Edited with an introduction by Louise DeSalvo
Cleis Press ($24.95)
by Charisse Gendron
In the 1980s, scholar Louise DeSalvo's book Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work almost single-handedly reoriented the direction of Woolf studies in America. DeSalvo's discovery in Woolf's writings of motifs common to the stories of incest survivors struck a chord with many. While Woolf's posthumous memoirs, Moments of Being (1976), related a handful of sexual improprieties on the part of her half-brothers, DeSalvo went on to assert that "abuse or sexual violence" infected virtually every relationship among the ten members of the Stephen household. Yet DeSalvo's interpretations often relied on salubrious implication. By encouraging constant slippage between "abuse," including verbal bullying and emotional exploitation, and "sexual violence," she discredits her argument that incest is not an isolated event, but a family pattern.
Even more disappointing in DeSalvo's expose is her misreading of Woolf's own words—not the accounts of her abuse, which have never been contested, but her description of unrelated experiences (though to DeSalvo, none of Woolf's experiences is unrelated to her abuse). One of the most beautiful passages in Moments of Being, from which one can trace the evolution of Woolf's fascination with rhythm as the source of literary language, reads:
If my life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills—then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind... It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and of feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive... the feeling, as I describe it sometimes to myself, of lying in a grape and seeing through a film of semi-transparent yellow."
But DeSalvo is uninterested in Woolf as a writer except as the writing explicates sexual abuse. She says of this passage:
The fact of her own simple survival is what she remembers as having given her the purest ecstasy that she has known as a child. Her existence had been threatened from the very first days of her life. That moment of rapture was such an intense feeling for her, precisely because the more usual feeling for her, the 'normal' way that she experienced life as a child was 'the feeling... of lying in a grape and seeing through a film of semi-transparent yellow'... Children who have spent their lives in a state of chronic depression report precisely what Woolf describes.
Does DeSalvo not notice that Woolf's youthful ecstasy is not in opposition to but identical with feeling as if she is inside a grape—regardless of how depressing others might find that situation?
In spite of her imprecision, DeSalvo's impact has been considerable. At a major Virginia Woolf conference in the mid-nineties, participants wrangled over Woolf's biography: Whom did she love more, Leonard Woolf or Vita Sackville-West? Participants interested in formal aspects of Woolf's writing found no forum for discussion—as if her formal experimentation did not itself create a "women's language" to undermine hierarchical discourse. DeSalvo herself was supposed to appear at this conference, but she cancelled; a scholar known for her benevolence chalked it up to shin splints, saying "I've told her not to walk around New York in leather soled shoes!"
Shin splints may have spared DeSalvo a trip to the Midwest, but they have not slowed her industry. Her most recent production is Melymbrosia, an early version of Woolf's first published novel, The Voyage Out (1915). Actually, DeSalvo first published her reconstruction of Melymbrosia in 1982; now she has published it again with a new introduction. She claims that Melymbrosia is "a bolder rendering" of The Voyage Out, which Woolf declined to publish for fear that its treatment of sexual abuse, sexism, classism, and imperialism would attract censure.
Insofar as the two versions are different, Melymbrosia is more pointed than The Voyage Out, in ways that might support DeSalvo's thesis. For instance, when Melymbrosia's Helen Ambrose looks at her sleeping niece, Rachel Vinrace, she feels pity "Because you have suffered something in secret, and will have to suffer more." This line, possibly referring to child abuse, is not in The Voyage Out. Again, when Rachel has a repulsive nightmare after being kissed by a married man, Helen says, "No, I can't remember ever feeling that," suggesting that the dream signals a psychological disturbance related to sexual trauma. In The Voyage Out Helen thinks only that she is "really at a loss what to say," ascribing the dream to a mere sexual innocence that she does not feel it is her place to dispel. And in Melymbrosia, Rachel actually tells her friend Terence, to whom she will become engaged, that fear of men has been her first emotion, citing her father's bullying of her mother over money. For this passage, The Voyage Out substitutes a more abstract discussion of women's rights.
The two versions contain a few more discrepancies of this nature, and The Voyage Out adds several new transitional passages. The plots remain the same—there is no cowardly second ending rescuing Rachel from death by fever to disprove that she "is utterly unfit emotionally and intellectually to make her way through life because of her childhood," as DeSalvo describes her. Still, no one (not even DeSalvo) knows for sure whether Woolf envisioned Rachel as merely a victim of Victorian male tyranny or as an incest survivor who dies because, symbolically if not literally, incest kills.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002