Books: Genius of a nothing-but

Virginia Woolf: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by Peter Dally Robson Books pounds 16.95
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The Independent Culture
In her epic novel The Four-Gated City, surveying our century's breakdown of belief, morality and community, Doris Lessing created a beautiful, tormented, sibylline character Lynda, who blazes with either madness or unrecognised creativity - no one's quite sure which. Lynda is periodically confined to a mental hospital, yet, the narrative suggests, she may be a seer with a message for all of us about a visionary route to survival and redemption. Lynda's friend Dorothy, also a refugee from hospital, describes the inmates' favourite insult to one another: you're a nothing- but. It's derived from those experts who write people off by diagnosing them. You're nothing but a schizophrenic. You're nothing but a depressive. Nothing but a neurasthenic. Nothing but a failure at relationships.

Virginia Woolf, one of the iconoclastic founders of modernism, can also be shrunk to a nothing-but. In Peter Dally's book she's nothing but a manic-depressive. Perhaps it's only fair to remember that for other authors she's been nothing but a victim of childhood sexual abuse; nothing but an exemplar of women's struggle to break free of conditioning and make great art; nothing but a victim of patriarchy; nothing but an overpraised snobbish upper-class gabble-merchant. Nonetheless it is extraordinary to read about a ground-breaking writer (whether or not you admire her writing) solely in terms of her mental disease. It's rather like seeing her effigy stripped of its clothes, and paraded naked through the streets - this must therefore, we're solemnly told, be the real person. Should we really be committing grave robbery one more time, opening the coffin and rummaging through the contents yet again? Didn't Hermione Lee's recent and multi-faceted biography, viewing Woolf through shifting kaleidoscopic lenses of many coloured glass, provide an adequate last word?

This earnestly recounted case history recording the ups and downs of Woolf's illness presents her as a patient called Virginia. Off with the Bloomsbury glad rags and on with the white smock. In stressing that she was a manic-depressive it discovers that, yes, she was a manic-depressive. In so doing, it contributes to a contemporary, fashionable, circular myth about genius and madness. The one appears to feed on the other. True or false? Dally doesn't discuss the relationship between the two, its possibilities and complexities, which would have been fascinating. He stresses that for most of her life, Woolf was sane, and that she learned to employ her madness as a route into the unconscious, the wellspring of art. There are other routes, of course, but you use the one you're offered. The novelty of this book lies in its uncompromising diagnosis of cyclothymic depression leading to manic depression, that is, an illness brought about by biological causes, aided by environmental and emotional stresses. Woolf was depressed in winter and early spring, manic in summer, an unrelenting and repeating pattern. When pressures were too great, she collapsed, on three occasions, into full-scale breakdown. She managed to live as long as she did, before committing suicide, because her devoted husband, Leonard, acted as her nurse, her buffer to the world.

Dally does rather want it both ways. He remarks airily: "The basic cause of cyclothymia remains unknown, but ... it is now generally accepted that the disease has a genetic basis. The genes have not been located, but that is only a question of time. Manic depression will not occur in the absence of the responsible genes, yet their presence does not always result in clinical cyclothymia because of what geneticists call 'incomplete genetic penetration.'" So that's that.

So many fans of Bloomsbury write about Woolf in hushed and over-reverent tones that there is something refreshing, as well as faintly comic, in seeing the flat, prosaic discourse of psychiatry replace the hagiographic breathlessness we're accustomed to from overdeferential scribes. Dally proceeds, in his early chapters, through the family romance of the Duckworth and Stephen families from which Woolf came, showing the incidence of mental disturbance among her relatives and forebears, gravely discussing her parents as dysfunctional, repressed, unable to cope with separation anxiety, overdemanding and needy. Though I am sure he is utterly sincere, and means to sound compassionate, he comes close to psychobabble.

He does not discuss the implications of evaluating the Victorians in terms they could never have used themselves. Perhaps this is what lets him off the hook of taking seriously Woolf's sexual abuse by her two half brothers. He remarks that since she wrote humorously about it in later life it can't have been traumatic; doesn't he know that joking is one way of dealing with trauma, the oyster lapping the grit with layers of pearl? He thinks she may have quite enjoyed it, as a reassurance that adult male sexuality was not threatening. Logical? He goes on to track Woolf's growing mania and depression year by year.

There's certainly nothing new in defining women writers as mad. Hysteria was a favourite 19th-century rebuke used to keep unruly female artists in their place. Some women exploited their assumed bizarreness to win themselves the breathing-spaces necessary for creativity: if you were reclusive and odd, as Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson discovered, you weren't required to spend your afternoons pouring out tea for the vicar but could concentrate your energies on poetry.

Nowadays conventional wisdom has it that male artists also are more or less deranged. Sexual equality achieved, we're all as mad as each other. Perhaps, to reach the unconscious and its inspiration, you've got to destabilise yourself a little, let yourself be eccentric. If you're trying to burst through old literary forms and reinvent the language of storytelling, then perhaps your psyche will feel the turbulence at the same time. Perhaps, in a civilisation whose citizens are dedicated to getting rich and staying safe, you have to be mad to want to be an artist. Virginia Woolf undoubtedly suffered severe and prolonged bouts of what, for want of a better word, we call insanity. But what really matters is that Woolf left us her writing, not just the novels and essays but the marvellous letters and diaries. These testify to how she triumphed over adversity, even if this triumph could not be sustained.