THE RIVER OF TIME

Anastasia Arkhipova

Translated by Arseni Maximov

Photos of Monk’s House by Arseni Maximov

At the Rodin Museum in Paris one can see a plaster study and a marble bust of a sleeping young woman wrapped in a voluminous scarf. It is Victoria Sackville-West, one of the brilliant beau monde ladies who were the sculptor’s clients, and also his personal friend. She was an illegitimate daughter of Lionel Sackville-West, 2nd Baron Sackville, and the famous Spanish dancer Josefa Durán y Ortega (known by her stage name Pepita de Oliva), partly of Romani origin. Victoria’s only daughter by her cousin, 3rd Baron Sackville, was Vita (Victoria) Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson, a writer, poet, ardent traveller, socialite and, most importantly to us, a famed Sapphist and seducer.

The fey and melancholic Julia Jackson, with her golden hair and expressive eyes, also inspired artists. She sat for two paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite Sir Edward Burne-Jones, The Annunciation and The Princess Sabra led to the dragon. Julia had seven children by two marriages, including three daughters, who inherited their mother’s beauty. Her two younger daughters were the artist Vanessa and the writer Virginia Stephen, known by their married names, Bell and Woolf respectively.

Vita and Virginia

Vita’s and Virginia’s paths crossed in 1922. By that time, Virginia already was the author of essays, short stories and three novels. Together with her husband Leonard she had co-founded their family publishing house, The Hogarth Press, which published her work and brought new great names into English literature.

Torturously shy at one moment, maniacally talkative and sharp-tongued at another, with her sophisticated beauty and original mind Virginia had become the soul of the famous Bloomsbury group. However, since she was 13 (that is, since her mother’s untimely death) she had been suffering from episodes of mental illness that manifested itself in severe depression, fears, a feeling of worthlessness, loss of energy, acute headaches, visual and auditory hallucinations and suicide attempts. The treatment was not particularly efficient. The only thing that kept her “afloat”, as she would say, was writing: “…and yet the only exciting life is the imaginary one”, she wrote in her diary.

Vita was a diplomat’s wife and mother of two children. Among her achievements at that time one can name two novels, out of the 17 she would write (much to Virginia’s envy, she penned them with an incredible speed), a few collections of poems and many scandalous love affairs. A majestic beauty and invincible conqueror of women’s hearts, uncommonly – six feet – tall, with her virile energy Vita robbed many an unsuspecting husband of his charming wife.

As soon as she met Virginia, the victorious Vita started preparing another conquest, which fact she immediately communicated to Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband. Yet, the timid Virginia is only observing her new acquaintance from a safe distance. However impressed by Vita, Virginia did not quite like her at first: “florid, moustached, parakeet coloured, with all the supple ease of the aristocracy, but not the wit of the artist”[1].

Later, when they became closer and Vita would go on one of her trips, Virginia pined for her extravagant, amorous friend and felt jealous of all her uncountable flings: Pepita’s passionate granddaughter had always been lured by vagabond gypsy life, with its adventures and freedom, especially freedom in love. However, as we remember, for Virginia true life is the imaginary one. How can she keep her unruly beloved forever by her side? By locking her in the magical space of a novel, of course.

Virginia Woolf at Monk’s House. Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard
University. 

The phantasmagorical biography Orlando was published by The Hogarth Press in October 1928. More than forty years later, Nigel Nicolson, Vita’s son, will call this book “the longest and most charming love letter in literature”.

The bowl of life

Some memories, “the moments of being”, as Virginia Woolf would call them, are experienced so intensely – images and sounds inextricably intertwined – that they may feel more real than the present that one inhabits. In her memoirs, The Sketch of the Past, the writer seeks to capture such moments – starting from the earliest ones – seen as events of great import:

If 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 hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.

Woolf compares this scene to “lying in a grape and seeing through a film of semi-transparent yellow”: rounded semi-transparent membranes, rainbow-coloured films, drops of water (in The Waves time falls like drops of water), soap bubbles, or a pond, a mirror, a translucent petal, a sea shell – Woolf’s prose abounds with images of various luminous, reflecting, shifting surfaces. So, Orlando begins with sunlight filtering through an ancient stained glass window at the protagonist’s family estate and tingeing the young lord’s figure with “various tints of heraldic light”.

The balcony of the nursery from Virginia’s first memory connected to the balcony of her parent’s bedroom: onto that balcony her mother stepped out in her white dressing gown, surrounded by a “golden mesh of beauty”. Not only did Julia Stephen maintain the whole house (with her husband and seven children in it), but also she was constantly occupied with sundry charitable enterprises in town. Having untimely lost her beloved first husband, she had worn her mourning clothes for eight years and never fully recovered from his death, staying, in the eyes of her daughter, mysteriously impenetrable in her unearthly splendour and wordless grief.

Julia Stephen.

It was maternal protection – “which is what I have always most wished from anyone” – that Virginia found in Vita, ten years her younger. Virginia was never too interested in the sensual nature of relationships: fully aware of her beauty, she nonetheless did not like to look at herself in the mirror, could not dress smartly and was always ashamed of her, as she perceived it, inelegant and untidy looks. She confesses to “feeling ecstasies and raptures spontaneously and intensely and without any shame or the least sense of guilt, so long as they were disconnected with my own body”.

The taming of the epiphany

The word “ecstasy” actually belongs to the vocabulary of mystics and visionaries, and so does “epiphany” (revelation), the word often used by James Joyce. His epiphanies were strange fragments of everyday life that had an aura of enigmatic meaning only he could comprehend. Virginia Woolf’s “moments of being” share the same epiphanic nature.

But these moments do not always cause a feeling of ecstasy or rapture: some of them provoke overpowering terror, “hopeless sadness”, “absolute despair” or stupor. “I thought as a child, – she writes, – [that it was] a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life”. And she would freeze motionless in front of a puddle on the path, unable to step over it; or feel terror and go numb before an apple tree in the dark garden – the world around her and her own self would suddenly collapse.

“I go on to suppose, – Woolf continues, – that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer…” These blows she now takes as revelations, as “a token of some real thing behind appearances”: everyone is somehow connected to this “pattern”, “rod”, ”conception”, and putting it into words allows to deaden the blow, bring the mysterious reality to light and put the “severed parts” back together.

From these inexplicable epiphanies Virginia Woolf’s novels spring. The puddle and apple tree episodes would become part of The Waves, where one of the characters, Rhoda, whose sad end foreshadows the destiny of the author, has a vision of a marble pillar rising by a pond – a “rod” that sustains the world beyond the “cotton wool”. In Orlando this “rod” would undoubtedly be the oak, which is also the World Tree of sorts. In the brilliance of his/her unwithering youth, the hero/heroine would unfailingly come back – throughout the centuries – to sit under the canopy of this oak and continue the never-ending work on the poem titled The Oak Tree. From the hill where the tree stands, one can see not only the forty counties, but also Scotland, Turkey, Africa, and all visible and invisible corners of the world.

But the real epiphany comes at the end of the novel, where terror and rapture meet: Orlando is visited by a vision of a long tunnel leading into the depth of the past. Her eye sight becomes so sharp that she can see every blade of grass, every petal, every hair in a horse’s tail – until she nearly faints of nausea and dismay when she notices that the gardener has no nail on his thumb. The next moment (or is it next day, year, century?) she is overwhelmed with ecstasy: in a toy boat floating on the Serpentine she discerns her captain husband’s brig rising unscathed from the huge waves of the Atlantic. That boat is, of course, little Virginia’s: the one that inexplicably sank in the middle of a pond in Kensington gardens and a few months later was accidentally found and returned to its astonished owner…

Orlando is a novel about reading and writing. Orlando’s palpable, unchanging identity that transcends the limits of space, time and even the character’s sex – this identity is that of a writer. In this sense Orlando is not only a portrait of the author’s beloved but also a self-portrait of Virginia herself.

The protagonist’s immortality in Orlando is the immortality of the reader travelling through literary epochs. Woolf does not put them in order, like a novice writer would probably do. She creates an amalgam of styles unmistakably grasping one of the most peculiar traits of British literature, which is an inclination towards the literary device Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky called “defamiliarisation”, that is, seeing the familiar as strange.

When Orlando was still a project, Woolf was intending to write a book in the spirit of Daniel Defoe, an author especially dear to her. Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll – they all introduce in their texts characters through whose eyes we look at the habitual reality as if we saw it for the first time. Robinson Crusoe relives anew all the history of civilisation; in the eyes of Swift’s intelligent Houyhnhnm horses, humans are merely savage, primitive creatures, the Yahoos; Carroll’s Alice sees the world through the prism of a dream. In the same way the Lovelace-like protagonist of Orlando, upon changing his sex, realises – to his great surprise – how strange and uncomfortable a woman’s life is: she is bound by endless conventionalities, from tight skirts that limit her movements to annoying attentions of self-important male specimens to irrational restrictions in her rights and freedoms.

Now, what is epiphany if not defamiliarisation? The world shifts off its axis, the time is out of joint and one accidentally slips out of one’s corporeal casing. The enigma of femininity, incarnated in Virginia’s mother and Vita, is a riddle wrapped in a mystery, or in a trance-like dream, from which Orlando arises completely transfigured. This enigma is closely connected with another one – that of the body. In The Waves Rhoda – whose experience is closest to Virginia’s – is caught in an “ill-fitting body”, feels herself the foam or “a cork on a rough sea”, a feather, she is “flapping like paper” in the wind.

Even Vita’s flourishing corporeality, which Orlando also enjoyed both as a man and a woman, does not resolve the mystery for Virginia. Orlando, fluttering between times, “throbbing between two lives”[2], between the two sexes (as well as Sasha or Shelmerdine do), only receives true flesh in art, affirming there the androgyny of the artist.

To the depths

The protagonist’s melodious name, like in Shakespeare; witty description of aristocracy’s mores, like in Jane Austen; donjuanesque adventures, like in Byron; powerful romanticism, like in Brönte sisters; the parable about an unageing character, like in Wilde… – Virginia wrote this brilliant, unusually playful book effortlessly and with ease, this being a rest before the next “mystical poetical work”, as she called it, that is, The Waves. She insisted upon Orlando being a joke. However, we have already seen that this novel is woven from the same threads that make up the essence of all Woolf’s works.

The conception of time, which receives such an elegant treatment in Orlando, is a question that deeply concerned the author. Moments of being are like thousands of lives one lives. “Is it not possible… that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? – wonders Woolf, – Will it not be possible… that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I shall fit a plug into the wall… I shall turn up August 1890.” The present is “the sliding surface of a great river” and the past is what “one sees through the surface to the depths”. Similarly, Orlando looks into the deep icy transparency of the frozen Thames, where dolphins, trout, a wherry filled with apples and an old bumboat woman are suspended in the arrested moment.

When World War II began, the cotton wool of everyday life got torn to pieces. The invisible enemy deals one blow after another; the Woolfs’ London house is destroyed during the raids.

Writing, this tireless weaving of threads of meaning, no longer manages to keep together the severed parts. Because of the bombings the River Ouse breaks its banks, and its waters are nearing the hedge of the Woolfs’ Monk’s House in Rodmell. “Consume me!” – pleads Rhoda with the wave. “Death is the centre, there is an embrace in death”, – echoes Clarissa Dalloway. In March 1941, having secretly slipped out of the house, Virginia Woolf enters the waters of River Ouse. And the River of Time receives her into its eternal motherly embrace.


[1] The Diary.

[2] The words from T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” referring to Tiresias.

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