Posted by: Rajesh Shukla | February 21, 2010

‘I instinctively want someone to catch my overflow of pleasure.


‘I instinctively want someone to catch my overflow of pleasure.’

-Virginia Woolf, Diary.

From Nigel Nicolson’s biography:

‘In her childhood Virginia Woolf was a keen hunter of butterflies and moths. With her brothers and sister she would smear tree trunks with treacle to attract and capture insects, and then pin their lifelike corpses to cork boards, their wings outspread. It was an interest that persisted into her adult life, and when she discovered that I, too, was a bug-hunter, she insisted that we go hunting together in the fields around Long Barn, our house in Kent, two miles from Knole, my mother’s birthplace. I was nine years old.

One summer’s afternoon when we were sweeping the tall grass with our nets and catching nothing, she suddenly paused, leaning on her bamboo cane as a savage might lean on his assegai, and said to me: “What’s it like to be a child?” I, taken aback, replied, “Well, Virginia, you know what it’s like. You’ve been a child yourself. I don’t know what it’s like to be you, because I’ve never been grown-up.” It was the only occasion when I got the better of her, dialectically.

I believe that her motive was to gather copy for her portrait of James in To the Lighthouse, which she was writing at the time, and James was about my own age. She told me that it was not much use thinking back into her own childhood, because little girls are different from little boys. “But were you happy as a child?”, I asked.

I forget what she replied, but now I think I know the answer, since her childhood and youth have been more amply recorded than almost any other. It was not so much unhappy, as troubled. Her mother died when she was thirteen, and her half-sister when she was fifteen. At twenty-two she lost her father, and two years later her brother Thoby. Another half-sister was mentally deranged. Virginia herself, while still quite young, suffered from periods of acute depression and even insanity. She was sexually abused by her half-brothers when she was too young to understand what was happening. It was a string of calamties that could have resulted in a youth that was deeply disturbed. But she was courageous, resilient and enterprising. As her early letters and diaries reveal more convincingly than her later recollections, she developed normally enough, and although she was indifferent to social success, she had a gift for friendship, and very early in her life, an impulse to turn every experience into words. It was on the same occasion as our butterfly hunt that she said to me, “Nothing has really happened until it has been described. So you must write many letters to your family and friends, and keep a diary.” Pain was relieved, and pleasure doubled, in recording it.’

-from Virginia Woolf, by Nigel Nicolson (2000)

Photo–Virginia Stephen (later, Woolf, born 25 January, 1882; died 28 March, 1941) and Vanessa Stephen, playing cricket at their family’s summer home in St. Ives, Cornwall, c. 1892.

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