Before she began her day’s work Virginia Woolf began to write painstakingly, yet in a beautiful old-fashioned script in her diary.
‘Madness is not a proper sitting-down affair like a dinner or high tea. Its black wonder, in all its glorious power and kingdoms (the ‘arthritic’ kingdom, the ‘counter-productive’ kingdom, the ‘body double’s’ kingdom), the onset and expedition into ageing, all are written on the body and in the mind of the creative. I am placed in the centre of it. I am the key that unlocks its history. I know even when I am anxious, I must be loyal to my soul’s progress by letting things go. Skill comes with the potential of the ‘floodgates’ of each emotional curve opening up and freeing me. Instead of hitting your head against the formidable of all formidables, the brick wall that you seem/I seem to effortlessly cling to will cave in with consummate ease and we will transcend those dazzling boundaries of what we once occupied. All I feel is winter at the back of me, draping itself like a cool shroud over me, shutting out the white light, swirls, cloud-bursts of air as heavy as moss draining me of energy, leaving me to ask myself that marked question of all marked questions, has my time come, is it my turn, is my time up? I am conscious of the time of day. It is nearly time for my afternoon walk. Faces joined to bodies hard at work in fields peer out at me with picture-perfect clarity. I do not know them; they do not fit or belong in my world so I go on my own merry way and pretend I do not see them. Is it nearly time for my customary nap or to have a little light supper with Leonard and talk about Hogarth Press, its cumulative progress and the writers he is currently printing? I climb hills with style, sucked into this novel earth with each step.
When I feel most not of the flesh is when a spell of madness comes upon me. All around me, the universe becomes a ghostly sphere. Stars are unfailing witnesses to the elements of my hallucinations. As I write this in relatively solitary confinement, in my room, I can see crystals of light evaporate in winter rain outside my window. Look, look, pressing with an index finger into the middle of the flushed salmon-pink of the palm of my right-hand as if I am investigating stigmata, I am living proof that even melancholy can elevate you. Why is it always the impoverished, the most vulnerable citizens of our environment, what that unflinching symbol of loss means to us, what is it about the lives of Outsiders that speak to us?
Head touching sky, feet touching ground, breathing in a lungful of the healthy countryside air (it feels as if it is sliding through me, the fruity richness of my organs, my blue veins) these are some of my most precious moments. Where would I be without you? All around me are the immortal heights of nature. To rest, I have the throne of a tree to lean against and the sky, even the scenery of the land is poetic. What would I do with jewels when today I have seen shades of the world through a pair of novel eyes? When you’re older, you are more forgiving, stronger, amazed at your voluntary spontaneity to smile and engage with other ‘artists’ when you are at your best at public gatherings.
Is the world so full of life? Bright that it can hurt, cause you to weep, sob uncontrollably, can it draw a feint line of subterfuge between your sacred contract with your god and a most natural creative gift that is also relevant, compelling and unique? Hiking up my skirts, mud on my shoes, my hair plastered in an unladylike fashion against my forehead, enjoying exerting myself, finding pleasure in it, my limbs trembling, the ‘lady of the manor’, balanced yesterday precariously between the hell of mental illness and the eternal damnation of it all. With the last vestiges of my childhood all but removed, who was left to blame for my fragile state of mind. Mental illness had me once rigidly on fire and here I was a child again in my secret garden.
Walking, even if it was a width of a thread of our cottage, seemed to toughen my spirit from the inside out. I have learned to endure solitude (it has me hooked); even the silence has not lost its diamond-shine. I suffer in the silence that always seems to navigate its way to meet me in minuscule explosions in my presence and I did not presume that infertility was a fierce punishment or that it was a lesson in disguise. It was an earthquake offering me quiet torment before it became an uninvited guest sequestered to the attic. It was just a misunderstanding poured between my cells and platelets. Perhaps even the social discord of spiritual interference was melded to my bones, sinew and flesh and not just the biological.
In some ways there is still ‘the subdued girl’ about me, no Goth, no siren am I with flaming lips. I feel I have risen to the occasion brilliantly, as eternity has wanted me to by making a beautiful career of it. As I write this, leaves are falling like pure drifts of snow and one day I know this diary will be held up for eternity, like so many others before my time, before my country, to public scrutiny. Newspaper hounds, scholars and pundits will declare ‘it’, my diaries and excerpts from them literature. They will say Virginia Woolf was a woman ahead of her time. If there is a worthy truth to that statement, I am certain I shall not know of it in my own lifetime.’
She has always lived like this with the winters of loneliness. She called it ‘perfection’, ‘bliss and the art of survival is found in an artist’s creative expression’, ‘a natural habitat for a woman writing fiction’, ‘I am an artist and all writers are artists and all artists are writers’, ‘I find so many things useful in the cold comfort of my rituals before I sit down to work. The ritual of creating, of living, of the invincibility of routine and silence, that inner space that you are most conscious of’.
In her mind’s eyes, she tells herself to shut her eyes, to believe the voice of her alter ego and everything it is telling her. It is telling her, selling her, her invisible doppelganger’s visions until she could even feel it in her heart. She was not tethered to anything in the material world. ‘The only possession that I came into this world with and am leaving this world with is this physical body.’ She had told her sister, Vanessa, who had been her most ardent companion during their childhood and adolescence. She lived in books and without them she would be lifeless, loveless and in their fundamental education they had given her she saw images of the wisdom she would one day come to possess.
Photo by Ayanna Johnson on Unsplash (modified)