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2. Modernist Non-fictional Narratives of War and Peace (1914-1950)
II/ Non-fiction Ethics and Aesthetics

“Reduced to a Whirlpool”: War, Sigmund Freud and Virginia Woolf’s (Late) Non-fiction



Lorsque la Seconde Guerre mondiale éclata, Virginia Woolf était en train d’apporter les dernières révisions à Roger Fry, son adieu à l’ami cher dont on lui avait demandé d’écrire la biographie. Si cette expérience d’écriture est indubitablement centrale à son expérience du conflit (du moins à ce qu’elle en vécut), ses lectures doivent être considérées comme tout aussi fondamentales à la compréhension de sa participation à ce conflit. A cette fin, cet article se penche sur les premières tentatives que fit Woolf pour aborder de front les théories psychanalytiques freudiennes après avoir marqué une certaine réticence à leur égard à la fin des années vingt.

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For about him till the very end were still
those he had studied, the fauna of the night,
and shades that still waited to enter
the bright circle of his recognition
W. H. Auden, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” (1939).

1When the Second World War broke out, Virginia Woolf was absorbed in the final revision of Roger Fry, the final salute to her beloved friend whose biography she had been asked to write. If this writing experience is surely to be regarded as central to her experience of that limited portion of the conflict she endured, her readings too are to be considered as equally fundamental to the understanding of her participation in the conflict. To this effect this essay addresses Woolf’s first documented and systematic approach to Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, after the initial resistance she was careful to enact in the late 1920s. The reading of her diary will first prove essential to a better understanding of her difficult relationship to Freud’s writings and her late acceptance of Freud’s theories, and it will eventually reveal the increasingly crucial role that non-fiction at large played in those later, distressing, years of her career.

1. War drums and journalism (Sept. – Dec. 1939)

2To appreciate Woolf’s most authentic reaction to the outburst of hostilities with Nazi Germany, the Diary is unquestionably the most immediate source to peruse (Campbell Tidwell 2008, 49). One of the first distinctly clear forebodings of the imminent war makes its appearance in Woolf’s diary as early as August 17, 1938, when she records in her own telegraphic style and spelling a conversation in which the possibility of an actual conflict becomes, for the first time, uncannily palpable:

So, at supper, we discussed our generation: & the prospects of war. Hitler has his million men now under arms. It is only summer manoeuvres or – ? Harold broadcasting in his man of the world manner hints it may be war. That is the complete ruin not only of civilisation, in Europe, but of our last lap. Quentin conscripted &c. One ceases to think about it – that’s all. Goes on discussing the new room, new chair, new books. (Woolf 1986, 162)

  • 1 It would be superfluous here to reflect on the pivotal role of the loss of young male relatives in (...)

3The anxiety and distress she felt for her nephew, clearly, are fostered by the sudden death of Quentin’s brother Julian in Spain, which can with a degree of certainty be considered as a trigger that rekindled her fear of war in the late 1930s.1 The idea of Hitler’s operations as a bluff will comfort Virginia slightly, although some very grim ideas will begin to loom and condense in her consciousness:

Its odd to be sitting here, looking up little facts about Roger & the M[etropolitan] M[useum] in New York, with a sparrow tapping on my roof this fine September morning when it may be the 3rd Aug 1914 … What would war mean? Darkness, strain: I suppose conceivably death. And all the horror of friends: & Quentin: … All that lies over the water in the brain of that ridiculous little man. Why ridiculous? Because none of it fits. Encloses no reality. Death & war & darkness representing nothing that any human being from the Pork butcher to the Prime Minister cares one straw about. Not liberty, not life … merely a housemaids dream. And we woke from that dream & have the Cenotaph to remind us of the fruits. Well I cant spread my mind wide eno’ to take it in, intelligibly. If it were real, one cd. make something of it. But as it is it merely grumbles, in an inarticulate way, behind reality. We may hear his mad voice vociferating tonight. (Woolf 1986, 166)

4This excerpt is worth quoting in full since it simultaneously shows the apparent incommensurability of the experience of writing and that of actually being at war. The remark that “death & war & darkness” actually “enclose no reality” is a very daunting one, especially in the present paper which is concerned with the most reality-charged of Woolf’s prose styles, that is, non-fiction. Woolf’s “grave hours” were accompanied, on a literary level, by her strenuous revision of her last book-length publication, Roger Fry, a biography, and a plethora of other essayistic texts (Reynier 2019, 161-3).

5This pre-eminence of the non-fictional over the fictional can easily be attributed to a common-sense-driven (and somewhat anxiety-tinged) preoccupation on the part of Woolf regarding the material shortages that a conflict might well be believed to impose on her household, and the subsequent necessity to resume at full capacity what had been her lifelong career, as a periodical literary essayist and public lecturer:

Civilisation has shrunk. The Amenities are wilting. Theres no petrol today: so we are back again with our bicycles at Asheham 1915. And once more L. & I calculate our income. Can I give A. her allowance? How much must we both earn? Once more we are journalists. I’ve offered to do an article, required by The Times, on artists and the crisis; offered others. My old age and independence is thus in danger. But in fact its hard to keep aloof & do my books. (Woolf 1986, 237)

6This return was anticipated on Monday 11 September 1939, with a precautionary reservation (“I’ve offered to write for the NS. [New Statesman] I don’t know if wisely: but it’s best to have a job”, Woolf 1986, 236), and will be an issue continuously addressed by Woolf, as when she proposes a dichotomous attitude in turning to journalism in two subsequent entries:

Today I’m asked to take on Bunny’s job on the N.S. Yes, I’ve been slipping into the frying pan of journalism – letting myself in for a monthly article, making, or attempting to make, £15.15 terms. All this is very frittering, exciting, degrading. (Woolf 1986, 240)

Its odd how those first days of complete nullity when war broke out – have given place to such a pressure of ideas & work that I feel the old throb & spin in my head more of a drain than ever. The result partly of taking up journalism. A good move, I daresay; for it compacts; & forces me to organise. I’m masterfully pulling together those diffuse chapters of R. because I know I must stop & do the article. Ideas for articles obsess me. Why not try the one for The Times? No sooner said than I’m ravaged by ideas. (Woolf 1986, 241)

  • 2 The idea of a new book arrived in April 1938 as a relief from the writing of Roger Fry that she saw (...)

7This ambivalent, almost schizophrenic, approach towards non-fiction will eventually lead to the entry for 2 December 1939, when Woolf finally acknowledges her late direct acquaintance with Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic writings (dealt with in the next paragraph). It is crucial first to underline how this wartime intellectual contact could have been related to the writing of Roger Fry. The last months of 1939 coincided with her final revision of the late friend’s biography, and this ambivalently charged return to journalism is indeed significant, if only for the fact that she did not publish a single line of fictional prose in that period, and was, instead, buried in diary entries, essays, reviews, articles, and speech drafts.2 As a matter of fact, her literary production even before September 1939 had been, for the most part since the painful revision of The Years, devoted to the recollection and reconstruction of her late friend’s image in a literary simulacrum.

8This reckoning leads to a first, preliminary view of Woolf’s wartime creative élan: the blurred sense of menace looming large over late 1930s London, as a result of a conflict that in its early stages was quite uneventful, was matched by a fatiguing and relentless process of biographical enquiry:

I went to the London Library. Sat in the basement & looked up The Times on PIP [post-impressionism] in 1910. Old sweeper gently dusting. Came & said, Theyre telling us to try on our masks. Have you got yours I asked. No not yet. And shall we have war? I fear so, but I still hope not. I live out in Putney. Oh theyve laid in sand bags; the books will be moved; but if a bomb strikes the house … May I dust under your chair? (28 September 1938, Woolf 1986, 175)

  • 3 Current critical debate about life-writing would exceed the scope of this single paper. Max Saunder (...)

9War seems distinctly reconfigured in her consciousness as folded in non-fiction, whose boundaries – at least in Woolf’s case – frequently coincide with the wider domain of life-writing:3 in other words, her profound acknowledgment of the state of insecurity produced by the conflict began during a non-fictional project (a biography) and had as its very first effect a further investment in non-fiction (periodical essays, but also intense diary activity). If we consider the entry from August 31 1940, after Roger Fry had finally been published, we can find a proper – yet fatally belated – statement of full awareness of the war, which is further significant since it problematizes the apparent conflict between a purportedly preeminent fictional Woolf and a more “degraded” – to use her own words – essayistic Virginia:

Now we are in the war: England is being attacked. I got this feeling for the first time completely yesterday. The feeling of pressure, danger, horror […] The feeling is that a battle is going on – a fierce battle. May last 4 weeks. Am I afraid? Intermittently. The worst of it ones mind wont work with a spring next morning. Of course this may be the beginning of invasion. A sense of pressure. Endless local stories. No – its no good trying to capture the feeling of England being in a battle. […] I daresay if I write fiction & Col[eridge] & not that infernal bomb article for USA, I shall swim into quiet water. L. sleeps sound all through it every night. (Woolf 1986, 314)

10This extract leads to a pivotal consideration, not only about “non-fictional Woolf” but also conversely, about wartime Woolf – since she was so much more intent on composing non-fiction in that period. Such a consideration involves the crucial matter of her husband’s validation of her own work. Far from wanting to judge an affectionate husband (who being in the same “business” as his more famous wife was entitled to have an opinion which might not always take the shape of a sympathetic remark) we nevertheless must point out that his rather trenchant opinions about Virginia’s late stylistic development stemmed from a subjective bias against what seemed to be (and will be further developed in the last paragraph) a natural development of Woolf’s style. Leonard proves to be able to envisage solely an experimental high modernist Virginia, as this extract from his autobiography about her last published novel, The Years, shows:

But she could deal with facts and arguments on the scale of a full-length book only by writing against the grain, by continually repressing something which was natural and necessary to her peculiar genius […] The result is a certain laboriousness and deadness so different from the quicksilver intensity of the novels in which the tug of vision was not resisted. (Woolf 1973, 43)

  • 4 Meisel’s theory, which is extremely relevant (as his reading of To The Lighthouse’s “object relatio (...)

11This note is quite telling and is paradoxically a counterpart of the famous piece of advice that friend and colleague Katherine Mansfield gave a younger Woolf about the need for her to be more receptive and mindful of concrete details (Meisel 2012).4 Such a view is unquestionably reductive and, even though it is confirmed by her first biographer (Bell 1972, 211-2), it significantly hinders our comprehension of Woolf’s later intellectual and aesthetic growth, which passes more directly through an essayistic medium (Gualtieri 2000, 30).

  • 5 In 1939 the Hogarth Press released a sort of instant book which included, among others, Group Psych (...)

12It is through essays and other non-fiction specimens that we are brought into contact with perhaps the most interesting and significant of Woolf’s later intellectual influences: Sigmund Freud. This belated acceptance is all the more significant for a full comprehension of wartime Woolf. Freud did, as a matter of fact, furnish several interesting cues for a writer who was experiencing the first effects of a conflict whose irrationality and ominous forebodings would significantly enhance a sense of utter despair. Most interestingly, perhaps, is the consideration that Woolf, reading as she most certainly did Freud’s The Future of an Illusion (1927) and Civilisation and its Discontents (1929),5 would have found in these texts an intellectual explanation of men’s most primitive mental instincts (Beer 1996, 12) of aggression, hate and will to destroy – that Todestriebe on which Freud elaborated after his own experience of the First World War and of the loss of his beloved daughter Sophie in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1921), which projects an image of human beings as naturally cruel and aggressive, and of civilisation as a “struggle to repress or sublimate these instincts” (Lee 1997):

Ideas pullulate, but escape when I try to catch them here. Freud is upsetting: reducing one to a whirlpool; & I daresay truly. If we’re all instinct, the unconscious, whats all this about civilisation, the whole man, freedom &c.? His savagery against God good. The falseness of loving one’s neighbours. The conscience as a censor. Hate … but I’m too mixed. (Woolf 1986, 250)

2 “Freud is dead, long live Freud” (Jan. – Dec. 1939)

13The excerpt above was jotted down on 9 December, but it was officially a week before that Freud officially entered Woolf’s reading list:

Tiredness & dejection give way if one day off is taken instantly. I went in & did my cushion. In the evening my pain in my head calmed. Ideas came back. This is a hint to be remembered. Always turn to the pillow. Then I become a swarm of ideas. Only I must hive them till R[oger] is done. It was annoying to get on to the surface & be so stung with my pamphlet [Reviewing]. No more controversy for a year, I vow. Ideas about writers duty. No, I’ll shelve that. Began reading Freud last night, to enlarge the circumference. to give my brain a wider scope: to make it objective; to get outside. Thus defeat the shrinkage of age. Always take on new things. Break the rhythm &c. Use this page, now & then, for notes. Only they escape after the morning grind. (Woolf 1986, 248)

14This very evocative starting point also marks a profound change in Woolf’s attitude towards Freudian theory. Her relationship with Freud’s writings began to elicit interest in critics as early as the 1970s (Goldstein 1974), with a great proliferation of studies in the 1980s. In all these arrays, the main focus remains, predictably enough, Woolf’s own history of mental illness, a situation that prompted Gillian Beer’s very apt remark that “Oddly little attention has been given to the possible reading relationship between Woolf and Freud, as opposed to Freudian plumbings of Woolf’s neuroses” (Beer 1996, 12). Another piece of contextual information that must be kept in mind while thinking about Woolf and Freud is Bloomsbury’s “cultural obsession with all things Freudian” (Neverow 2001, 59): namely Leonard’s decision to buy the rights for Freud’s works, Adrian Stephen and his wife Karin’s decision to become trained analysts, James and Alix Strachey being Freud’s patients, and Roger Fry’s own long-lasting fascination with psychoanalysis. Freud’s theories became a sort of ideological backbone of the Bloomsbury set, an almost “autonomous movement divorced from psychiatry” (Abel 1987, 16) whose most noticeable reluctant reader was Virginia herself.

15The present paper aims to be faithful to this tenet, even though it is clear that complete biographical objectivity, even more so since the primary sources are the diaries, is unattainable. Yet the idea of following the first phases of the war and Woolf’s contemporaneous acquaintance with Freud chronologically allows for a more detached investigation of the latter’s import in Woolf’s frame of mind. In this historiographical scenario we can provide a new interpretation of Woolf’s evolution from her early 1920s strenuous resistance to Freud’s methods to an admission in December 1939 of her being finally ready not only to read, but also to leave an enthusiastic record of her reading in a rather explicit series of journal entries. It is a well-known fact that ever since 1924 The Hogarth Press had been Freud’s English publisher, albeit without any apparent approval on the part of Virginia:

  • 6 “Gull-like” (that might seem a creative lapsus calami for the more common “gullible”) is an adjecti (...)

I shall be plunged in publishing affairs at once; we are publishing Dr Freud, and I glance at the proof and read how Mr A. B. threw a bottle of red ink on to the sheets of his marriage bed to excuse his impotence to the housemaid, but – threw it in the wrong place which unhinged his wife’s mind, - and to this day she pours claret on the dinner table. We could go on like that for hours; and yet these Germans think it proves something – besides their own gull-like imbecility. (Woolf 1980, 134-5)6

16This distrust – which erupted in the memorable “more than usually ferocious onslaught upon psychoanalysis and psychoanalysts” James Strachey reported to his wife Alix in a letter of May 1925 (quoted in Meisel and Kendrik 1985, 264) – was partly due to personal reasons, such as her difficult relationship with patriarchal society, which was connected specifically with some familiar coincidences, such as “the paternal histrionics of Leslie Stephen and the incestuous sexual assaults of her stepbrothers Gerald and George Duckworth” (Neverow 2001, 59). In addition to that, and perhaps even more crucially, her brother Adrian and his wife Karin famously decided to become analysts (Krushen 1989, 39), in a sense further specifying the frightful associations Woolf could have made between the Freudian doctor and male repressive and violent attitude towards women, which is manifest in the description she made of him treating a young woman in a 1927 letter to Vanessa:

I creep up and peer into the Stephens’ dining room where any afternoon, in full daylight, is to be seen a woman in the last agony of despair, lying in a sofa, burying her face in the pillow, while Adrian broods over her like a vulture, analysing her soul. (Woolf 1980, 228)

17In accordance with these premises, at the very core of Woolf’s more famous non-fictional writings – A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas – stands a harsh critique and a merciless parody of Freudianism, and of its perhaps most unashamedly sexist principle, penis envy. Woolf, in other words, “makes a laughingstock of [Freud’s] blatant overvaluation of the male organ, exposing the preposterous phallic delusion that size is a synonym of superiority” (Neverow 2001, 61). Neverow’s analysis is fundamental for the present argument, since she notes the ambivalence of Woolf’s critique. While aiming at ridiculing Freudian theory, Woolf nevertheless resorts in A Room Of One’s Own to the same analytic process to counteract the embarrassingly preposterous theories of Professor von X.’s The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex, (Neverow 2001, 64). All things considered, Woolf’s late acceptance of Freud’s theory appears under a more coherent light, even though her “gulping” of 1939 still retains a note of a binge reading:

Shopping – tempted to buy jerseys & so on. I dislike this enjoyment. Yet enjoy it. Ambivalence as Freud calls it. (I’m gulping with Freud). (Woolf 1986, 249)

  • 7 Virginia Woolf records her fist meeting in a sort of telegraphic reported speech: “Dr Freud gave me (...)
  • 8 “Freud is dead, the stop press says. Only these little facts interrupt the monotonous boom of the w (...)

18Although A Room’s and Three Guineas’s subtle Freudian anti-Freudianism already anticipated a possible acclimatization of psychoanalytic theory into Woolf’s Weltanschauung, some key biographical facts should be highlighted, which shed a more distinct light on this wholehearted acceptance. First of all, we must recall the formal introduction of the Woolfs to a dying Sigmund Freud in his London home in January 1939.7 The other fact, apparently more accidental, is the news of Freud’s death in September.8

  • 9 I obviously refer to P.J. Mahony’s influential Freud as Writer (1987) and his “Further Thoughts on (...)
  • 10 This idea, which surely deserves a more thorough exploration, might be taken more seriously exactly (...)

19Freud can thus be seen as a sort of wartime tutelary deity, summoned by an increasingly anxious and eventually utterly desperate Woolf in order to help sort out the chaos into which the war was beginning to plunge western civilisation and human consciousnesses. He whose work had been “the great theme of the modernist novel” (Byatt 2001, 31) found its way into Woolf’s consciousness not through textual practice but, apparently, following a biographical series of coincidences. Yet, it is quite hard to renounce a subtler analysis of the agency of Freud’s theories in Woolf’s work, and, besides Roger Fry, other late essays are unequivocally readable through a Freudian lens, namely “The Leaning Tower” and “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (Bugliani 2019). Freud’s “technique of unsettlement” had evidently found a very fertile territory (Ellmann 2016, 515). In addition to that, Freud’s impact on Woolf in that period could also be assessed via his ability as a writer.9 Despite the decidedly scientific penchant of his prose, we cannot but think about his juvenile renunciation of literature, as suggested by his reading of “the incomparably beautiful essay by Goethe” entitled “Die Nature”, which in reality was written by Georg Christoph Tobler, and which led him to embrace medicine rather than the literary domain he had a passion for in his youth: “hier versenke ich den Zuberstab” (Freud 1989, 153), he confided with a reference to Prospero’s “I’ll break my staff” that is far too explicit to be ignored by his interlocutor. In this sense, a text such as “On Transience” (1915), included in the edited volume Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego published by the Hogarth Press in 1921, might be considered not only as an intellectual and ideological source, but as an actual stylistic model that Woolf, consciously or not, could have added to her unquestionably rich canon of model essayists.10

3. Woolf’s transformations (Jan. – June 1940)

20In the backdrop of this succession of “decisions and revisions” involving her actual and definitive acceptance of Freud in the latest phases of her life, stands Roger Fry, the major work she was writing at that particular moment in time. The idea of writing her friend’s biography, besides having been from the very onset a hugely significant personal investment, had also been a way of evolving towards a more fact-based, realist style, which has lately been identified as a distinctive late modernist drift that had begun with The Years (1936) (Miller 1999, 20). This novel, which has uncanny resemblances to traditional family sagas focusing on “the depiction of successive and gradual generational change and the representation of the family as barometer of national identity” (Snaith 2016, 139), marks a transition in Woolf’s literary career, opening a chasm with early modernist experimentations (Davis 2014, 2).

21Inserting Roger Fry and the other wartime essays in this novel exegetical framework does not entail much analytical effort, but it may be interesting to connect the (re)turn to Freud in this scenario. If the Freud of the unconscious and the exploration of the unruly region of consciousness was an unacknowledged influence for Woolf’s early experimental modernist investigation of the psyche (Lutzer 1992, 148), the Freud of the Todestrieb and of the many investigations of the futility and barbarity of human behaviour might have been a much welcome pathfinder in the disastrous predicaments of the Second World War.

22Following this idea, Roger Fry’s gestation is quite telling in order to understand Woolf’s attitude towards writing in wartime. In the diary entry from 28 August 1939 – with Hitler’s invasion of Poland irrevocably imminent – Woolf reflects on the possibility of writing not only Roger Fry, but tout court:

I stay out here, after bowls, to say – what? on this possibly last night of peace. Will the 9 o’clock bulletin end it all? – our lives, oh yes, & everything for the next 50 years? Everyone’s writing, I suppose about this last day. […] I outside the garden what? Numb I think. Vita says she feels terror & horror early – revives then sinks. For us its like being on a small island. Neither of us has any physical fear. Why should we? But theres a vast calm cold gloom. And the strain. Like waiting a doctors verdict. […] How to go on, through war? – thats the question. […] A swallow came into the sitting room. I talked to the girl who keeps elk hounds on the hill, by the ivy bloom tree. Many files buzz. I’m sleeveless in the heat. No word from Vita who was coming. How difficult, unexpectedly to write. (Woolf 1986, 231-2)

23Yet Roger Fry is difficult to write not only because of the international situation, but also because of the new relationship with matter-of-fact reality that this properly conceived, constructed and crafted biography entails. The switch to the matter-of-fact firmness of canonical life writing, almost a late transformation into the true heir of Sir Leslie Stephen, should be read against the backdrop of a notable diary entry of 20 May 1938 when, waiting for Three Guineas to come out, Woolf makes an explicit statement about the consequences of her new literary abode “in the solid world of Roger” (Woolf 1986, 141):

Also I’m uneasy at taking this role in the public eye – afraid of autobiography in public. But the fears are entirely outbalanced (this is honest) by the immense relief & peace I have gained, & enjoy this moment. Now I am quit of that poison & excitement. Nor is that all. For having spat it out, my mind is made up. […] the pack may howl, but it shall never catch me. And even if the pack – reviewers, friends, enemies – pays me no attention or sneers, still I’m fine. This is the actual result of a spiritual conversion (I cant bother to get the right words) in the autumn of 1933 – or 4 – when I rushed through London, buying, I remember, a great magnifying glass from sheer ecstasy, near Blackfriars: when I gave the man who played the harp half a crown for talking to me about his life in the Tube station. (Woolf 1986, 141)

24In light of this confession, Roger Fry comes across as the utmost product of a reality governed creative period, the same “fact and arrangements” that Leonard criticised in his autobiography quoted above. What is interesting about this extract is that Roger is connected explicitly with the only attempt at autobiography we have of Woolf, in other words. “A Sketch of the Past”. As has been aptly noted, the writing of “A Sketch” and of Roger coincided for a large part, and Woolf created a deliberate “ironic rivalry” (Johnston 1997, 289) between the two modes of life-writing she was exploring in the latter part of her life.

  • 11 “[…] in a world of symbolists only two kinds of people are entirely opposed to symbolism, and they (...)
  • 12 With whom Virginia dined and talked about Roger in 1936: “Mauron dined on Sunday; another nice man. (...)

25If Woolf’s “conversion” can be perceived as a sort of investigative impulse, the concluding chapter of Roger Fry (the one dealing with Transformations (1926), the last essay collection by her late friend) provides a very interesting objective correlative for its exploratory drive, that is the “butterfly net” Woolf refers to on 9 February 1940 as the most reliable instrument to ensnare “that iridescent man” (Woolf 1986, 256). And that last chapter became Woolf’s obsession in October 1939. What Fry meant by naming his last collection Transformations is the ability to pass from the domain of artistic creation to that of aesthetic comment, following his “insatiable curiosity” (Woolf 1995, 198), an inextinguishable thirst that drove him in the very arms of psychoanalysis as early as the 1920s, when Woolf was as yet so diffident. In 1924 he gave a lecture (“The Artist and Psycho-analysis”,11, immediately published by the Hogarth Press) to the British Psychology Association, gaining the approval of the influential psychoanalytic critic Charles Mauron (1995, 21).12 What is at stake here is not Freud’s deep influence on Fry’s aesthetic theory, but the fact that the fascination for the psychoanalytic regulation of the inner workings of the psyche was openly stated by Fry. Unlike his friend Mauron (who later became his biographer) Fry resorted to the cures of the pioneer of self-suggestion, Dr Émile Coué in Nancy who meant to cure the “violent attacks of a mysterious internal pain” (Woolf 1995, 198) by which he was gripped in the early 1920s. Even though “he had a natural antipathy to that ‘damned thing’ the unconscious”, the “new experiment appealed to his curiosity” (Woolf 1995, 200), and Fry joined this experimental first attempt at action on the mind.

26The fact that Fry was so open to psychoanalytic methods is central if read alongside Woolf’s late Freudian moment. There is also a very interesting textual occurrence which, although it might appear preposterous, can also shed light on this late “granitic factuality” of Woolf in which Freud’s theories thrived. In two letters he sent his then lover Vanessa Bell in March 1919, where he described his reading of Freud, Fry directly referred to “anal eroticism” with a very striking explicative footnote: “Will you know what anal is[?] Virginia’s anal & you’re erotic” (quoted in Reid Broughton 1987, 156). The fact that ever since she first consented to embark on Fry’s biography she would have access to his private correspondence, can be reasonably seen as an incentive “to search the pages of Freud’s books until she found why and how it was that Fry could describe her as ‘anal’” (Reid Broughton 1987, 156).

27Despite a somewhat apparently too intrusive way of analysing Virginia the woman rather than her text, the two 1940 occurrences of the word “anal” in the Diary can help summarise the whole connection between Woolf’s wartime turn to Freud and her wartime turn back to non-fiction; and the catalyst of this last remark is, again, Leonard’s disapproval of his wife’s later stylistic evolution:

L. gave me a very severe lecture of the first half [of Roger]. We walked in the meadows. It was like being pecked by a very hard strong beak. The more he pecked the deeper, as always happens. At last he was almost angry that I’d chosen ‘what seems to me the wrong method. Its merely anal, not history. Austere repression. In fact dull to the outsider. All those dead quotations.’ His theme that you cant treat a life like that: must be seen from the liver is himself a seer, wh. R. wasnt. It was a curious example of L. at his most rational & impersonal: rather impressive, yet so definite, so emphatic, that I felt convinced: I mean of failure; save for one odd gleam, that he was himself on the wrong track, & persisting for some deep reason – dissympathy with R. lack of interest in personality? Lord knows. (Woolf 1986, 271)

  • 13 Leonard Woolf very tellingly spelled out as “analysis” in his edition of A Writer’s Diary in 1953.

28Leonard’s dissenting voice is tied to a somewhat monolithic view of Virginia’s talent: he considered her to be at her best when she fought facts and abandoned herself fully to fiction. He obviously did not approve of her own transformation, a transformation that he, at least in the reported comment in the Diary, saw as repressive – anal in a Freudian sense – of her unrestrained creative overflow of the 1920s and early 1930s.13 Almost four months after this first remark, we again find the idea of Roger Fry as tainted with “patches of anal” (Woolf 1986, 293) in a comment made just after Virginia finished reading the manuscript before handing it over for the last time. The description that she makes of it, though, is quite illuminating: “I think it has a certain completeness, but I also think there are patches of anal; too much quotation; sometimes its cramped & poky” (Woolf 1986, 293).

29This cramped and poky development might be considered a sort of re-appearance of the “l'alleure poetique, à sauts et à gambades” (Montaigne 2019: 994) style in which Michel de Montaigne revived his adoration for his deceased friend Etienne de la Boétie in his Essais. Montaigne’s “chapitres”, were indeed the fruit of a paradoxical attempt to revive a conversation with the dead (Korhonen 2006), and Woolf’s portrayal of Roger seems to partake in the same dialogic objective when the intruding presence of quotation falls under the attack of “rational & impersonal” Leonard. Yet quoting Roger meant allowing his voice to resonate anew, and to tell his story as dutifully as she could did not entail, as Leonard claimed, a renunciation of her visionary power in favour of a dull factual exactitude, but a subtler engagement with the most fascinating of the non-fiction alternatives that Virginia had practised ever since she first became a professional writer (Gualteri 2000, 23-6).

4. Sketching non-fiction

30Roger Fry can thus be seen, in this coalescing of wartime anxieties, belated Freudian ‘gulpings’ and ‘late-modernism’ historiographic-oriented transformations, as an embodiment of the protean pervasiveness of the essayistic element in her life writing, not as “exposition, article, or debate” but as a “merging of observation and imagination” (Bartkevicius 1992, 124). It is reassuring to think that, despite Leonard’s criticism, Woolf’s late stylistic metamorphosis was the conscious and mature culmination of the biographical plan she was contemplating with Fry himself in 1924:

In writing these impressions I have not aimed at accuracy of date or fact. I have tried to make a portrait of Roger Fry almost as a novelist might make a character in fiction. I have taken this course partly through inability to deal with his work from a critical point of view; and partly because he himself once offered to sit for a portrait. He was to talk about himself, and I was to take notes and write a life in which fiction was to be allowed full play. The idea being that it was only by having full liberty to invent and create that a true life could be written. Unhappily the sittings never took place; I have nothing but memory to depend upon; so that the portrait is merely an impressionist sketch written in the hope that it may serve a more serious biographer. (quoted in Bartkevicius 1992, 129)

31This extract illustrates that her friendship with Fry was intended from its onset to follow the practice of portraiture, and was deeply connected with what William Hazlitt, one of the essayists Woolf admired most, aptly described in these terms in the eleventh essay of his The Plain Speaker series:

The fact is, that the having one’s picture painted is like the creation of another self; and that is an idea, of the repetition or reduplication of which no man is ever tired, to the thousandth reflection. It has been said that lovers are never tired of each other’s company, because they are always talking to themselves. This seems to be the bond of connexion (a delicate one it is!) between the painter and the sitter – they are always of the same thing, the picture, in which their self-love finds an equal counter-part. (Hazlitt 1902, 108)

32Hazlitt, painter and essayist, seems the most appropriate literary referent through which to interpret Fry and Woolf’s relationship, which resulted in the production of a non-fictional work of art in which it is possible to perceive the great significance of some of the crucial instances inherent to the process of analysis that remained, for chronological and biographical reasons, barred to Virginia Woolf, alive during the Second World War. Portraiture, and particularly the type of self-portraiture mastered by Montaigne and justly celebrated by Woolf in her eponymous essay in the Common Reader First Series, is the faculty that Woolf could most aptly apply to her writings during these tense years. Roger Fry, as the other non-fictional works of this period, seemed the perfect testing ground for her ability to vividly sketch a voice from the past.

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1 It would be superfluous here to reflect on the pivotal role of the loss of young male relatives in Woolf’s oeuvre (Sherry 2003, 239 and passim).

2 The idea of a new book arrived in April 1938 as a relief from the writing of Roger Fry that she saw as a departure from the hugely dense model of The Years: “here am I sketching out a new book; only don't please impose that huge burden on me again, I implore. Let it be random and tentative: something I can blow of a morning, to relieve myself of Roger” (Woolf 1986: 135)

3 Current critical debate about life-writing would exceed the scope of this single paper. Max Saunders’s vast array seems particularly fit for this context, since it revolves around the Modernist period. Saunders’s preliminary critical array starts with a deliberate blurring of the boundaries between forms of fictional and non-fictional life-writing (2010, 4) that particularly fits the present discourse. The idea of a pervasiveness of life-writing, which acquires the shape and features of a mode, rather than a genre, is instrumental in figuring out the seemingly conflictive relations between Woolf’s Roger Fry – her actual fully fledged biographical result – and “A Sketch of the Past” – her dauntingly incomplete attempt at autobiography (see Johnston 1994 and par. 3).

4 Meisel’s theory, which is extremely relevant (as his reading of To The Lighthouse’s “object relation theory” beautifully exemplifies), remains nevertheless outside the scope of the present paper, since it introduces the influence of Melanie Klein’s alternative to Freudian theory on Woolf. It is significant that the only direct mention of Klein in the Diary belongs to the year 1939 too, a fact that indirectly signals the pivotal role of this moment for Woolf’s later psycho-analytic development.

5 In 1939 the Hogarth Press released a sort of instant book which included, among others, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), Civilisation and its Discontents (1929) and Why War? (1932) with the title Civilization, War and Death, edited by John Rickman.

6 “Gull-like” (that might seem a creative lapsus calami for the more common “gullible”) is an adjective interestingly connected to “gulp” (the verb that Woolf would later resort to to describe her own interiorization of Freud) by virtue of a shared ornithological semantic domain.

7 Virginia Woolf records her fist meeting in a sort of telegraphic reported speech: “Dr Freud gave me a narcissus. Was sitting in a great library with little statues at a large scrupulously tidy shiny table. We like patients on chairs. A screwed up shrunk very old man: with a monkeys light eyes, paralysed spasmodic movements, inarticulate: but alert. On Hitler. Generation before the poison will be worked out. About his books. Fame? I was infamous rather than famous. Didnt make £50 by his first book. Difficult talk. An interview. Daughter and Martin helped. Immense potential, I mean an old fire now flickering. When we left he took up the stand. What are you going to do? The English – war” (Woolf 1986, 202). The other diary entry recites thus: “Freud said It would have been worse if you had not won the war. I said we often felt guilty – if we have failed, perhaps Hitler would have not been. No, he said, with great emphasis; he would have been infinitely worse” (Woolf 1986, 202).

8 “Freud is dead, the stop press says. Only these little facts interrupt the monotonous boom of the war. I get restless now & then & wd. like to be rubbing my back against London” (Woolf 1986, 238).

9 I obviously refer to P.J. Mahony’s influential Freud as Writer (1987) and his “Further Thoughts on Freud and his Writings” (2001). Of paramount importance have been also M. Lavagetto’s ideas, as exposed in Freud, la letteratura e altro (1985) and his introduction to the edited volume of Freud’s Racconti analitici (2011).

10 This idea, which surely deserves a more thorough exploration, might be taken more seriously exactly in relations to the diverse modes of writing that Freud adopted towards the theme of war – the traditional dissertation in Civilisation, the epistolary dialogue (even though in absentia) in Why War?, and the brief recollection in “On Transience”. Although Freud’s narrative craft might easily be considered as the core of his literary art, we should also consider his prodigious epistolary prolificity (Mahony 2001, 116), and the similarity between his anecdotal style and, for instance, Montaigne’s.

11 “[…] in a world of symbolists only two kinds of people are entirely opposed to symbolism, and they are the man of science and the artist, since they alone are seeking to make constructions which are completely self-consistent, self-supporting and self-contained – constructions which do not stand for something else, but appear to have ultimate value and in that sense to be real” (Fry 1924, 15). For a general introduction to Fry’s aesthetic theory, see (Rubin 2013, 141-58).

12 With whom Virginia dined and talked about Roger in 1936: “Mauron dined on Sunday; another nice man. Telling humorous stories of Roger: his car Josette” (Woolf 1986, 35).

13 Leonard Woolf very tellingly spelled out as “analysis” in his edition of A Writer’s Diary in 1953.

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Paolo BUGLIANI, « “Reduced to a Whirlpool”: War, Sigmund Freud and Virginia Woolf’s (Late) Non-fiction », E-rea [En ligne], 17.2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2020, consulté le 14 juillet 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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University of Pisa; Oxford Centre for Life Writing (Wolfson College)
Paolo Bugliani is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Philology, Literature and Linguistics of the University of Pisa, and Visiting Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Life Writing at Wolfson College. His research concentrates on the evolution of the English personal essay from the early modern to the Modernist period, with a primary focus on Romantic essayists such as Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt and Thomas De Quincey. His other research interests are animal symbolism in modern and contemporary literature, and Anglo-Italian cultural relations in the long 18th century.

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