Virginia Woolf should live on, but not because of her death

Published in The Guardian on May 27, 2015

Virginia Woolf may be famous for her death – she drowned herself in 1941 – but she is enjoying an uncommonly busy afterlife. A seemingly unending stream of novels, plays and films seek to re-animate her, fictionalising Woolf’s life – and death. And it ripples out: her wider circle, the Bloomsbury group, are also regularly brought back to life for our entertainment.

Three novels in the past year have channelled Woolf. Norah Vincent’s Adeline floats between the inner lives of Lytton Strachey, Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister ventriloquises Vanessa Bell, letting us see Woolf through her long-suffering sister’s eyes (the perspective, too, of Susan Sellers’ 2008 novel Vanessa and Virginia). Maggie Gee more literally resurrected her in Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, imagining the author suddenly appearing in a New York library in the present day.

But Woolf lives across many media. This summer sees the arrival of BBC’s bio-drama Life in Squares, promising a look at how the Bloomsberries “navigate their way through love, sex and artistic life” – presumably in that order. Meanwhile, a big-screen version of Eileen Atkins’s play, Vita and Virginia, is being made, starring Romola Garai as Woolf’s aristocratic lover, Vita Sackville-West.

Meanwhile Woolf Works, Wayne McGregor’s opinion-splitting ballet, has just opened at the Royal Opera House. It begins with a 1937 radio broadcast by Woolf herself, and later features Gillian Anderson reading Woolf’s suicide note, while McGregor has tempted 52-year-old dancer Alessandra Ferri out of retirement to give a poignant performance as the writer.

But, you’ll note, the title is Woolf Works – not Woolf Lives. This three-part ballet is, in fact, inspired by her fiction: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves. The opening section casts Ferri as Mrs Dalloway looking back on her life; the fluid intertwining of past and present selves that Woolf creates in her novel is persuasively achieved through overlapping bodies on stage.

But some have taken it that Ferri is Woolf herself, a reading confirmed in the last section, equally inspired by Woolf’s suicide note and The Waves. Ferri, as Woolf, watches a fluttering, swelling tide of dancers evoke the novel’s central, poetic premise of interconnected lives – “‘I am not one and simple, but complex and many” – before she is finally laid down for a watery death.

Why put Woolf herself in the work? It cannot be that the material of those three novels is not rich enough enough to sustain 90-minutes of dancing; can it be that Woolf’s life story is just more juicy?

Strikingly, Woolf Works is far from the first adaptation to do this. Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours, and Stephen Daldry’s film version, also did much to collapse Woolf-the-person into Woolf’s fiction. “Virginia” was presented alongside a modern-day Mrs Dalloway and a suicidal woman reading that novel. The gloomy presentation of Woolf conflated her creativity with madness, and conflated her life with her work.

It was a similar story in Katie Mitchell’s 2006 innovative stage adaptation, Waves, which lost the definitive article and introduced the author as an on-stage character. There was much to love in Waves, but having “Virginia” narrating maudlin passages from her diaries as well as from the source novel presented the two as interchangeable. Once again, Woolf was brought back to life only to focus on her death.

This is a rare and curious phenomenon. While novels re-animating dead authors are a staple of modern publishing (this year alone, Emily Brontë, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot and Dorothy Parker have had the treatment), placing the author within adaptations of their fiction is unusual. You don’t see Charles Dickens wandering through television versions of Bleak House.

And what a miserable Woolf it always is! The focus in Woolf Works, The Hours and Waves alike is on her tragic demise. This limits our view of her as a person – there’s none of the wit, charm and spirit that Woolf, by all accounts, had.

Woolf Works’s dramaturg Uzma Hameed claims that her “life permeated her work”, and it’s true that Woolf drew on childhood memories, her family, and intense “moments of being”. And yet … she also disliked “egotism” in writing, consciously trying to avoid it in her own and condemning it in others.

More worryingly, by inserting a mad, sad Woolf into adaptations of her writing, we risk equating the two. This may seriously undermine her fiction’s autonomy, and encourages an interpretation focusing on the gloomy aspects of Woolf’s fiction at the expense of the shimmering, inventive, life-affirming elements. It is also surely patronising to her talent to suggest her work is only poignant because she drowned. Woolf is a towering figure because she was a great writer – not because of her death.

Where next?