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.