Louise DeSalvo's book Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work opens up a horrifying world. Roald Dahl once said that no one who has been to a public school can quite get over, in later years, the luxury of being able to sleep in a bed without having his back to the wall, and on the evidence presented by Louise DeSalvo, it would be reasonable to suppose that Virginia Woolf in later years could never quite adapt to the thought that she would not suddenly be cornered by George Duckworth and forced into some degrading act with him. [End Page 300]
Indeed, 22 Hyde Parke Gate, the childhood home of the Stephen girls, seems to have been little less than a nightmare, a "patriarchal" world of violence and terrified repression. Louise DeSalvo operates a totalizing method not unlike that of the practitioners of the Geneva School of phenomenological criticism in that she attempts to co-incide completely with the consciousness of her chosen writer, entering a world, attuning herself to it, and learning how to interpret every part of it in terms of every other part, the "life" being expressed in the "work" and vice versa.
Was the old, self-pitying Sir Leslie Stephen simply unaware of the outrages being committed against the young women under his roof, or did he, in some malign "ideological" way, even connive in it, or think it was "good for them"? The wild and emotional J. K. Stephen, for instance, was allowed constant access to Stella Duckworth, even though he was often quite out of control and acting in a menacing way. It would appear from his poetic reverie "The Last Ride Together" that Stella had been, at some point in their tempestuous relationship, submitted to anal rape. And what grim suffering lay in wait for Stella with Jack Hills, as sex-obsessed as J. K. Stephen had been? Stella was married on 10 April 1897. On their honeymoon Jack turned out to be "a tiring lover" and by 19 July she was dead. The official account was "peritonitis." Jack, bereaved, then went on to terrify Virginia with the urgency of his sexual needs. And what repeated and humiliating oppression lies behind Virginia's short sketch "Terrible Tragedy in a Duck Pond"? Apparently no more than a witty exercise in reporting about three young people who had been tipped out of their punt while on a moonlit trip on the lake, it nevertheless offers an entire symbolic code for decipherment, a series of signifiers pointing (for these are the happy days before Lacan) to a series of signifieds.
Virginia Woolf, promising to send a copy of the story to her friend Emma Vaughan, emphasises: "Do you see? You must read my work carefully—not missing my peculiar words." What peculiar words? Well, the endlessly repeated "duckweed" for one, an obvious play on Duckworth. But why this play on the name? What is associated with it? "The reason for her death by drowning is that she is shrouded in green weed, in "duckweed," in "slimatica." The green carpet of duckweed has "closed over its prey"; but although the surface of the pond seemed unruffled, below it, however, someone was dying."
The movement in phenomenological criticism is from text to text, from assonance to assonance, and always using hypothesis (there can be no proof), but I do find DeSalvo's sudden intuitive sideways movement both deft and convincing. She relates a note in Mitchell Leaska's edition of Pointz Hall to the duckweek fantasy, a note to a line from Swinburne's "Itylus," "Swallow, my sister, O sister swallow." This bit of serendipitous...