Monday, November 29, 2010

Virginia Woolf and the Quakers

"People who know (Quaker) Caroline Stephen and her writings are often unaware that Virginia Woolf, one of the most innovative forces within the genre of the modern English novel, was her niece. Woolf used concepts of psychology and relativity to produce new ways of expressing consciousness in works such as Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). In addition to her progressive artistry, she is known for her strong stands on feminism and pacifism. Copies of Light Arising and Quaker Strongholds were in Virginia Woolf’s private library to the end of her life. So much of the old forms and the family ties of her past life were jettisoned when she and her siblings recreated themselves in Bloomsbury that it seems unlikely that she would have retained these books for purely sentimental reasons. They must have been meaningful to her on some deeper level."

"In light of this, it is informative to look at the link between these two women, who were both outstanding in their respective fields, and particularly interesting to consider the influence of Stephen’s Quakerism upon Woolf’s writing.Virginia Woolf and her siblings from a young age had accepted their father’s view of their aunt. She was called "Silly Milly" or "Nun" or "The Quaker" and was often a figure of fun in their early lives. However, an important encounter between the two women was to take place in Virginia Woolf’s early adulthood. 
Virginia was twenty-two years old when her father died in 1904, and at this time she suffered another of the mental collapses she had experienced since childhood. There may have even been a suicide attempt at this time. She was sent to recover in the home of her Quaker friend, Violet Dickinson, where she stayed for almost three months. Later she was sent to Caroline’s Cambridge home, known as "The Porch," for additional rest.She called The Porch at one point "an ideal retreat for me". She attended Cambridge Meeting with Caroline and offered to bring Violet there on a visit as well. Caroline found freedom from intellectual and theological controversies in silence, and Virginia found a new type of freedom as well. In her life at the Stephen household, "silence was a breach of convention" and mindless small talk a requirement." 

"The focused quiet of Quaker meeting must have given Virginia a needed opportunity to rest, turn inward, and recollect herself from her trauma without having to "perform" for others. Although there was sometimes tension between the two women, Caroline’s presence must have also been of help. Virginia writes of her aunt: "We talked for some nine hours; and she poured forth all her spiritual experiences. All her life she has been listening to inner voices, and talking with spirits"


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