Virginia Woolf’s Mother Haunts
Much of Her Writing

Gillian Gill on Julia Stephen's Multilayered
Relationship with Her Daughter

Virginia Woolf became a novelist in part because, through imaginative projection and writerly craft, fiction enabled her to feel close to her dead mother. Sustained versions of Julia Stephen occur in The Voyage Out (1915), Jacob’s Room (1922), and To the Lighthouse (1927). Fragments of her pop up in other novels.

Woolf had a kind of adoration for her mother, but as the sixth of Julia’s seven children, in a family where Father came first, Grandma a close second, and sons counted for more than daughters, Woolf did not know her mother in even the quotidian yet intense way that the lucky ones among us know our mothers.

To be close to Mother, to hold her undivided attention, to feel an intimate bond with her, was something that Virginia and Vanessa Stephen did not have as children. It was something they yearned for, especially since they could see that each of their four brothers, in different ways and at different times, had it. The lack of that primal bond punched a hole in the emotional fabric of both sisters, and they suffered from it all their lives.

From toddlerhood, Virginia was an exceptionally quick, articulate, vivid, affectionate child. By roaring and wailing and climbing out onto window ledges, she did everything she could to attract attention, but in the big household at 22 Hyde Park Gate, she could never hold it for long. “Can I remember ever being alone with [my mother] for more than a few minutes?” Woolf later asked herself, and she was almost glad when she fell ill as a child, since then Julia would come to her bedside and take care of her.

At other times there was always someone barging in to demand Julia’s immediate attention, and getting it—a sibling, a visitor, a supplicant, a servant, a dog, Father! Julia Stephen, Woolf tells us, “was living on such an extended surface that she had no time nor strength” for her daughters. The Stephen family snap of Julia and Leslie sitting side by side on the couch and reading intently, with little Virginia’s face peeping up behind them, is emblematic of the way Virginia interacted with her parents—with easy familiarity but largely unnoticed.

In her memoir essay “22 Hyde Park Gate,” Woolf refuses to blame her mother. She had worshiped her as a child, and, as an adult, she still adores her—so quick, so funny, so definite, so active, and so very beautiful. As Virginia remembered it, life with Mother, the first 13 years of her life, had been happiness for everyone. It was a humdrum happiness, an organized and choreographed succession of events, which could be boring, like the daily winter walks in Kensington Gardens, painful, like the visits to the dentist, or joyful, like the annual transfer of the whole big clan to St. Ives in Cornwall for the summer, but always reliable. “What a jumble of things I can remember [of Mother],” writes Woolf, “but they are all of her in company; of her surrounded; of her generalized; dispersed; omnipresent, of her as the creator of that crowded, merry world which spun so gaily at the center of my childhood.”

Virginia Woolf became a novelist in part because, through imaginative projection and writerly craft, fiction enabled her to feel close to her dead mother.

But then, quite suddenly in 1895, Julia Stephen died at the age of forty-nine, and of that merry world “nothing was left. In its place a dark cloud settled over us; we seemed to sit all together cooped up, solemn, unreal, under a haze of heavy emotion. . .a finger was laid on our lips.” For Virginia her mother’s death seemed the greatest tragedy imaginable. She was traumatized into silence and amnesia, her precious memories of her mother overlaid by the pious, black-edged version of Julia enshrined in the memorial volume her father put together for the edification of her and her siblings, which they would name the Mausoleum Book.

It was not until 1909 that Woolf felt able to make her first attempt to free Julia Stephen from the textual mausoleum Leslie Stephen had constructed, and only with the publication of To the Lighthouse could Woolf finally lay her mother’s ghost. By this point, a fierce rejection of the Victorian past had swept over England, and in all too many ways Julia Stephen was the personification of Victorian values. By the late 1920s it was all too clear that, for a Virginia Woolf as we know her to come into existence, her mother had had to die young. Could anyone imagine Julia Stephen allowing a fortuneless Jew like Leonard Woolf to come within hailing distance of one of her daughters?

To say that the family Virginia Woolf was born into was complicated is an understatement. If we strip away the Victoriana—the black-and-gold wood paneling, the crimson velvet curtains blocking the light, the servants bustling up out of the gas-lit sub-basement with silver tea sets and down again with full chamber pots—we find a very 21st-century family.

First, we have Leslie and Julia, two busy, well-to-do people who own a house in town and rent a holiday home by the sea and can afford seven live-in servants, plus additional help with the laundry and the garden, but still feel poor in comparison to relatives and friends. Each partner has been married before, and they carry heavy emotional baggage as well as four children, George, Stella, and Gerald Duckworth and Laura Stephen, into the marriage. When four more children arrive in rapid succession, things get really stressful. The Stephen and Duckworth children have little in common, but they all live in the same house, and the nuclear family of ten is framed in a huge extended family of bosomy aunties, booming uncles, and creepy cousins, to say nothing of a mother-in-law who is always demanding attention, whether in person or via the mail, which is delivered several times a day.

To say that Julia Stephen had her hands full is an understatement. No sooner has she married Leslie Stephen than she is pregnant, and when Vanessa, her fourth child, is born, she is past denying how painful and debilitating childbearing is. Over the next four years, three more children arrive, each, as everyone could see, a drain on Julia’s physical reserves. All the same, Julia’s biggest worry is not her seven children, plus Laura, but her husband, the big baby who will never grow up and go away.

The saintliness of Julia was in ratio to Leslie’s orneriness, for even in an era when wives were expected to sacrifice themselves to the comfort of their husbands, Julia Stephen’s friends and relatives considered her husband to be exceptionally difficult. In The Voyage Out, with her characters Ridley and Helen Ambrose, Virginia Woolf makes the first of her fictional attempts to evoke what her parents’ marriage was like. Helen starts the novel in grief. For a period of months if not years, she is leaving behind her two small children, whom she adores — especially the little boy — and giving them into the care of an evangelical nanny she does not trust. Given her domestic cares and responsibilities, why, we might ask, is Helen Ambrose setting out for South America?

For Virginia her mother’s death seemed the greatest tragedy imaginable. She was traumatized into silence and amnesia.

Well, we gather as the novel progresses, Helen’s scholar husband, Ridley, is overworked, needs a holiday, fancies a season in a relative’s hacienda in South America, and could not possibly survive such a trip without his wife.

In the early pages of the book, we find Ridley, on the first day away at sea, entering the cabin study dedicated to his personal use and suddenly reduced to a trembling heap of anxiety and resentment. The table is wobbly, the chair the wrong height, and the door leaky. Helen shoos Ridley out, organizes a new chair and table from the crew, and gets down on her hands and knees with a hammer and a piece of thick cloth to make a doorstopper, so her husband’s feet don’t feel the cold sea air.

Smiling, all right in his world, Ridley Ambrose once again becomes absorbed in the preparation of a new edition of the Greek poet Pindar, which, the reader cannot help feeling, the world could probably manage without. At the end of the novel, when his niece Rachel is dying upstairs, all Ridley can do for his frantic and exhausted wife is to drive her and everyone else in the house mad by muttering poetry and singing ballads. Leslie Stephen memorized yards of poetry as a boy and was famous among family and friends, especially as he aged and grew deaf, for reciting aloud and humming old tunes under his breath.

In The Voyage Out, the exertions of Helen Ambrose to serve her husband when on vacation give us an inkling of the complex household machinery Julia Stephen set up at 22 Hyde Park Gate. Each morning, water must be carried upstairs to fill the hip bath in the master’s dressing room, as he cannot be expected to compete with other members of the family for the single bathroom. (The Stephens were not, I suspect, a particularly fragrant bunch, Leslie apart.) After breakfast, Leslie Stephen retired to his fifth-floor aerie to labor on his dictionary and scholarly books. Heavy volumes crashing to the floor are a sign the master is at work, so quiet must reign throughout the rest of the busy household. One of the maids must go up regularly and, without making a sound, empty his study chamber pot, since descending to one of the three lavatories on the lower floors would break his chain of thought. Meals carefully planned by the mistress to please the master’s palate and promote his digestion must be served precisely on time.

Such material demands were taxing, but Julia was a highly efficient household manager, so she coped. Far more wearing to Mrs. Stephen, if not to the second parlor maid (remember that gas-lit sub-basement where the staff of seven live-in servants moldered?), was Mr. Stephen’s incurable angst. Was he not just a third-class mind? Did any of the coming young men like Maitland really admire him? Would all of his work be forgotten within a year of his death? Only Julia could combat these night terrors, but when at last Leslie fell asleep, she often lay awake, racked with fatigue and anxiety.

And then there was sex, a word not uttered, a subject not raised in the Stephen home or addressed at all in the Dictionary of National Biography. Sex is also an issue that Virginia Woolf — so quick with off-color gossip in her letters and so slow to feel desire in her life — skates circles around in her many accounts of her parents’ marriage. Trampling down shopworn Victorian shibboleths was one thing. Imagining her father and mother in bed, copulating, quite another.

Yet, for Julia Stephen, a woman who managed to produce seven children by two husbands in less than ten years, and died worn out at forty-nine, sex was like the elephant in the room, heard, felt, smelled, but never alluded to. Leslie Stephen was a tall, strong, healthy man who came from a lineage of passionate males, a man who blossomed in the company of young, beautiful women and could be outrageously rude to old, ugly ones, a man who ventured for the first and only time into a theater to ogle Lillie Langtry. Leslie had desired Julia ever since she was a teenager, and finding her at last in his bed must have been an immense pleasure. Julia, for her part, no doubt found that sexual intercourse was a sure way to calm her husband and get him off to sleep. And then, what better way can a woman find to bolster a man’s self-esteem and allay his morbid anxieties about status and legacy than to present him with four healthy, beautiful, bright children (so different from poor Laura!), two strapping boys and two beautiful girls?

Woolf ’s portrait of her parents as the Ambroses in The Voyage Out and the Ramsays in To the Lighthouse hint at a happy sexual relationship as well as an intellectual companionship between Leslie and Julia.

Julia was 32 when she married Leslie Stephen. Many women in their thirties and forties are at the height of their sexual responsiveness, and Julia had lived without sexual intimacy for nine years. Perhaps she was just as eager as her husband for the pleasure and release of tension that sex can afford. Woolf ’s portrait of her parents as the Ambroses in The Voyage Out and the Ramsays in To the Lighthouse hint at a happy sexual relationship as well as an intellectual companionship between Leslie and Julia. Maybe they had a lovely time in bed. We shall never know. What we do know, in the absence of Bloomsbury-style conjugal confessions, is that Julia’s pattern of behavior in her second marriage was very different from that of her first.

According to the letters she kept and that Leslie Stephen found after her death, Julia’s three-year marriage to Herbert Duckworth was one long honeymoon. Friends and family remarked that, even when pregnant or nursing, Julia Duckworth clung tight to her barrister husband, going on the legal circuit with him when she could, pining for him when he was away. Her mother and sisters, who had been hitherto the focus of her love and attention, had to defer to a husband’s superior claims. In her second marriage, however, especially during the first ten or so years, Julia ran her life in a very different way. It was now Julia who was often away from home on extended visits, and her husband’s wants and needs, along with those of her children, were not infrequently subordinated to those of her extended family or even her friends.

Now, let it be noted up front that Julia Stephen was not leaving her family for pleasure — not, for example, to go to a spa for health reasons in what amounted to a vacation, as her mother had often done without raising any eyebrows. No, Julia Stephen left home on errands of mercy to attend people she loved who were in pain and threatened with death, and in a period when hospitals were for the indigent and private institutions were for the mad, no one questioned her doing so. Sick people with means in the last decades of the 19th century remained in their homes, received house calls from their physicians, and were nursed by their female relatives, with the variously useful help of paid attendants. (Remember Sarah Gamp, the drunken, thieving bed nurse in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit?)

In a household afflicted with sickness, no one could turn chaos into order quicker than Julia Stephen. If needed, she was ready to do the ugly, disgusting jobs — holding the chamber pot, mopping up the vomit, stripping the soiled sheets, changing the dressing — that today, if we are lucky and affluent, we mostly delegate to professionals. And when practical help was of no avail, Julia Stephen would sit next to a dying man, hold his hand, and keep back her tears until the body was washed and decent enough for inspection and the time for lamentation had come. She did this many times, and in my book that makes her a heroine. Perhaps it makes her a saint in yours, though “saint” was a word rarely uttered without irony in the Stephen house.

In 1883, Julia Stephen’s friends and relatives persuaded her to publish a little pamphlet called Notes from Sickrooms, in which she advised other women on how to properly care for their ailing loved ones. Julia’s advice is practical and uncomplicated, yet following it was labor-intensive. Sick people require perfect quiet and neatness, she wrote, an unlimited supply of clean laundry, tempting and nutritious food, and a perfectly smooth bottom sheet. Crumbs are always finding their way into the bed, observes Mrs. Leslie Stephen, and even the tiniest crumb will cause discomfort and distress. Above all, the nurse must carefully observe her patient to ensure that his needs are met, with consideration for his particular wishes, tastes, and habits.

To those who said that only the religious can be entrusted with the care of the dying, Julia’s response was that since this is the only life we have, helping to ease pain and make life’s end smooth was a woman’s supreme duty.

From what Julia Stephen does not say in her Notes from Sickrooms, she neither believed in miracles nor placed much faith in doctors and medical science. Doctors, after all, had been powerless to help Herbert Duckworth and Minny Thackeray Stephen. Like Florence Nightingale, whose best-selling Notes on Nursing she had read, Julia knew that even the most devoted and attentive care was not always enough and that a home nurse must be prepared for the job of providing strong and loving support to her patient in the last days and hours of life.

Since Julia Stephen did not believe that when you died, you went on to a new and better world, unlike Nightingale in the 19th century or Mother Theresa in the 20th , she was unwilling to offer the dying the consoling prospect of heaven and a reunion with the beloved dead. But to those who said that only the religious woman can be entrusted with the care of the dying, Julia Stephen’s response was that, on the contrary, since this is the only life we have, helping to ease pain and make life’s end as smooth as possible was a woman’s supreme duty. This was Julia’s credo and she lived by it.

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Virginia Woolf by Gillian Gill

Excerpted from Virginia Woolf: And the Women Who Shaped Her World by Gillian Gill. Copyright © Gillian Gill 2019. Reprinted with permission from HMH Books.

Gillian Gill
Gillian Gill
Gillian Gill holds a Ph.D. in modern French literature from Cambridge University, and has taught at Northeastern, Wellesley, Yale, and Harvard. She is the New York Times best-selling author of We Too, Nightingales, Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf: And the Women Around Her, Mary Baker Eddy. She lives in suburban Boston.





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