In 1895, when Virginia Woolf was 13, her mother, Julia Stephen, died suddenly -- influenza turned to rheumatic fever, and in short order she was gone. Young Virginia had a moment to kiss her mother as she lay on her deathbed; as she left the room, Julia called her daughter by her nursery nickname, saying, “Hold yourself straight, my little goat.”
In 2000, when I was 11, my mother died suddenly -- an aortic dissection caused her to collapse at my grade school spelling bee, and by the time my brothers and I were brought to the hospital, as we thought, to see her, she was gone. The last time I’d spoken to her, before my competition began, she’d given me a hug filled with encouragement and musky perfume.
A decade later, as an English major turning over potential thesis projects for my senior year of college, I gravitated toward Woolf. I hadn’t read her until junior year. I wasn’t a modernist, a huge fan of stream-of-consciousness or experimental structure, and to this day I haven’t finished a full book by James Joyce. But when I first picked up Mrs. Dalloway, I’d fallen madly, impractically in love.
I wrote my thesis on Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and The Waves, analyzing how Woolf uses floral motifs in each. Having grown up on Austen and the Brontës, I relished Woolf’s showy style, crafted to be unpacked and unpacked and examined from all angles. Even the most narrow-minded men in my literature classes could agree that Woolf was worth reading in her own right, not just as a concession to the feminist agenda. She was serious, scholarly, the profound emotions in her work guarded round with fences of respectable technique.
Meanwhile, the entire time I worked on this serious-minded Woolf thesis, and for several years before, I was stumbling through an extended, deeply misunderstood emotional breakdown.
I had a college boyfriend I loved very much; we broke up, got back together again, broke up again. Even when our relationship seemed temporarily stable, I’d spend hours crying on his shoulder about an awkward run-in with an acquaintance. My sprouting social anxiety was like a dark-tinted pair of sunglasses that placed every encounter behind a murky, paranoid filter. Making female friends, which had always been my source of social strength, became a struggle.
I felt alone, and I felt desperate not to be alone, and I felt terrified that my few intimates would figure out how desperately I needed them and pull away. I wasn’t always wrong. All the while, Virginia Woolf was there beside me, going through very much the same thing, and I didn’t even notice.
“All the while, Virginia Woolf was there beside me, going through very much the same thing, and I didn’t even notice.”
Here’s the thing: Losing your mother when you’re a preteen throws things off, developmentally. You remember her, but not enough to feel like you really knew her -- just enough to grasp how much you're missing. You never went through a teenage separation from her, so she exists in a state of perpetual perfection, if not semi-sainthood, as haloed to you as she was to your little-girl self.
You have zero capacity to deal with any of this, of course, because children are emotionally illiterate. You laugh when everyone else is crying. You’re buoyed by trivial victories, like getting a condolence card from a crush or finding more fresh doughnuts left on the counter by a sympathetic church member. Grinning, you challenge your friends to a rousing game of Clue at her wake, leaving them tentative and frightened. But you also sleep as much as possible to avoid those times when you’ll have to occupy yourself either laughing or sobbing. When your grief-stricken father tries to talk about your mother with you, you change the subject. You do this for years, until he stops trying, until everyone stops trying. You don’t know how to talk about it without completely falling apart. You don’t know falling apart is even an option.
Years pass, and people move on, but your grief is a bulb germinating in the earth. By the time the pale shoots nudge the soil aside and peek out, you’ve forgotten anything was planted there. You don’t remember what it is. It seems like a weed, wafted in by an unfortunate breeze, to be battled with medication and harsh uprooting.
A couple years after college, a friend recommended a book called Motherless Daughters to me. The book explores the grieving processes of women who’ve lost their mothers at all ages. As I read, I cried with relief and anguish, as if the words were lancing some long-festering infection. I was reading about myself -- my emotional college years, defined by dependency and fear of loss; my closed-off teen years, when I rarely willingly thought of my mother at all. I’d been blaming myself for all of it, but it turns out I’m not so special: I’m just like all of the other motherless daughters.
Late in life, Woolf wrote an autobiographical essay called “A Sketch of the Past.” In it, she shows herself to be not so different either, from the other motherless daughters. She felt deprived of her memories of her mother, conscious of never having been able to see her fully as a human. She viewed her mother as a distant but essential deity. She spent her whole life obsessed with her mother, craving her approval though such approval could never come.
Rereading this essay now, my heart pulls painfully toward Woolf. Even the oddest little details seem beyond coincidental: The way "a desire to laugh came over" her as she was ushered in to kiss her newly dead mother (how crushingly like the moment, when my dad told us she hadn't made it, that I started to giggle). The transcendent lift she felt seeing a fiery sunset through the glass of the train station as she accompanied her brother, Thoby, home after their mother's death (how like the unforgettable pinks and golds of the sun setting through the clouds as my father walked me home from the hospital that night, too sick from crying to ride in a car).
"My mother's death unveiled and intensified," she wrote, "made me suddenly develop perceptions, as if a burning glass had been laid over what was shaded and dormant." How rawly one remembers those days, as if any membrane between the world and you has been ripped away, while the memories of the mother you loved begin immediately to slip through your fingers.
"There is the memory," she wrote," but there is nothing to check that memory by; nothing to bring it to ground with ... the elements of [her] character ... are formed in twilight."
She struggled to piece together her mother by tracing her biography, the men she loved, the people who loved her, the jumbled memories Woolf herself retained. When you lose your mother before you're able to see her clearly, as a person, finding out who she is becomes a treasure hunt, a research project, a detective expedition.
“When you lose your mother before you're able to see her clearly, as a person, finding out who she is becomes a treasure hunt, a research project, a detective expedition.”
In her fiction, the loss of her mother ripples silently. To the Lighthouse, perhaps the greatest novel on maternal loss, was written as a tribute to Julia Stephen, but Woolf's grief can be found everywhere. The longing for connection, blended with the certainty of unpredictable loss, marks her mapping of human relationships. ("If you have any kind of triggers around sudden death," Christopher Frizzelle wrote on LitHub last year, "you should not read Virginia Woolf." I remember playing charades with family not long after my mother's death; we tensely skipped over the card for "sudden death," feeling her collapse in the room.)
All closeness is temporary; all love is dangerous; and in the end, even the love we find is often a hollow substitute for that which we believe we were meant to have. Woolf's fiction isn't comforting or optimistic, and why would it be -- after her mother, she quickly lost her elder half-sister and surrogate mother, Stella Duckworth, as well as her cherished brother Thoby, when he was in his mid-20s.
It's this hard-won despair that spoke to my soul when I first read Woolf, though I lacked the capacity to admit it then. To move through grief, to live with it, you have to let yourself feel the howling of the loss all around you, and every line of her writing vibrates with that cry. You have to accept that you've lost that which was once everything to you, and that the hole can't be filled with AP classes or long naps or recalcitrant boyfriends or anything at all.
"She," Woolf wrote, "was the whole thing." I know. I know.
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