I have now edited the whole of section one (narrated by Leonard Woolf) – and am going to share this one final bit with you before knuckling down to the Virginia and Vanessa parts of the novel.
It took three weeks for Virginia Woolf’s body to be found in the River Ouse.
In this section, which includes the discovery of the corpse, Leonard’s mind travels back in time to Garsington (Ottoline and Philip Morrell’s home near Oxford) and to his marriage to VW. I know only the barest facts; much of this, therefore, comes from my imagination.
Past and present weave in and out like a Maypole ribbon-plaiting dance.
I intend to have the novel ready some time in the early Autumn for those of you who would like the read the whole thing. Its draft title is ‘Rushing at the gates of sixty’ – because VW’s mind was like a runaway race horse, and she died when she was fifty-nine.
The two words echo in my brain dully. Once it was all I wanted; now it is the centre of my dread.
The year I asked her to marry me – 1912 it was – I knew; knew I was involved in something bigger and more powerful than me, knew also how it could end.
I had returned from years in Ceylon. It was a soft spring day and I had been invited to Garsington for the weekend by Ottoline and Philip Morrell. I was very nervous and shy. I had been away from England for many years and felt sure I would disappear without a trace back here amongst the familiar unfamiliarity of my old life.
Ottoline ushered me into the garden as soon as I arrived, chattering the whole time about the marvellous old acquaintances simply dying to meet me again.Then she left me. I stood by the stone sundial; I was hidden from view by an arch of branches and twigs. I peered round, unable to move forward. And there she was, head on one side, smiling archly at Lytton beneath a vast straw hat.
My whole being stopped still. There were several people, sitting on the old benches; she was the centre of it and the only woman. She was thin, lithe, gesturing with her whole body as she talked, fluidly, quickly, a breathless patter of brilliance breaking upon the listeners; she swayed back and forth in time with her words, dipping in and out of the shadow cast by the sun. She wore a soft and flowing shawl draped over her shoulders and her long, thin fingers were carelessly waving a cigarette holder about – white ivory it was, I remember it well.
She looked up suddenly, prompted by I know not what internal force, and she saw me. Her eyes widened in shocked surprise just briefly and then she rose, as if impelled by some strong inner current, and moved towards me. She was tall, five foot ten or so, and very graceful in an unthinking, unaware way; the sight of her silver-sunned throat rising statuesquely from thin shoulders entranced me.
She stood there, two feet before me, and simply stared into my face with her mocking ironic eyes; a long strand of the looped-up hair had escaped and it hung over her face. At that moment I kaleidoscoped and settled again, aware of total change, of a pressure like tears behind my eyes and nose – aware that this dwarfed all my other loves.
The moment ended. She laughed and turned to the group once more. I followed and sat in a hard chair opposite her, very quiet, at a loss. Ottoline drifted out in a fantastic emerald creation, bringing tea and biscuits. Julian chattered by her side, asking question about the ornate silver samovar making the tea: Ottoline ignored her.
The little girl sat down at Virginia’s feet; children usually did, as if by instinct. They loved her, loved the world she shared with them. Virginia created a strange, cold, Russian world for Julian – a landscape of terror and icicles and tsars fighting for this mystical samovar which held the power of the universe in its slender spout.
Sharp voices, labourers wending homewards, cut through the still air; squares of sun shifted off Ottoline’s red hair and beaked visage. Lytton’s high-pitched snigger broke again and again into the low murmurs of talk.
I fell asleep.
Barking. Near me. On my left is one world, very clear – Oxford, early spring; on the right, another – indistinct, unwelcome, compounded of a battery of dogs and a darker shadow somewhere to my left. The samovar fades. Crisp reality is in my hands. Ottoline? She’s been dead for three years, Lytton even longer. My world is peopled by ghosts. Garsington is no more; it has been abandoned. Oxford is no longer special; it is simply the other university – the rival. And all those pretty nearby villages whose names delighted me then – Wheatley, Horspath, Headington – are dreams whose sharpness fades daily.
I am cold and my feet drag behind me as if weighted by clods of sticky clay. Leanda is uneasy by my side; of all my dogs, she knows me best, is most perfectly attuned to my needs and moods. It seems an intrusion. I consider having her put down; she reminds me of too much.
They are silent on the way home. I imagine them slinking around me in typical border-collie fashion. I hit out at Bonnie when she comes too close with her wet tongue. She yelps in fear and hides under the seat. I am aware of her shivering form behind my back as I drive. I feel no pity, just anger for these dependent creatures. Only Sweep makes no demands.
I count the days as I drive. It confuses me. Sometimes two days merge into one so that I am not sure of the actual total; and, even as I think, a persistent image of wildness and cold beauty strikes at my senses. I crash my foot down on the accelerator to block it out and the car rattles along the uneven track at a furious pace – my fury, the car’s pace: unfair division of misery.
Beethoven. She loves Beethoven. I promised to take her to the special concert in town in July of this year. It is to be a treat…was to have been a treat…I no longer know what the truth is or where lies my reality. I have tickets, purchased in advance against disappointment, rectangles of cream cardboard giving sparse details of when and where; I have a factual ordering of related letters in my diary to that effect; in her journal, read to me how many days months years ago, she expressed anticipatory pleasure at the idea of that carefully organised date. The event will be unchanged in the sequence of time and yet it could be minus two, the two I hold precariously in my leather wallet.
Two. The two I hold against all reason and sense; those two small pieces of cardboard defy her absence. I could retain the duality, take another; all through these years, at the drastic centres of her madness and withdrawal from me, I could have taken another. I did not. She was complete to me, however she appeared to others.
Outside the tall wooden gate, I rest my arms on the silenced steering wheel of my car. I know without doubt that it is eighteen days now. The moment I let go my attempts to tabulate logically, the answer detached itself. It is a long time, and no time at all. A dread weight becomes clear in my solar plexus. It has been there all the time, I realise, while I floated unthinkingly through an increasingly unconscious routine.
I see my life with Virginia as a series of moments of knowing, anticipating, smoothing out the path of her continued existence. She fell headlong this time and I was not there to remove the stone projections for her. A blast of horror and pain freezes my hands white to the car…
…our life together consisted of parallel paths and waved greetings along the way. She did not need to elude me thus; I’d have accepted a meeting place at a greater distance.
I trudge those eighteen days into the house, , the dogs trailing nervously behind me There is a fire lit in our Sitting Room; a tray containing tea and milk awaits my arrival. I draw up one of the deepest armchairs and sink into its body. I reach into my jacket pocket and take out the pipe, my tin of tobacco and matches.
This time and this place was one of our recognised meeting places. In the space between tea and supper, she would come from outside, from whatever words she was writing, and would join me to talk or to be silent. She was curiously reticent about her writing, would furnish me with only the most basic outlines. Her intense self-distrust permeated most days of our shared life; only on the completion of a book would she unbind the fear sufficiently to tell me, show me; and, however much her power was established in the world, she still waited each time like a frightened child for my verdict. She had no consistent sense of her own brilliance and mastery of words; they alternately terrified and delighted her.
If I close my eyes, which I do a great deal now, she floats immediately into the room on one of many such evenings: she was restless, wouldn’t sit down or relax. Instead she strode up and down, up and down smoking furiously, and talking with tense and incredible speed. She became high-flown and eventually non-sensical, spinning out words which had no connection one with the other that I could see; it was beautiful and very sad.
I could not touch her since she often erupted into violence if reminded of the reality of another. I knew there was nothing I could do but wait. This particular time wound up to its climax and then she pressed both hands tightly to the sides of her head and sank onto the floor, whimpering like a child. I was then able to ring the doctor.
She was ill all that summer. Most times I could predict the onset of these spells; most times I was there to offset the worst of the violence.
The telephone rings. I cannot move. The chair and I have become one being, soldered with living fire together. Spirals of smoke dance above me in the red glow of the lamp; I am quieted. I hear Louie’s shoes tapping along the hall and the ringing ceases. I know what she is going to say before her hand is even on the door latch.
She bursts in:
‘They’ve found her, Mr Woolf; they’ve just found her this evening,’ and then she begins to cry chokingly while I lie back and stare at her out of lids too tired for weeping.
I take over the telephone conversation from Louie. It is a male voice – calm, placid and comforting.
‘No need for you to come tonight, Sir,’ I hear him say, ‘ Tomorrow will do if you are tired.’
‘What do you mean, man?’ I rasp out, my sense of anguish freed. ‘How do you think I can sleep through another night while…’
I cannot say it, the unspeakable, though the lack clearly dams up the possibilities of this conversation. He swallows at the other end; he’s probably seen her.
‘ As you wish,’ he sighs. ‘I’ll make arrangements for my deputy to meet you at the morgue.’
It is almost a shout. Does he think me an imbecile?
I put down the receiver with exaggerated care and shuffle into my thick overcoat, folding the white muffler around my neck for extra warmth. Each of the dogs has a special whistle; I activate only Sweep. The others are anxious; they feel excluded. Sweep walks obediently inches from my left ankle, looking up at me for any further signs of communication.
It is dark outside, cold and clammy in the car. I put Sweep on the seat next to me. He looks out of the windscreen, sees something, pricks up his ears; he thinks it is a walk.
‘ Lie down!’ I say. Then I tell him where we are going. His lack of response is a relief.
Lewes main street is pitch black. There is a war on; all places of civilised living need to be shaded for the night.
The place is dingy, made of old grey stone. I stop the car and have to take several deep breaths to calm myself; even so, it takes me an age of shaking frustration to open the car door and get out. Waves of fear are rippling through my whole body. My mouth is dry; I wonder how I will manage to form the necessary words of greeting and affirmation — I know the words for denial will not be needed.
A man stands in the doorway; I almost bang into him. He is young, impersonal, polite He takes my arm, which I resent. I see myself in his eyes: old, bowed, possibly half crazed. I want to dispossess him of these nakedly transmitted notions but nothing escapes the grill in my throat.
The corridor is dimly lighted and seems to wind on for miles; I wonder fleetingly if this is an elaborate hoax. He is talking to me as we walk; the meaning behind his words is obviously vital. I smile and nod and nothing seems to gain entry. He is preparing me for some sacrifice, warning me how it will be, how it is. His whole being is switched off at the door.
She will rise from her wicker chair in the writing room and will move to the window; she will lie on her bed and smile; she…my hand has turned the knob, brass and cold; all doors down through the years become this one door.
I slip into the room. It is cold, clean, smelling faintly unpleasant though not, as I had expected, of raw death. Grave, courteous, they move towards me; I allow myself to be taken to the table on which lies a sheet-covered hump. They move back the sheet carefully, with respect; I am grateful for this small attention.
No warning can suffice. This is my wife; this is the primrose coloured creature I married centuries ago – and it is not as well. I fix and fix my eyes in vain on this creature, Virginia, translated by three weeks of water into something almost devoid of human identity. Her wedding ring remains on a pulpy, bulbous finger; there is no more to be seen. I turn away with a mumbled, ‘Yes’.
I make arrangements in my most frosty, factual voice. They are visibly awed by my control; they would know better what to do if I wept and screamed. I do neither; it is not in my nature to make a scene. I refuse any assistance with a curt head movement. They have done what they set out to do; I have seen and made suitable gestures, gestures befitting a dignified elderly member of society; Virginia? – I am not so sure about her role in all this. I can only believe that she set out to reduce herself to this mess, perhaps when she stopped even hearing us tell her she was beautiful and loved.
I drive home, knowing I will never know.
Note: Ottoline and Philip had twins: Hugh (who died in infancy) and a daughter, Julian.
Virginia Woolf, aged fifty-seven, in 1939.