Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"My Boldness Terrifies Me": Sexual Abuse and Female Subjectivity in the Voyage Out

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"My Boldness Terrifies Me": Sexual Abuse and Female Subjectivity in the Voyage Out

Article excerpt

I think I gather courage as I go on. The only possible reason for writing down all this, is that it represents roughly a view of one s own. My boldness terrifies me.

(February 1909, Letters 1:383)

In July of 1905 Virginia Stephen wrote to Nelly Cecil (Lady Robert), with whom she had been sharing manuscripts and discussing writing, "I feel always that writing is an irreticent thing to be kept in the dark - like hysterics" (Letters 1:196). Virginia had already expressed to Nelly her anxiety about publication several times, once thanking her for her encouraging criticism because "a poor wretch of an author keeps all his thoughts in a dark attic in his own brain, and when they come out in print they look so shivering and naked" (167). She confessed that "the temptation to stick things into a great desk that I have, is increasing. I don't see why one should ever be read" (195).

Thus from the beginning Virginia Woolf's career was marked by a tension between desire to publish, to make public her shivering, naked visions, and desire to keep them in the dark drawers of her desk and mind, to protect herself through silence. This tension manifests itself in the self-censorship evident in the transformations from drafts to published works, remarked upon and analyzed by such critics as Louise DeSalvo, Jane Marcus, Alice Fox, and others. It is also evident, I believe, in Woolf's use of indirect methods of expression, ways of "telling it slant," such as allusion, symbol and metaphor (often heavily coded), humor, hints, irony, and understatement to express feminist critique and to handle the problem of "telling the truth about [her] own experiences as a body" ("Professions" 241).(1) The responsibility of the critic toward such a writer is at least twofold: to help the writer's cryptic and coded messages to be heard - to re-member her texts - and to explore why she felt compelled, apparently, to censor herself. In this article I do both in my reading of The Voyage Out.

My goals are to show that not only did Woolf write about incest and child abuse in her fiction and use writing as a mode of self-construction and survival, as Louise DeSalvo demonstrates in her groundbreaking work Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work, but that Woolf's writing also constitutes, in its form as well as content, both a symptom of her abuse and a social history of female subjectivity. I contend that Woolf's experiences of incest were originatory of her self-censorship as well as of her passionate dissection of and protest against British patriarchy. Further, through my reading of The Voyage Out as a "hysterical" text, I demonstrate that Woolf's text enacts even as it tells how sexual abuse is a major obstacle to the development of the female subject, to the achievement of agency in discourse and society. Woolf makes clear that sexual abuse functions as part of a larger process of female socialization. My analysis relies on the understanding, admirably laid out by Christine Froula, that the sexual abuse of girls and women is "continuous" with their cultural abuse (repression, oppression, denigration, marginalization) and constitutive of that "cultural achievement," women's silence ("Daughter's" 121, 117, and passim).

Virginia Stephen's comparison of writing to hysterics suggests one reason for her ambivalence about publication. On some level the young writer knew that her writing, like the symptoms of hysterics, pointed to disturbing family secrets and revolutionary disaffection with established systems of family and society. Like the symptoms of hysterics, her writing reveals, sometimes in code, sometimes directly, her experience as patriarchal daughter and an incest victim, and her analysis of the male power system by which she was abused.(2)

Claire Kahane suggests that one of Freud's contributions to the understanding of hysteria was his realization that hysterical symptoms could be read as "coded representations" of his patients' stories. …

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