My first foray into the realm of Virginia Woolf involved an academically-traumatic experience of attempting to present an analysis of her essay, “The Death of the Moth,” before a high school English/Lit. class. In my esteem, Woolf was a literary archetype—a matriarch of the word (The Word) who created works of biblical proportion (this coming from a person raised Catholic …Irish Catholic, at that). I didn’t want to mess up her essay, and I still don’t. In a diary, Virginia Woolf once described writing as, “The only way I keep afloat.” I’d like to think this sentiment rings true for many writers, that Woolf’s comment represents a greater consciousness of writers. And today, two days after her birthday, I want to pay small (if inadequate) homage to Virginia Woolf—an homage to her ability to articulate the truth and depth of the “loose, drifting material of life.”
Yesterday, Flavorwire published a list of “59 Things You Didn’t Know About Virginia Woolf” (one for each year of her life) in commemoration of Woolf’s birthday; NPR has a short article, “Virginia Woolf, At Intersection of Science and Art,” which reveals the essomenic qualities of Woolf’s observations about the mind; The New York Times has an entire archive dedicated to all things Woolf. But one my favorites, posted below, is an older book review by Daphne Merkin that pays homage (which is actually an homage to an homage) to the full complexity of personality and genius of Woolf.
Woolf wrote “The Death of the Moth” approximately a year before she committed suicide. Reading the essay now, I better understand Woolf’s ability to recognize the “pure bead” of life in the smallest (seemingly insignificant) creatures and objects that would otherwise pass me unnoticed, and Woolf’s energetic prose teems with this recognition. Apparently, I survived my presentation of the essay in high school—as far as I know, I never had a reputation as that girl who didn’t understand Woolf (though if you went to high school with me, I encourage you not to comment on this). But I won’t re-traumatize myself with the impossible task of attempting to articulate a perfect singular meaning from any of Woolf’s work; this time, I’ll leave the interpretation of up to you.
– Mary Stein
How in the world, you may find yourself thinking, can the delicate but overarticulated psyche of Virginia Woolf withstand yet another exhumation? Can there possibly be any gold left to extract from the overmined precincts of Bloomsbury, where Virginia and Vanessa and Leonard and Clive and Duncan and Morgan and Maynard and Lytton moved about with an avid sense of post-Victorian newness, joining in clannish and often churlish and virulently self-documented discourse? It is an oft-told story, gripping in its details: the beautiful but remote mother who died when Virginia was 13; the father grunting away at his literary labors, inconsolable in his grief; the sexual advances of her half brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth; the early breakdowns; the rivalry with her sister, Vanessa; the marriage to the ”penniless Jew,” Leonard; the intense friendships with other women, including lesbian affairs with Vita Sackville-West and Ethel Smyth; and then her suicide in 1941, at the age of 59.