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  • "Locked in a Room of One's Own?":Querying the Quest for Keys to Woolf's "Madness"
  • Janice Stewart

It needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled apart by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her own health and sanity to a certainty.

Woolf 1987: 48

What woman wants to be opened by a skeleton key?

Gallop 1982: 137

Virginia Woolf has been represented as the origin of the feminist author and scholar —"the mother of us all,"1 and as "the real-life epitome of that feminine archetype, the mad wife" (Showalter 1977: 276). If "the mother of us all" is also an archetypal "mad wife," we have problems. These are especially deep-rooted if, as Sue Roe suggests, "[s]he has been so readily and so ubiquitously appropriated to the feminist literary Cause that it sometimes seems as though every feminist insight has its origin somewhere in the work of Virginia Woolf" (1990: 3). To address these problems, our feminist roots in "madness," I believe that we need to disentangle some of the strings wound around Woolf studies. In so doing, it is my aim to foreground the complex web of gendered, pathologizing discursive practices that have produced, no doubt unwittingly, a seemingly unending and often unreflexive quest —a kind of binding Gordian knot in Woolf studies —attempts to diagnose [End Page 147] Woolf's "madness" definitively as if, thereby, one can solve the apparent mystery of her pernicious malady.

In particular, I examine the narration of Woolf's diaries of the times when she engages in a highly complex and tumultuous relationship with a gendered model of the melancholic genius, a model that, in a significant way, takes the shape of her father, Sir Leslie Stephen. My re-reading of Woolf's diaries, in terms of the ways in which Woolf writes herself in reference to the model of the melancholic artist, does not cut and paste the figure of Woolf onto a fragile and tattered ancestral portrait of a gloomy old-boys' club but examines the ways in which she experienced and expressed her artistic identity in terms of her ghostly paternal model of the mad melancholic genius. Here, I attempt to read against an ongoing critical tradition haunted by its own ghostly apparitions of a tormented and suicidal madwoman, whose "insanity" must be teleologically diagnosed, isolated, and controlled. Woolf's identification with the model of the masculine melancholic genius is complex. In seizing unto herself the identity of "Author" and melancholic genius, Woolf stakes out a territory hitherto not available to women. Specifically, I am interested in the ways in which the image of the "melancholic artist" is, for Woolf, an identification through which she knows "madness" and concomitantly experiences "madness." The interaction between Woolf and the masculinized model of melancholic "madness" is, I believe, an example of "contrary instincts" (Woolf 1987: 48) violently at odds with each other: the melancholic artist was a masculinized model, which stood in stark opposition to Woolf's feminized body ego. As Brenda Silver wonders, "why is it so easy to separate images of the woman from the writer in these struggles, and why is it that her being a woman may ultimately be the most significant factor in her conflicting iconic representations?" (1999: 10). Attending to the construction of "madness" and gender in Woolf studies as well as in Woolf's diaries, I shall suggest a theory of Woolf's "feminine" body-ego and her identification of her self as "author," a theory which specifically addresses some of the conflicts implicated in the oppositional gendering of those identifications.

Decades of critics have insisted upon diagnosing Adeline Virginia Woolf as, for example, and often in combination, alcoholic, anal, anorexic, frigid, hysterical, mad, manic-depressive, masochistic, neurasthenic, oral, or traumatized. Quentin Bell's rather florid estimation of his aunt's situation was that she had "a cancer of the mind, a [End Page 148] corruption of the spirit . . . a Dionysian sword above [her] head" (1971: 1-44). In...


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