Virginia Woolf’s “Reminiscences”: Figuring Death

by proustitute

Virginia Woolf claims to have written “Reminiscences” for her nephew Julian Bell, even if, as Jeanne Schulkind notes, he “can only be held responsible in a very remote sense for inspiring this memoir,” because Woolf began work on the piece during the summer of 1907, and Julian wasn’t born until February 1908. This was a pivotal time for Woolf: she was branching out from writing book reviews to writing fiction—e.g., by this time she had begun Melymbrosia, which would later be published in a watered-down version as The Voyage Out, her first novel—and, as stylistic experiments, she would, in Schulkind’s words, “assign” herself writing exercises, the content of which ranged from “descriptions of places visited [to] the lives of close friends or relations.”

Since “on various occasions she declared her intention of rewriting them at set intervals,” it is perhaps best to read a piece like “Reminiscences,” which opens the posthumously-published collections Moments of Being, as a biographical portrait housed within an autobiographical framework and also as a letter to the next generation. In the former mode, Woolf’s “reminiscences” here begin long before her birth; the piece opens with the admission: “Your mother was born in 1879, and as some six years at least must have passed before I knew that she was my sister [Vanessa], I can say nothing of that time.” And yet Woolf dips far beyond “that time” to consider her mother Julia’s first marriage to Herbert Duckworth—a marriage that yielded three children: George, Stella, and Gerald—and the early years of her second marriage to Leslie Stephen, the memories of which can hardly be vividly recalled by Woolf given that she was the penultimately born child of the four children the Stephens’ marriage produced.

The direct address with which “Reminiscences” opens (“your mother”) signals that Julian Bell is the reader for whom Woolf intended this piece, but given the dates above, her experimentation with new forms as she made the shift from nonfiction to fiction, and how Woolf offers the “you”—who is both Julian and yet also not Julian—a portrait of her sister Vanessa’s youth before she, Virginia, had even been born, “Reminiscences” is a piece that is more complex than a simple letter to the next generation. Because Woolf is present as the narrator, and because in recollected scenes from her childhood—which she remembers as mostly composed of “two large spaces”: “the drawing room and nursery” and “Kensington gardens”—are interspersed with “memories” of her mother Julia’s earlier life (which Woolf pieces together based on behaviors, words, and even silences from her own reminiscences of her mother’s magnanimous personality), it seems fair to read this piece is a hybrid. As Schulkind remarks: “in addressing the memoir to the next generation and in broadening her subject to include the Stephen family[,]… no meaningful distinction can be made … between biography (of Vanessa) and autobiography.”

And this integration of personal history into her fiction is something with which all Woolf’s readers are accustomed, especially in terms of the spectral figure of Leslie Stephen who haunts much of Woolf’s work—as does her brother Thoby, whose death is fictionalized in Jacob’s Room, as well as in the elusive character Percival in her masterpiece The Waves (very much Woolf’s attempt at working through, in the Freudian sense, this trauma). Julia’s death has been remarked upon by countless critics as the inspiration for Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, and the writing of that novel caused Woolf to feel she had finally been able to lay her mother’s memory to rest in an analytic way: “I suppose that I did for myself what psychoanalysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.”

The fact that Julia Stephens figures so prominently in the opening sections of “Reminiscences,” as an eternally living memory and as a ghost that will never fully relinquish its grasp on Woolf and her sister’s children, stresses just how traumatic her mother’s death was for the young Virginia (to Julian: “your grandmother’s death was disastrous”)—yet another autobiographical working-through that makes itself manifest in her fiction. Woolf recollects: “She kept herself marvellously alive to all the changes that went on round her, as though she heard perpetually the ticking of a vast clock and could never forget that some day it would cease for all of us.” Big Ben strikes each passing hour in Mrs. Dalloway, the uninvited reminder of time running away from and outside of us, tempus fugit, but—in that novel’s counterpoint narrative method, joining together Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith—the fact that we all must die, each strike a reverberative memento mori.

And, of course, Thoby’s full Christian name was Julian Thoby, a fact that lends a deeper level to Woolf’s opening address to Julian Bell. It is, in many ways, a text addressed both to the living and to the dead. One of the most moving passages in the first section of “Reminiscences” recalls what Woolf terms her mother’s “last fantastic farewell”:

The dead, so people say, are forgotten, or they should rather say, that life has for the most part little significance to any of us. But now and again on more occasions than I can number, in bed at night, or in the street, or as I come into the room, there she is; beautiful, emphatic, with her familiar phrase and her laugh; closer than any of the living are, lighting our random lives as with a burning torch, infinitely noble and delightful to her children.

At the same time, Woolf acknowledges that writing is a futile act to paint an accurate picture of the dead; this accounts for her iterative, often obsessive lifelong project of working-through such a primary trauma in her fictional and nonfictional work, most especially in those pieces blurring the lines between genre or medium (these “flying narrative[s]”)—writing about death risks obscuring the subject it so wishes to immortalize: “Written words of a person who is dead or still alive tend most unfortunately to drape themselves in smooth folds annulling all evidence of life.” As soon as the words have been spent, so, too, has any surviving shred of the life they wish to revivify:

But when we exclaim at the extravagant waste of such a life we are inclined no doubt to lose that view of the surrounding parts, the husband and child and home which if you see them as a whole surrounding her, completing her, robs the single life of its arrow-like speed, and its tragic departure… [T]hey speak of her as a thing that happened, recalling, as though all round her grew significant, how she stood and turned and how the bird sang loudly, or a great cloud passed across the sky. Where has she gone? What she said has never ceased.

And mining this field of grief means that the dead can continue to speak through the living: in reliving “the greatest disaster that could happen,” fueled by a writer’s compulsion to repeat trauma in order to work through it, the risk of succumbing to the sorrow (“I came to conceive of this tree as the symbol of sorrow, for it was silent, enduring and without fruit”) is an ever-present danger. However, to live without remembering one’s dead is to risk forgetting not only where one comes from, but who one is, how one’s story repeats or resists those of the prior generations:

[W]hen you examine feelings with the intense microscope that sorry lends, it is amazing how they stretch, like the finest goldbearer’s skin, over immense tracts of substance. And we, poor children that we were, conceived it to be our duty evermore to go searching for these atoms, wherever they might lie sprinkled about the surface, the great mountains and oceans, of the world. It is pitiable to remember the hours we spent in such minute speculations.

What is “pitiable” in “searching for these atoms” of sorrow is not that sorrow should be ignored; it is not that children or adults should flee from sorrow, fearing it will somehow mar their experiences of happiness, joy, contentment. Rather, what Woolf suggests here is that one mustn’t waste time spending hours examining sorrow underneath “intense microscope[s]”: whether viewed from afar or whether broken down into atoms, sorrow remains a rupture in the fabric of our daily existence. And it is only through writing, an act of therapeutic reckoning with such grief, such age-old rents in our psychological makeups, that we can fuse fact and fiction, history and correspondence, lamentation and outpourings of wonderment: as life is lived across boundary lines, so death must be processed by by following the journey wherever it takes one—so long as it does not take one deeper into the unproductive realm of silence. If what Leslie Stephen said while living “has never ceased,” then it is Woolf’s task to interpret these words, fragments, vestiges, and then transmute them into the written word so that death is not the end of their stories or their stories’ future transmissions.