Friday, Sep. 18, 1964

Unafraid of Virginia Woolf

BEGINNING AGAIN by Leonard Woolf. 263 pages. Harcourf, Brace & World. $4.95.

On a Swedish holiday in 1911, Leonard Woolf was confronted on a remote beach by a naked Swede, who asked, "Can you divorce your wife in England if she is insane?" Woolf was used to having the Swedes ask many questions, but this one plainly never crossed his mind. In this third volume of his memoirs, "1911 to 1918," Woolf discusses his wife Virginia's sporadic lunacy with candor and total tenderness. He was never afraid of Virginia Woolf, nor is he now of her memory, but seems, rather, to be still almost boyishly in love with her.

She was the fine-wrought sister of a close Cambridge friend of Woolf's, daughter of venerable Sir Leslie Stephen (History of English Thought in the 18th Century). Woolf, son of an Anglicized, middle-class Jewish family, was back on leave from seven years' civil service in Ceylon when he chucked his career to become her combination lover (they decided against children because of her health), high priest and nurse. By 1912, when they married, she already had a history of neurasthenia that included two breakdowns and an attempt to throw herself out of a window after her mother's death.

Her £400-a-year allowance from her father was hardly enough for two in Upper Bohemia, so Leonard turned to part-time journalism ("the opiate of the artist; eventually it poisons his mind and his art") and other odd jobs to help pay the bills. But in those golden pre-World War I days, even young socialists supported a cook and maid. For the Woolfs there were also to be such contingent expenses as the four nurses required during Virginia's breakdowns.

The first came with the completion of her first novel, The Voyage Out, about a love-struck girl who dies of an irrelevant fever. She had "an almost pathological hypersensitivity to criticism, so that she suffered an ever increasingly agonizing nervous apprehension as she got nearer to the end of her book and the throwing of it and of herself to the critics." As the publication date approached, nervous apprehension became plain madness. She raved. She heard voices. She might literally have starved herself to death had Woolf not been with her at the time. "Every meal took an hour or two; I had to sit by her side, put a spoon or fork in her hand, and every now and again ask her very quietly to eat and at the same time touch her arm or hand. Every five minutes or so she might automatically eat a mouthful."

The volume ends in 1918, with Virginia's major creative time yet to come. The Woolfs had more than 20 years together before the day in 1941 when Virginia walked into the river Ouse and let herself drown. In this loving account of his wife, Woolf has already come close to disproving his own opinion that "the charm of the dead cannot be reproduced second-hand in words."