The Measure of Life
Virginia Woolf's Last Years
Cornell University Press ($35)
by Carolyn Kuebler
In his "Prelude" to The Measure of Life, Herbert Marder tells a story about his "somewhat offbeat" decision, as a graduate student at Columbia in the '60s, to write his thesis on Virginia Woolf's novels. Woolf, who wasn't yet part of the standard college syllabus, was also out of political favor at the time, known mainly as an upper-middle-class "lady" who wrote beautiful, experimental novels. But explaining to his advisor that "there are subversive, radical ideas all over her books," Marder won his approval and began an important chapter in his own writing life. His first book, Feminism and Art: A Study of Virginia Woolf, was published in 1968; now, thirty years older himself, he presents a picture of Woolf in her fifties. "I felt that the enlightened Virginia of the 1930s, who displayed great sanity and courage under fire (her decision to choose the time and manner of her death did not diminish that), required a biography of her own."
Despite her highly charged, standard-syllabus feminist essays, A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas, Woolf is better known for her radical style than her subversive political ideas. She broke many rules, and did so beautifully, but her characters (and she herself) were mostly polite and well-behaved society people, much of the outrage and rebellion taking place under the surface. Marder doesn't deny Woolf's poetic capabilities and achievements, nor does he argue in favor of her lesser-known novels, those she wrote during her last ten years. What he shows us is how Woolf's always-powerful sense of anger at political and social injustices grew more and more urgent as she grew older, and how she grew increasingly desperate to manifest this rage in her work.
Marder's interest in Woolf's subversive ideas is well-served by a close look at these final years. As Europe was exploding all around her, Woolf found it nearly impossible to maintain her belief in the significance of her art, and as England prepared for war, she felt she was losing her audience. She wanted desperately to have some kind of impact on the world. As Marder remarks, "When reviewers praised the beauty of her writing, ignoring its substance, she protested that she would rather be known as an ugly writer but an honest one." She even broke with her own writerly impulses in an attempt always to try something new, something that might take her work beyond literature itself and into the realm of real-life influence.
Despite Marder's obvious interest in the political side of things, The Measure of Life does not serve a single theme, theory, or agenda. Clearly the author's devotion to Woolf arose from the novels themselves, from her magnificent sentences, and then grew to include the author's lifelong struggle and the way each book fit into her living and breathing beyond the page. Marder pieces together the letters, diaries, and publications into a chronological narrative, resisting the temptation to surmise and editorialize. At the same time, he creates a personal tone that reckons with its own biases and self-interest. He takes care to explain this at the beginning of the book, stating his purpose and intent: "I vowed to respect the otherness of my subject, to listen to what Virginia Woolf actually said rather than what one expected her to say. In short, to believe her . . . to rely on her own testimony and to trace the self-creating motifs, the core of identity, defined by her own words."
Marder analyzes of each book from this period--The Waves, The Years, The Years, Three Guineas, and Between the Acts--apart from the context of the biography, though always surrounded by it. He provides a sort of Cliffs-Notes description of each book, followed by his own assessments; here is where he allows his opinion to come into play most obviously. These moments of subjectivity are well-deserved and often interesting and astute in their particular observations.
The Measure of Life offers a fascinating look at how a writer's raw ideas and her art merge, and also how they fail to. Woolf struggled doggedly in these last years, her work becoming drudgery at times, and her sense of failure increasing. But there was also a lot of delight in her letters and diary entries from these years, and the energy pours forth to her friends, in particular the robust composer Ethel Smyth. "'Only in myself, I say, forever bubbles this impetuous torrent. . . . I am more full of shape & colour than ever,'" she wrote in 1929. While she may have left behind the image of a thin, cold suicidal intelligence, Woolf was actually very passionate, witty, and engaged in the world around her.
Once an author is canonized and beloved as Woolf is, it's hard to imagine her being susceptible to critics, to bad days, to fear of failure. But Woolf was plagued by all these things, completely shaken by negative reviews, or even careless ones, and she was convinced, from time to time, that all of her work was a failure. When it was most devastating was, of course, when she was still in the midst of it, and The Years, which took five years to write, may have been the biggest struggle of all. She wanted to make it different from anything else she had ever written, mostly because she wanted to continue to challenge herself and to have more impact on social reality. Her writing of The Years is the most harrowing segment of this period of her life, up until her suicide. This book, more than any other, wore her out, and in the end she didn't believe in it the way she believed in her more poetic masterpieces, The Waves and To the Lighthouse.
It's also surprising to hear of her less-enviable attributes. Though she was aware that her being a daughter of a famous man of letters and her connections to the powers that be gave her special privileges, even if not a lot of money, she remained an incurable snob. She looked down on poor people, servants, and anyone without the education she had. Some of her remarks, though generally meant only for her diary or for private letters, are disturbingly classist. She may have been active with the Labor Party and written on behalf of less-privileged in Three Guineas and A Room of One's Own, but she had a tenacious sense of pride in her class that bordered on the kind of "barbarism" she herself so hated.
Virginia Woolf's breakdowns, her marriage to the austere Leonard, her connections to the colorful Bloomsbury circle--all of this is well-documented and even mythologized in the hundreds of books on Woolf that have been published since Marder's graduate school days. But Marder's approach, based as it is on her voice rather than on any "thesis," allows the reader to see Woolf's genius, her failures and her passions, as the complex, variegated days of a life. Woolf comes off as a hard-working writer who never rested on her popularity and praise. In this book, Marder moves the last ten years of her life out from under the shadow of her suicide, and respectfully and lovingly puts this productive time into context. Household chatter, visits to the doctor, quibbles with servants, and blossoming friendships may not change Virginia Woolf's literary output or her influence; they do, however, make a good story of artistic struggle, a story worthy of its many retellings.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000