Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work

DeSalvo’s book is legendary and I finally got around to reading it this week. Most astonishing part for me was the first section that delved into Virginia’s sisters and half-sisters, women that I’d barely paid attention to in the past while consumed with worshiping VW’s brilliance. It’s absolutely stunning when you think about it: Laura, the daughter of Leslie Stephen and Minnie Thackeray, I’ve always written off as the madwoman who was the writer Thackeray’s granddaughter and VW’s half-sister. DeSalvo digs into why Laura was banished to an asylum and the results are not pretty. Aged 12 when VW was born, Laura was acting out in a bid for attention—she’d been an only child whose mother died and was then ignored by Leslie until he married Julia Duckworth and inherited 3 step-siblings (Gerald, George, Stella). Julia proceeded to pop out 4 children in 5 years (!!)—Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia, Adrian. After VW’s birth, Laura is severely punished for expressing her rage, punished for not reading quickly or well, punished for simply existing. She’s banished to a part of the house where no one else visits, and later outside the house. No one called her an “idiot” contemporaneously, simply “difficult.” What’s fascinating is DeSalvo’s proposal that Leslie changed his characterization of her as mentally deficient after 1889 when Parliament passed a law protecting children from cruelty. This law was in effect when he was writing his memoirs, thus the revised characterization so he wouldn’t be accused of anything for banishing his child to an insane asylum simply for her “perverse” behavior as it was called at the time.

Next up, Stella, another half-sister of VW’s, one who died a few months after finally escaping the Stephen household by marrying Jack Hill—Leslie Stephen had transferred his affections to his step-daughter immediately after Julia died, and DeSalvo insinuates incest of a sort here as well. Not to mention the pursuit of Stella by woman-hating cousin J.K. Stephen (Jem/Jim) who has been accused by some of being the actual Jack the Ripper.

Then Vanessa, especially interesting through Angelica’s eyes. Garnett’s memoir is one I’ve avoided up until now but it sounds worthy of a read, exposing the Bloomsbury myth and continuing on in the incestuous nature of the family by marrying the lover of her father (Bunny); Vanessa pursued her own semi-incestuous relationship by going after Duncan Grant who’d had a relationship with her brother Adrian. And around and around they whirl.

The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol 1 (1785-1800)

It feels like a violation of privacy to churn through someone’s letters, especially those crisp reminders of childhood, plaintive pleas for money to be sent for various school expenses, etc. If my own letters were collected I’d be embarrassed to peruse them.

In this volume, you are thrashed around from staggering highs and extreme lows, only filled in on the details by an occasional footnote. In the midst of college, boom! he’s off and enlisted in the army either because of debts or because a lady rejected his affections (his brothers get him out of it by claiming insanity). We even get a peek at letters to that lady, such as this from 1792 to Mary Evans which is a great example of Coleridge’s quirky talent:

Now by the most accurate calculation of the specific quantities of sounds, a female tongue, when it exerts itself to the utmost, equals the noise of eighteen sign-posts, which the wind swings backwards and forwards in full creak. If then one equals eighteen, ten must equal one hundred and eighty; consequently, the circle at Jermyn Street unitedly must have produced a noise equal to that of one hundred and eighty old crazy sign-posts, inharmoniously agitated as aforesaid. Well! to be sure, there are few disagreeables for which the pleasure of Mary and Anne Evans’ company would not amply compensate; but faith! I feel myself half inclined to thank God that I was fifty-two miles off during this clattering clapperation of tongues.

The letters moan about fevers and colds and detail business transactions and poem corrections. They chronicle the trip to Germany with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, requests for loans, beg for advice about whether to take a job teaching or preaching or writing, detail the deterioration of his relationship with Charles Lamb.

He makes up words like “vaccimulgence”: “Will you try to look out for a fit servant for us—simple of heart, physiognomically handsome, and scientific in vaccimulgence? That last word is a new one, but soft in sound and full of expression. Vaccimulgence! I am pleased with the word.” (1796)

He uses surprising phrases: “Monday afternoon, Ned, Tatum, and myself sat from four till ten drinking! and then arose as cool as three undressed cucumbers.”

He tells dumb jokes/puns: “I would write Odes and Sonnets Morning & Evening – & metaphysicize at Noon – and of rainy days I would overwhelm you with an Avalanche of Puns and Conundrums loosened by sudden thaw from the Alps of my imagination.” (He then goes on to pun about kild-er-kin, satan, religious attorneys, etc.)

Everyone loves a good self-deprecation: “[My face is] a mere carcase of a face: flat, flabby, & expressive chiefly of inexpression… my gait is awkward & the walk, & the Whole man indicates indolence capable of energies…”

But then he launches into beautiful language about being a reader and being too lazy to write, calling himself a cormorant who will eat just about anything:

I am, and ever have been, a great reader, and have read almost everything—a librarycormorant. I am deep in all out of the way books, whether of the monkish times, or of the puritanical era. I have read and digested most of the historical writers; but I do not like history. Metaphysics and poetry and “facts of mind,” that is, accounts of all the strange phantasms that ever possessed “your philosophy;” dreamers, from Thoth the Egyptian to Taylor the English pagan, are my darling studies. In short, I seldom read except to amuse myself, and I am almost always reading. Of useful knowledge, I am a so-so chemist, and I love chemistry. All else is blank; but I will be (please God) an horticulturalist and a farmer. I compose very little, and I absolutely hate composition, and such is my dislike that even a sense of duty is sometimes too weak to overpower it.

 

Bright Dead Things

I’m coming to love Ada Limón’s poems and starting to get mad when bookstores I wander into don’t have anything of hers.

This is a collection spawned from her move away from Brooklyn down to Kentucky with a boyfriend, musings on the dying of her step-mother.

The poems hop around to various locales, mentioning her parents coupling in San Francisco in their apartment above a bar in the Castro, to Oklahoma, Boston, the San Fernando Valley, the bluegrass state. Looking forward to her novel.

Interior States: Essays

Essays that remind me I’d rather be reading Montaigne instead of these. A mishmash of thoughts from a woman raised as an evangelical Christian. A dip into what reading John Updike is like as a woke woman. A sad droning tone throughout, not worth reading.

Heavy: An American Memoir

Everyone lost their minds over this book so I figured it was a must read. Definitely excellent in parts but it dragged a bit. This memoir covers Laymon’s childhood growing up as an overweight black boy in Mississippi with a demanding mother who encouraged him to write write write and who also abused him and had a serious gambling problem. Laymon navigates the world as a black man, understandably raging against the odds being stacked against him, but prevailing by continuing his education after being kicked out of school for a highly questionable reason (the college claimed he stole a copy of The Red Badge of Courage from the library, which they said was a jailable offense), ending up a professor at Vassar. He develops an eating problem and loses a ton of weight, then gains it all back and loses it again, I think.

Two Thousand Million Man-Power

Gertrude Eileen Trevelyan’s 1937 book wafted its way to me from the Library of Congress by way of ILL. It’s a strange tale, the story of Robert and Katherine heavily interspersed with news from the world, as much ink devoted to happenings in Russia, Italy, the U.S. as to their tiny love story. They meet at a League of Nations debate and began a friendship, realizing they were too poor to marry and Katherine would risk her job (married teachers were getting let go). Lots of sneaking around and waiting for years upon years before finally Katherine takes her vacation without him and he sleeps with another woman which sends him straight back into Katherine’s arms, begging her to marry him. Robert’s laboratory job fills his days, making cold creams and other makeup products, and at night he’s supposed to be working on his treatise about the nature of Time, only that gets shoved aside more and more. Eventually they marry, start spending lavishly, buying things on installment. Of course Robert loses his job, despair, Katherine scours London for a job and sourly supports them for a year before Robert finds something again. In the end he turns to drink and realizes that his whole life is meaningless, wasted. Cheerful stuff!

On a technical note, the flat, cold way that paragraphs pushed the plot forward were bumped against paragraphs chock full of news about the modern world getting faster and wilder and more chaotic did serve its purpose but was a bit mind-numbing.

What We Carry

Exquisite poems from Dorianne Laux in this 1994 collection. I don’t know what to say here, there’s no point in recapping a book of poems, so I suppose I’ll offer up a rendering of one of my favorites:

Late October

Midnight. The cats under the open window,
their guttural, territorial yowls.

Crouched in the neighbor’s driveway with a broom,
I jab at them with the bristle end,

chasing their raised tails as they scramble
from bush to bush, intent on killing each other.

I shout and kick until they finally
give it up; one shimmies beneath the fence,

the other under a car. I stand in my underwear
in the trembling quiet, remembering my dream.

Something had been stolen from me, valueless
and irreplaceable. Grease and grass blades

were stuck to the bottoms of my feet.
I was shaking and sweating. I had wanted

to kill them. The moon was a white dinner plate
broken exactly in half. I saw myself as I was:

forty-one years old, standing on a slab
of cold concrete, a broom handle slipping

from my hands, my breasts bare, my hair
on end, afraid of what I might do next.

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Tremendous dissection of the art of biography wrapped around the story of Sylvia and Ted. A masterpiece! Not only was this an amazing read, a journalistic romp into the land of the literary, but the breadcrumbs dropped along the way were delicious treats, like the discovery of the 1962 BBC readings Plath did of poems from Ariel. I can put up with most of the terrible things that the internet has spawned as long as it keeps rare recordings like this alive.

Malcolm aligns herself on the Hughes’s side in this never-ending argument over Plath’s legacy and makes some well-reasoned points that actually melted my heart a bit towards Ted. Poor man was stuck swirling around in the tornado of her suicide for decades, never really to extricate himself or sever his own name to be anything but the Ted Hughes in relation to Plath (for many of us; of course his Poet Laureate crown was a distinction of sorts).

This point is achingly true:

In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios—there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.

As well as this:

The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead is not a negligible one, but it pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living.

This Big Fake World: A Story in Verse

Recapping a book doesn’t quite work for a book of poetry; I need a new method. Ada Limón gives us layered poems stacked into a story, filled with snow globes and hardware stores, a troubled marriage, letters to Ronald Reagan. Her four characters are the hero, his soon-to-be-estranged wife, the woman at the hardware store he has a crush on, and his friend Lewis who writes those notes to Reagan. Each poem can be taken separately, exists in its own universe of a page. But they press together to tell the story of a lonely man whose wife leaves him and he eventually finds happiness at the hardware store. Limón chooses epigraphs from Hamlet (“What a piece of work is man?”), Letters to Wendy’s, and song lyrics. All of the poems sparkle, but if I had to pick a favorite part it’d be the end of The Hardware Lady Repeats Herself where she asks a customer Will that be all? “and the woman nods, but seems not to have heard hear, so again, Will that be all? Then nothing, as if together, they had already answered this question one thousand times and finally that had been enough.”

The Wife

I hope that the recent success of the movie turns people to the book as well. Reading the book quickly on the heels of watching the movie, it’s astounding how much hits the cutting room floor in order to produce a movie. There are truckloads of nuance and backstory and characters that are simply abandoned in an attempt to quickly tell this story via Hollywood, sacrificing the 3rd child of the couple who happened to turn out to be a lesbian to her fraud author father’s dismay. Too complicated for the silver screen? It’s the kind of book that’s crazy to read alongside the other things I’m reading at the moment: an exploration of Sylvia Plath’s relationship with Ted Hughes. In this novel, the more talented writer is the woman, and she completely subsumes herself to her husband in order to gain the success that would never be hers as a woman writer. Sylvia, of course, gains her power separately from Ted, but only reaches the pinnacle once she offs herself, giving extra oomph to her words predicting death.

The one thing that puzzles me is the ending (same in the movie)— Joan tells the biographer that his instincts are incorrect, that Joe was the writer, not her. Does she have to preserve this fiction because to say otherwise would be to look ridiculous, grasping, insane? I suppose so. She was yearning for freedom on her own terms, and she gets freedom of a sort when he dies.

The Ritz Carltons

The experience of reading a 90-year-old book sometimes is better than the actual words themselves, as is the case with this book of sketches from Fillmore Hyde. A droll, tongue-in-cheek poking fun at the foibles of the ultra wealthy from 1927, this focuses on a family of three, the Ritz Carlton couple and their daughter. Every quick story seems to end with Mrs. Carlton swooning and the doctor being called in to assist. There’s nothing subtle about the jokes here, the rich are pilloried for their “tough” lives of having to decide between vacationing in the Hamptons or Europe or California, the daughter deciding to re-do their private railcar because the gold leaf was in disrepair.

Thanks to ILL, this book traveled with its thick pages and gorgeous cover all the way from the Boston Athenaeum to my hands, complete with check-out cards stamped in 1928.

The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience

I have some major beefs with this book but overall it was worth reading, a deep dive into journals and letters from the overland journey to get to California in 1849 and the gold mining that ensued. The main story line is through William Swaine’s letters and journals, and his wife Sabrina and brother George’s letters back; this is augmented by filler quotes from other journals/letters/accounts that close the gap on the same journey.

As I was reading about the frenzy in 1849’s California with its grasping and greed and cutthroat antics, I looked out my window on a San Francisco 170 years later that retains many of the same characteristics: (mostly) men washed onto its shores looking for their mega-payout from tech, still paying people to wait in lines (in 1849 it was for the mail, people selling their place at the front of the line for $10-$25 which was $300-$800 in today’s dollar), still acting like children (great quote from a letter where a man tells his wife he wants to send something back to their children but nothing is available since “everything here is for grownup children.”)

The editor, Holliday, flashes his misogynist card early, letting you know that the main attraction for him to this story was that it was “an escape from the moral authority of mothers and wives, from the constraining traditions and Sunday admonitions that had ruled for generations.” A few pages later: “Within hours of their last goodbyes, the men felt a new sense of themselves, a slipping free from the past… for the first time in history, thousands of men were released by mutual consent from their filial or other social obligations…”

As Holliday sets the scene for us, he explains why William left his wife behind with brother George, saying “someone had to stay home to watch over Sabrina and her baby…” and that William wrote his diary for Sabrina “so that she would know how her husband, though absent for so long, had suffered and struggled for her well-being.” ARGH! I tried not to slash lines through my copy of this book while I read. Besides this, Holliday takes some extreme liberalities in assuming thoughts and feelings for his subject: “Swain experienced some of this freedom, but he felt constrained by his sense of obligation to George, Sabrina, and Little Cub [his daughter] and by his mother’s admonitions to read his Bible.”

Women were affected by gold fever too, as in this quote from a sadly unnamed (and unmarried) woman: “It was with the greatest reluctance I gave up the idea of going to California…. I should have liked a few thousand of its glittering ore.”

After Midnight

Absolutely brilliant rendering of what life in Nazi Germany was like in the final months before the war. I adored Gilgi and set off for more from this overlooked writer, discarding The Artificial Silk Girl as too similar to Gilgi and settling on Nacht Mitternacht, pub’d in 1937 in Amsterdam where she’d fled (before sneaking back into Germany in 1940 under an assumed name.)

The life in Frankfurt is hellish, everyone spying on everyone else and ratting out the slightest infraction to the Gestapo. Sanna, our narrator, is a 19-year-old who doesn’t like getting lectured by Goebbels on the radio and thinks Hitler sweats too much. Her aunt reports her, she flees Cologne after a hideous interrogation, goes to live with her step-brother, a popular novelist whose works are now banned by the Nazis (basically Keun’s situation). Bits dribble out through the story, her stepbrother wants to off himself or escape his life, her cousin/fiancee Franz has just killed an ex-SS officer, a guest at their party (an outspoken anti-Nazi) has just shot himself in the head during the party after this speech:

I’ve spent over ten years writing my fingers to the bone, racking my brains, to warn people of the madness of the barbarism ahead. A mouse squeaking to hold back an avalanche. Well, the avalanche has come down, burying the lot of us. And the mouse has squeaked its last. I am old and ridiculous: no power or desire to begin all over again… There are plenty of others to say the rest of what I have said for me…

This came out in 1937. Germany was well aware of what lay ahead. Keun lays it out so simply. I’m astonished that we don’t have more voices like this reporting from right up until the edge of the war.

Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World

Muddled hodgepodge of a book that was not successful in its attempt to find commonality in the act/art of waiting. Mostly I’m fascinated by the pneumatic tubes which were essential to delivering mail in NYC, Philly, Paris, London, and the reason I picked up this book. But Farman uses a not-well-defined concept (we’ve always waited, it has an impact on our lives) as an excuse for trips to Japan and Australia in addition to chasing Civil War battlefields and musing about the Hubble telescope. What a weird and patched-up book whose seams are fraying and tattered. There’s a whole discourse on the design of computer icons to indicate waiting.

Paris used the pneumatic tube mailing system from 1866-1984; London launched it in 1853 and it was used in the U.S. from 1893 to 1953 to shoot mail quickly across town from one station to another. Farman dazzles himself by discovering that one of these stations (Station A) is now an Apple Store, fitting nicely into his story about instant messaging and how making people wait in line for their products creates desirability.  Anyway, the system was decommissioned in the 1950s because the tubes were expensive to maintain and trucks could handle large quantities of mail cross-town.

Tubes were also used in department stores (clerks take the money for your purchase and shoot it to another floor, getting your receipt and change back by way of tube as well), the NYPL library, banks, and hospitals.

Some guy thought he’d figured out the solution to more cheaply laying fiber across NYC by utilizing the existing pneumatic tube system, but nope, much cheaper to just dig shallow trenches. Also, post-9/11 the actual schematics of the tube system became impossible to access due to terrorist threat.

 

Dodsworth

A fantastic introduction to Sinclair Lewis! This book follows Sam Dodsworth, a retired automobile executive whose wife is bored with small town U.S. life, clamoring to be taken away to Europe to spend his millions. Once there she swoons with adoring men who introduce her to romance and quite easily lure her away from her stolid husband. Sam trails around amiably for a few years, watching the affairs, then leaves her when she decides to marry a poor Count. He stumbles blindly around the continent for a bit, ends up in the arms of an American widow in Venice who he’d met earlier. The book was a grand excuse to indulge in speeches about the differences in attitudes between Europe and America (circa late 1920s when the book was written).