closely at Woolf's views on totalitarianism and her depictions of Britain under siege to create a remarkable portrait of a mature and renowned writer during a time of rising fascist violence. An awareness of personal danger, Marder says, colored Woolf's actions and consciousness in the years leading up to World War II. She practiced her art with intense dedication and was much admired for her wit and vivacity. But she had previously tried to kill herself, and she asserted her right to die if her manic-depressive illness became intolerable. Waves and water haunted her imagination; visions of drowning recurred in her work. The Measure of Life suggests that Woolf anticipated her suicide, and indeed enacted it symbolically many times before the event. Marder's account of her death emphasizes the importance of her relationship with her doctor and distant cousin, Octavia Wilberforce. Wilberforce's letters about Woolf's last months, including some previously unpublished passages, appear in the appendix. Staying close to the spirit of Woolf's own writing, Marder traces her evolving social consciousness in the 1930s, connecting her growing concern with politics and social history with the facts of her daily life. He stresses her endurance as a working writer, and explores her friendships, her complex relations with servants, and her activities at the Hogarth Press. The Measure of Life illuminates the unspoken quarrels and obscure acts of courage that provide a key, as Woolf herself believed, to the hidden roots of our existence. By letting the reader see events as Virginia Woolf saw them, Marder's compelling narrative captures both her unique comic spirit and her profound seriousness.

Excerpt

Is there a ratio between art and life, between the refined forms of a writer’s work and the daily litter of papers and bills, head colds, dirty dishes, uninvited guests?

As Virginia Woolf said after finishing The Waves, “My ship has sailed on. I toss among empty bottles & bits of toilet paper. O & the servants.” Her history reflects a constant struggle against banal interruptions, against the random daily events that interfered with her literary work. She was relatively poor after her father’s death and had to earn her living. Sir Leslie Stephen, though distinguished, was only a man of letters, and he didn’t leave enough capital for Virginia to live on, at least by upper-middle-class standards. She and Leonard (whom she called her “penniless Jew”) worked hard as writers and publishers, putting in long hours six or seven days a week. For many years, till her novels began to sell and the Hogarth Press became profitable, the Woolfs’ income was as modest as their way of life. They were intellectuals who had no desire for luxury or grand possessions. Their left-wing politics placed them on the fringes of the privileged upper middle class, but they kept up easy relations with members of the establishment. Virginia’s family and friends were the kind of people who had dominated the senior levels of the English civil service, armed forces, and professions since the nineteenth century. According to a 1930 estimate, the governing class was remarkably small—no more than 100,000 people from the higher bourgeoisie, plus a few hundred aristocratic families—out of a total population of 4 5 million. Virginia belonged to this elite by birth and training. She voted Labour and held heretical opinions, but her cousins were pillars of the establishment— . . .

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