Hearing the voice of Virginia Woolf

By Eloise Carey

On Saturday 21st January 2017 I attended Durham’s ‘Hearing Voices’ exhibition and lectures. The following article is based on the lectures I heard there, and a subsequent article written by Patricia Waugh[1].

David Mitchell described writing a novel as ‘a kind of controlled personality disorder[2]’. I would argue that reading one can be too, particularly a novel as complex and layered as Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Having first read this novel the summer I turned 16, this was undoubtedly a book for which my appreciation would only continue to grow. I will not say that my understanding has deepened, for I don’t think any of Woolf’s works are meant to be understood, but my awareness and awe of this incredible depth is something that was reignited by the discussion of ‘hearing voices in literature’. Waugh describes Woolf as “perennially fascinating from a vast spectrum of angles.” Although it is impossible to segregate this formidable author into categories, it may help in addressing the great expanse of different people, authors, and generations that she has touched.

Woolf as a pioneer in literature

As Waugh highlighted in her lecture, although perverse and upsetting in some aspects, lingering on the darker details of Woolf’s childhood trauma and later psychosis is to be in danger of destroying the independence of her work. Woolf is not an author who leant heavily on anything, be that other writers or those closest to her within the ‘Bloomsbury Group[3]’; she was quite alone in her creative experimentation and exploration. Even her beloved husband Leonard was quite disassociated from Woolf’s literary persona, she did, in fact, herself once state ‘one might walk hand in hand without ever marrying[4]’. Although she did eventually marry, this musing seems to indicate that Woolf viewed herself, perhaps slightly arrogantly, perhaps wistfully, as quite apart from even those like-minded intellectuals surrounding her.

This isolation has been argued by some literary critics to have been her greatest although most destructive state of mind. It was in these moments of extreme loneliness that Woolf began to create Mrs Dalloway. Fiction became incredibly experimental for Woolf in this time, she wasn’t so much creating a world as projecting the one she lived in already. In fact, the originality of her work was not in setting, characters or even description but in the structure of her writing. Her use of the literary mechanism of ‘double-voicing’ and layers of narrative through the splitting of consciousness is eerie to a reader, you feel constantly a couple of steps behind the present, overwhelmed by the spectacle of an ordinary day. This is not dissimilar to the sensation Woolf herself experienced, describing the voices of her characters ‘flying ahead of her like birds’. The fact she captured this emotional response in her writing and pass it on to the reader is demonstrative of supreme talent.

It is arguably Woolf’s isolation from the constraints of polite conversation in her own world that allowed the freedom of discourse Mrs Dalloway and her other work, not attributable to any character nor attached to a human embodiment. The time Woolf spent in her own head is clear through the chaotic yet rhythmic structures of her work, she refused to be tied down by expectations of other writers of the time or the demands of ‘real time’. In spending so much time alone Woolf understood that it is much more terrifying when a voice has no source, and time no pattern, stopping and starting, moments repeating with different voices narrating. This style creates a sense of déjà vu and entrapment in one moment before suddenly flying through the next. This she conveyed in every page of her writing, it is almost porous, and voices seep out under every line until you are unsure who or what is narrating the scene.

Isolation leading to madness

Another particular theme expounded upon was that of ontological pluralism; the idea that we are all constantly shifting between several versions of reality. It common that creative intellects, so engrossed in their work that it became all-consuming, might struggle to make distinctions between these layers of reality. Many authors say that their characters sometimes become uncannily real. For Woolf, the creative process was even more intense than this, she often lost temporal grounding and a sense of which reality was hers. In describing her own bouts of creativity and those of her characters (for example in To the Lighthouse), there is a clear desperation to keep the ordinary world within grasp, peppered with frequent descriptions of sinking and difficulties in converting time and space. This has been identified by psychiatrists as describing the brink of psychosis, and Woolf would often become lost in ‘the waters of annihilation’ and a ‘queer state[5]’. Although not religious, there are repeated mentions in her diaries of this creative place as ‘sacred’ and vast, ‘like a Cathedral’. This is not unlike the ordinary reader becoming lost in their imaginations for a brief second, but one hundredfold.

Woolf’s work is so real and intense because, at the time of writing it was her primary ontology, her only reality was Clarissa crossing the road[6], and although she shifts easily between narratives and characters in her writing, it became more and more difficult to pull back out of the waters to her writing desk. It is easy to understand therefore why some of Woolf’s most beautiful work was created in the depths of her mania. Her madness and her writing ought to be separated so one does not eclipse the other, but the reader need also understand that they were irrevocably intertwined.

Woolf as a feminist

As well as creating an entirely new literary technique, Woolf has been held up as a feminist icon. She was well-accustomed to the expectations of women of her status, and even though she largely rejected these ideals; we see reflected in Clarissa some of the hardships of being a woman. Woolf could not help but portray some of the agonising loneliness of female post-war grief that settled over London like a heavy mist in those years. Jubilation that the war had been won seemed constantly shadowed in Mrs Dalloway and in Woolf’s own life, tainted by a darkness that no dared to put their finger on for fear of being engulfed like the poor Septimus Smith.

Despite her heralding as a feminist powerhouse through her essays ‘A Room of One’s Own[7]’ and other writings, Woolf’s work exposed a vulnerability in her to the Draconian views that still held England in their grip. Throughout Mrs Dalloway, Big Ben’s chimes act as an inescapable reminder of male supremacy, a phallic embodiment of patriarchy that continued to lord over even the liberal sections of society. No matter how much she attempted to break out of the ‘domestic phantom of femininity rendering women incapable of hearing their own voices’, Woolf’s exploration of voice in her books always holds a powerful and menacing male narrative, such as the imposing Sir William Bradshaw[8].

Woolf did, however, recognise that viewing women with only one definition, and being capable of thought and intellect at only on the most superficial level was damaging – she wrote that expressing the self as one voice was a vehicle of oppression. At least in this way Woolf rebelled, the complexity of narrative in her novels through streams of consciousness refused to allow her female characters to be trapped in a two-dimensional description.

Despite this quiet power of her female characters, however, Woolf was painfully vulnerable to the expectations impressed upon her. She admits in her diaries that her first bouts of psychosis were attributable to voices she heard manifested in the guilt at over-eating during her bedrest. The fact that concerns with how she looked dominated the mind of one of the most talented and seemingly disinterested of feminists at the time shows the pervasiveness society’s norms. The male doctors in her novels haunted Woolf in her bedchamber when she was illest, and are always portrayed as quite monstrous and cold, machines of proportion.  She often mused ‘who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?’ and lamented the more difficult pathway of female authors and artists of the time.


There is no succinct nor satisfying conclusion I could draw about Virginia Woolf. It would do her a injustice to attempt to do so. She was a many-faceted woman, in my own view first and foremost an author, for it was to her craft that she ultimately surrendered everything. In her suicide note to Leonard Virginia submits ‘I begin to hear voices[9]’. It is fitting that in penning her goodbye, even in insanity, Virginia was poetically circular. It was voices in her head that first inspired her to write, and voices that carried her away again, out of temporal reality, and into the dark waters.

[1] Patricia Waugh, ‘It’s important to listen to imaginary voices – just ask Virginia Woolf’


Jan 24, 2017

[2] D Mitchell, in ‘The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves’ – Charles Fernyhough

[3] The Bloomsbury Group, Art, Lives, Legacy http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/bloomsbury-group

[4] http://www.newyorker.com/books/joshua-rothman/virginia-woolfs-idea-of-privacy

[5] ‘On being ill’, Virginia Woolf, appeared in T. S. Eliot’s The Criterion in January, 1926

[6] Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, first published 14 May 1925, p.7

[7] A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf, first published on 24 October 1929

[8] Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, first published 14 May 1925, p.84

[9] ‘A painful and poignant farewell’, August 26th 2013 http://www.openculture.com/2013/08/virginia-woolfs-handwritten-suicide-note.html

Image: Julie Jordan Scott via Flickr

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