Afterlives of Virginia Woolf

Clare Hall, West Court


Virginia Woolf died in March 1941. She was 59, an unusual age for a suicide. She felt she was going mad again, and could not bear the pain of mental breakdown. Nor did she want to burden her husband and sister with the strain of another period of mental illness. She put heavy stones in her pockets, and drowned herself in the River Ouse in Sussex. It took three weeks before her body was washed up and found. Leonard Woolf had the sad task of identifying her remains. Friends remarked on the incredible strain etched upon his face, his eyes red from constant weeping.

The spring of 1941 was the most frightening period of the Second World War for Britain. Nazi Germany had conquered much of Europe. Tens of thousands of British people had been killed or wounded in bombing raids. There was a serious threat that Hitler would invade southern England. ‘In the midst of this terrifying military and political situation’, writes Sybil Oldfield in Afterwords, ’Britain stood alone’. Before Hitler turned his attention to Russia in the east, and before the United States entered the conflict, British people feared, with good reason, that they might lose the war.

This was the context in which Woolf decided to kill herself, though her reasons were personal. In its way, her suicide was an expression of love for her husband and sister, who had supported her for so long. It tells us something of the intense suffering caused by her mental illnesses that death came to seem preferable.

This much is familiar to most readers of Woolf. Less well-known is the astonishing hostility which emerged in response to her death. A few days before she died, her circle of friends and acquaintances had been under attack in the newspapers. Writers, artists, and intellectuals who had opposed the First World War, and who had criticised the peace treaties of 1919, were pilloried in the press and even in parliament. Those who had in fact warned of the dangers of the Versailles Treaty, of the rise of extremism and militarism, and of the risks of appeasing Hitler, were attacked as shirkers and high-brows. Described as deliberately perverse, degenerate, and obscure, their work was criticised as not simply irrelevant to ordinary, decent people, but as a threat to Britain’s very survival.

As Oldfield dryly points out, the terms of the attack were uncomfortably close to those used by the Nazi book-burners of 1933 and those who exhibited and mocked Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’) in Munich in 1937. Moreover, The Times and Lord Elton, who led the attacks on the intellectuals, had themselves been leading exponents of appeasement, as Stephen Spender noted in an angry article.

Most hurtful in personal terms were the ways in which Woolf’s suicide note was wilfully misquoted. ‘I feel certain that I am going mad again,’ she wrote to Leonard. ‘I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time.’ Her note was discussed in the coroner’s report, and then in newspaper articles. ‘Cannot Go On Any Longer’, sneered a Sunday Times headline. Where Woolf recalled ‘those terrible times’ – her period of mental illness some 25 years earlier – the press misquoted her as unable to face ‘these terrible times’. She was cast as weak and selfish, deserting Britain in its hour of need. This in turn was used to fuel further attacks on intellectuals and modernist writers.

By contrast, the personal responses to Woolf’s death were sympathetic and generous. Many people wrote condolence letters to Leonard Woolf and to Vanessa Bell. These were carefully preserved and eventually deposited in the archives at the University of Sussex. They provide fascinating insights into the ways in which Virginia Woolf appealed to friends and acquaintances, as a person as well as a writer. She was not the aloof aesthete of popular myth, but a warm, witty, lively, and kind companion.

‘Virginia’s death takes the colour out of the world,’ wrote political campaigner Margery Fry, sister of the artist Roger Fry, to Leonard. ‘I can’t bear to think what it means to you.’ Many letters praised the ways in which Leonard and Vanessa had supported Woolf over the years. Poet John Lehmann, who worked closely with the Woolfs at the Hogarth Press, was deeply distressed by the news. But, he wrote to Leonard, ‘at least you must know that if it hadn’t been for your care all these years the tragedy might have happened earlier, and so much that is precious in English literature might never have been written.’ For socialist writer Naomi Mitchison, Woolf ‘was an answer’ to some of the most profound questions in life. ‘I took it for granted she would always be there’. Mitchison wrote that she reread Woolf’s books frequently, and knew many bits by heart. For writer Elizabeth Bowen, ‘a great deal of the meaning seems to have gone out of the world’. Woolf ‘illuminated everything, and one referred the most trivial things to her in [one’s] thoughts.’ In a way, Woolf lived on in Bowen’s own writing, haunting her books as well as her mind.

Leonard and Vanessa received condolence letters from many great names in the literary world – Edmund Blunden, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Radclyffe Hall, Rose Macaulay, Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, H. G. Wells, and many others – alongside letters from the Labour Party, the Workers’ Education Association, the Publishers’ Association, as well as Jewish refugees, a German prisoner of war, an RAF pilot, a conscientious objector – individuals who did not know Woolf, but who loved her work and valued it immensely, especially in time of war.


For a writer who identified herself very strongly as English, even as she wondered what that meant, Woolf has an astonishing capacity to appeal to readers in other nations, as the essays in Woolf Across Cultures demonstrate. There are lively readerships of Woolf in Japan, Korea, Russia and Portugal. This book shows how diverse cultures have taken up her work and made her their own.

Woolf scholarship is strong in Japan and Korea, with many important translations of her work. Several chapters address the difficulties of translating Woolf’s original prose style into other languages. As a young student, Woolf scholar Makiko Minow-Pinkney read To the Lighthouse in Japanese translation, and was immediately smitten. She argues that, in a sense, ‘translation is at the core of the Japanese modern self.’ Feudal Japan was not modernised until the end of the nineteenth century, ‘triggered by pressure from the West. Since then, modernity, modernism and postmodernism have arrived with amazing speed in a short space of time.’ Japanese translations of Western writings played a crucial role in this process; ‘they helped to create modern Western concepts in the Japanese language’. New, modern writing styles emerged in part out of this encounter with European literature, and out of this, the ‘modern’ Japanese self was born. For Minow-Pinkey, the anxieties of modernity and the anxieties of translation coincide in Japan. She goes on to provide a fascinating and learned meditation upon the relationship between Woolf’s modernism and Walter Benjamin’s theory of translation.

Also fascinating is Noriko Kubota’s study of the reception in Japan of Orlando, the first of Woolf’s novels to be translated into Japanese, in 1931. It made sense, perhaps unexpectedly, within Japanese literary tradition, picking up ideas expressed in Torikaebaya Monogatari, a classical Japanese novel of sex change and cross-dressing from the twelfth century which was published and widely known in Japan from the middle of the nineteenth century. Torikaebaya Monogatari draws inspiration from an earlier Japanese work, The Tale of Genji. This was translated into English in 1925, and, in a tantalising cross-cultural connection, was reviewed by Virginia Woolf. Kubota gives a helpful overview of the wealth of Japanese translations of Woolf; all but one novel has been available in Japanese for 70 years or longer. In a way, Woolf has become an influential voice in modern Japanese literature.

According to Myunghee Chung, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is popular in Korea. A play by a Korean woman writer in the 1990s borrowed Woolf’s title. This also proved popular, and brought Woolf’s ideas into Korean debates about feminism.

Several essays in Woolf Across Cultures explore Woolf’s importance in Russia, where her books sold about 2.5 million copies between 1978 and 2002. Woolf herself was deeply interested in Russian literature, and wrote a dozen essays on the topic. Christine Froula examines the profound influence of Chekhov on Between the Acts. Natalya Reinhold looks at Woolf’s work in co-translating Russian writings, including some Tolstoy letters, in the early 1920s. The importance for British modernism of nineteenth-century Russian literature, much of it first appearing in English in the early twentieth century, is emerging as a new and fruitful area in modernist scholarship.

This important new scholarship is teaching us to re-read Woolf as a European writer, and in a European context. The Reception of Virginia Woolf in Europe, edited by Caws and Luckhurst, maps fields of knowledge almost unknown to English-language scholars: decades of scholarly work on Woolf in German, French, Italian, Catalan, and other European languages. Some chapters address the challenges of translating Woolf’s complex prose. One of the most interesting chapters looks at the reception and translation of Woolf into German in the GDR in the last decades of the communist regime.

Work in French, Spanish and German receives the closest attention, with chapters also addressing Woolf scholarship in Swedish, Polish, Danish, Greek, Italian, Galician, Catalan and Portuguese. In Germany, the Woolf scholarly industry is second only to Shakespeare. As Maria Jose Gamez Fuentes argues, Woolf has been an important influence for recent writers in Spain, including the wonderful Carmen Martin Gaite, who also translated To the Lighthouse in the 1980s. Fuentes analyses contemporary Spanish writer Ana Maria Navales, whose collection of short stories, Tres mujeres (Three Women, 1995) includes a tale in which Virginia Woolf appears as a central character.

A final chapter by Laura Marcus looks at the European connections of the Hogarth Press, the publishing house run by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Like Reinhold in Woolf Across Cultures, Marcus pays close attention to the importance of Russian writers for Woolf, and also discusses the Hogarth Press’s publication of Freud in English, a process which forged close connections with a lively circle of writers and practitioners in psychoanalysis.

Woolf is now a staple of modern literature in the English-speaking world, both for students and for the ‘common reader’ Woolf herself so valued. Her importance in other languages and cultures has only recently been recognised, and these books are valuable introductions to the topic.


This article is a review of:  Sybil Oldfield, ed., Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf (Edinburgh University Press, 2005);  Natalya Reinhold, ed., Woolf Across Cultures (Pace University Press, 2004);  Mary Ann Caws and Nicola Luckhurst, eds., The Reception of Virginia Woolf in Europe (Continuum, 2002). First published in Quadrant, Australia, Jan/Feb 2006. Copyright (c) Trudi Tate 2006.