Photo in the National Portrait Gallery, London
Virginia Woolf's birthday falls this week on January 25. She was born in London in 1882. Most people know that Virginia Woolf was a brilliant and groundbreaking writer who wrote "Mrs. Dalloway" and "To the Lighthouse." Along with Proust and Joyce, she broke with the conventions of the past and ushered in the modern novel. There is much poetry in her novels and they contain some of the most beautiful writing you will ever read. But there are many things about her that are not known. The English poet Edith Sitwell wrote the following about Virginia Woolf, shortly after her death in 1941.
"A short while ago this exquisite being, with the sensibility of Dorothy Wordsworth and the talent of Jane Austen, was still with us. She was allied to many things in nature; she had the profundity of a deep well of water. But when she was talking, and listening to the talk of others, you felt that she was like a happy child chasing butterflies over the fields of an undying summer. Only there was no cruelty; she would catch the lovely creature for a moment, see the colours on their wings, and then set them free again, their beauty undimmed.
There was no happiness that you could not imagine her sharing, nor could you ever guess that there was a shadow in the world. Brave and shining, darkness could have no part in her.
After her tragic death a friend wrote of her that she had 'an unearthly beauty.' I would have said 'an unworldly beauty,' for part of her delightfulness lay in the fact that she enjoyed earthly things. Her beauty was great and she had the kind of unconscious elegance of some tall thin bird, with its long legs and delicate feet, and wondering turn of the head. With this she had a charm which had an innocently mischievous character, like that of a child.
In conversation with her, everything became exciting. She made thoughts fly to and fro more quickly. She had a swift and flashing sympathy like that which Dorothy Wordsworth must have possessed, her luminous mind lightened and heightened all subjects. Equally enchanting as talker and listener, she encouraged the conversation of her friends, she teased them gently, clapping her hands with pleasure and excitement when they scored some point. She was never tired of questioning; but questions were never wearisome when she asked them, for they led somewhere and often made the answerer see a new truth.
Such was her personality: and her work and her character were indivisible. Hers was a work more of radiance than of fire. It had no quality of danger in it. The beings in her novels and in that enchanting work, 'The Common Reader,' are living creatures: we meet them as we meet our acquaintances, they talk with us, laugh with us. I do not think that they tell us the secrets of their hearts. But then, many charming beings are unravaged by passions, undevastated by fires in the heart. They do not live dangerously, the great adventures are not theirs. But the flying happiness of the hour, the light on the wings of the bird, the dew on the morning world: these she seemed to hold in her long and beautiful hands, and as she touched them for a moment they became more real to us and it seemed that they must be unfading."
I found this tribute to Virginia Woolf by Edith Sitwell in the book "English Women" which is part of the "Britain in Pictures" series. What I love about this description of Virginia Woolf is that it shows a side of her that many people don't know. It captures the light and happy side of her personality, the enchanting and charming side that her friends loved. We all know about the darkness and the tragic end it led to, but when we read her letters or the memories of her by friends such as Clive Bell, we get an idea of the fun and spirit that was such a large part of her conversation. She had a great sense of fun, loved practical jokes, and was an incorrigible gossip. When she told a story it was often embroidered with exaggeration, whimsey and many colorful details, and her friends loved her for the magic she brought to their social circle.
Clive Bell tells a story about the effect of Virginia on her close friends:
"I remember spending some dark, uneasy, winter days during the first war in the depth of the country with Lytton Strachey. After lunch, as we watched the rain pour down and premature darkness roll up, he said, in his searching, personal way, 'Loves apart, whom would you most like to see coming up the drive?' I hesitated a moment, and he supplied the answer: 'Virginia, of course.'"
Happy Birthday, Virginia!