Courage and Compassion: Virginia Woolf and Emma González
By Stuart Mitchner
So you begin with the death of Virginia Woolf, on this day, March 28, 1941. Moved by the courage and compassion of her farewell message to her husband, you read her first novel, The Voyage Out, in which her alter ego, Rachel Vinrace, dies at 24 after finding herself in life and music, falling in love, becoming engaged, and moving you, again, because you’ve come to care for her as if she were a real person.
Then, with another world and another time still impinging on your own reality, you join the thousands on Hinds Plaza last Saturday afternoon, staring at the crystal-clear summer-blue sky, occasionally sensing subtle intimations of menace when the barking of dogs coincides with angry shouts aimed at one speaker who admitted to being a gun owner. Meanwhile, no doubt like others in the crowd, you’re acutely aware that only a few days earlier a gun-wielding man was shot dead just around the corner at Panera Bread after a half-day standoff.
At 2 a.m. Monday as you’re hoping to put the finishing touches on a Virginia Woolf column, you see a clip of Emma González’s speech, four of its six minutes and 20 seconds delivered in silence as she stares forthrightly out at the hundreds of thousands attending the March for Our Lives rally in Washington. And that, too, moves you because you seem to know the story of her life the way you would if a great writer had written it, except that no writer could have expressed the wonder of a 17-year-old life force in an army jacket, her chest heaving with the passion of her mission as she locks herself in that zone of unshakable silence, making the world feel the magnitude of loss, perhaps even, you fondly imagine, breaking through the closed minds of those who have tried to discredit her and her classmates.
Unvanquished and Unyielding
Since no copies of The Voyage Out were available when I wanted to read it, I had to make do online, where you can flow with the virtual current, everything instantly in play as you surf through scenes haunted by intimations of Jane Austen and E.M. Forster down to the depths where Woolf finds the heart of her darkness, the death-by-water theme she will sound throughout her work and most memorably on the day she walks the half mile to her death in the River Ouse. According to Nigel Nicholson’s short biography in the Penguin Lives series, Virginia then thrust “a large stone into the pocket of her fur coat” and “threw herself into the water.” The phrasing echoes her epitaph, taken from the last words of her 1931 novel The Waves: “Against you I will fling myself unvanquished and unyielding, O Death.” For Nicholson, who had known her in his youth, “To end her life at this point was like ending a book: it had a certain artistic integrity.”
Woolf’s last act bookended a breakdown and attempted suicide in 1913-1915, the period during which Virginia Stephen married Leonard Woolf and finished a first novel begun in 1907 when she was the same age as her doomed protagonist Rachel Vinrace. However irrelevant Woolf’s life and work may seem to the mass murder of children, there’s no doubt that the guns and bombs and mass murder of two wars descended on her fine-tuned sensibility with catastrophic force.
The note Woolf left for her husband on the day she took her life is heroic in its determination that he not feel in any way responsible. On this dark occasion, she stresses one word above all others, telling him “You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came …. What I want to say is that I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient and incredibly good …. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness.” Besides echoing a previous line, her last words, “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been,” echoes a significant moment in The Voyage Out, when Rachel’s fiancé sits beside her death bed thinking “They had now what they had always wanted to have, the union which had been impossible while they lived. Unconscious whether he thought the words or spoke them aloud, he said, ‘No two people have ever been so happy as we have been.’”
Rachel and Water
Described by E.M. Forster as “a strange tragic inspired novel about English tourists in an impossible South American hotel,” The Voyage Out begins with a vividly imagined portrayal of London seven years ahead of the “Unreal City” in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (1922). Right away there are hints of the author’s psychic unrest in references to “the friction of people brushing past,” the traffic moving across Waterloo Bridge “like the line of animals in a shooting gallery,” the motor cars “more like spiders in the moon than terrestrial objects,” and the thought that when “one gave up seeing the beauty that clothed things, this was the skeleton beneath,” all these impressions coming through the medium of a middleaged woman whose mind is “like a wound exposed to dry in the air.”
At first you assume the woman, Helen Ambrose, is the novel’s central character rather than her niece Rachel. Even after Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose have boarded the ship owned by Rachel’s father, the focus remains on Helen. Our first view of Rachel is through the eyes of her aunt: “Helen looked at her. Her face was weak rather than decided, saved from insipidity by the large enquiring eyes; denied beauty, now that she was sheltered indoors, by the lack of colour and definite outline. Moreover, a hesitation in speaking, or rather a tendency to use the wrong words, made her seem more than normally incompetent for her years. … Yes! how clear it was that she would be vacillating, emotional, and when you said something to her it would make no more lasting impression than the stroke of a stick upon water.”
If you’ve come to The Voyage Out aware of the circumstances of the author’s death and of her work’s primary metaphorical element, it’s hard to dismiss even the most offhand reference to water, particularly when you’re onboard ship headed for the sea on a river that “had a certain amount of troubled yellow light in it” and “ran with great force.” The dark fate of the narrative is foreshadowed when Rachel and Helen are together on deck, “leaning over the rail, side by side, as the ship tries to “make head against the wind.” When Rachel gasps, “It blows — it blows!” the words are “rammed down her throat.”
They take shelter inside, but the room “has nothing of the shut stationary character of a room on shore.” The chapter ends with Helen glancing back at Rachel, “expecting that as two of the same sex they would leave the room together.” Instead, “Rachel rose, looked vaguely into Helen’s face, and remarked with her slight stammer, ‘I’m going out to t-t-triumph in the wind.’”
That sounds like the cry of an author finding herself. And the more you know of Virginia Woolf’s poetry of the elements, the more you feel the shifting, surging undercurrent of the narrative, and never more than when you find yourself reeling in the face of the untimely death of the girl who meant to “triumph in the wind.” When a character based on Lytton Strachey asks if she believes “in a personal God,” Rachel knows what Woolf knows, speaking again with a stammer: “I believe — I believe … there are things we don’t know about, and the world might change in a minute and anything appear.”
Words and Music
As E.M. Forster has observed, Virginia Woolf could “never let go of poetry” but was always “snatching bits from the flux of life as they float past, and out of these bits she builds novels.” Once I became attached to Rachel as a character, I was less interested in the novel’s skillful portrait of the English colony in that “impossible South American hotel,” giving most of my attention to the blooming of love between Rachel and Terence Hewet, an aspiring novelist at work on a book titled Silence. Another way you know Rachel is Woolf’s vessel is that she’s an artist in her own right, with a passion and a gift for music: “Up and up the steep spiral of a very late Beethoven sonata she climbed, like a person ascending a ruined staircase, energetically at first, then more laboriously advancing her feet with effort until she could go no higher and returned with a run to begin at the very bottom again.”
To Say What Can’t Be Said
A societal breakthrough of sorts occurs when Woolf sets the stiff, super-talky microcosm of England dancing, “the dancers holding hands and shouting out, ‘D’you ken John Peel,’ as they swung faster and faster and faster” until the chain gave way, and they “went flying across the room in all directions, to land upon the floor or the chairs or in each other’s arms as seemed most convenient.” And of course it’s Rachel who provides the music that inspires the most delirious moments of the dance, Rachel who keeps on playing, passing “from John Peel to Bach, who was at that time the subject of her intense enthusiasm.” The effect is comparable to that of a novelist taking command of the scene: As the dancers sat and listened, “their nerves were quieted,” they “sat very still” and “began to see themselves and their lives, and the whole of human life advancing very nobly under the direction of the music. They felt themselves ennobled.” When Rachel stops playing, one young woman thanks her for the happiest night of her life. For her, Rachel’s music “just seems to say all the things one can’t say oneself.”
Rachel and Emma
This is how it is when your heart is with Rachel, as it is with Emma González, whose stunning silence seems to say all the things one can’t say oneself. Virginia Woolf’s last message was delivered in the knowledge of impending death. Emma’s message was to stand in silent defiance of death and in silent union with her fallen classmates.