Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Adeline Virginia Stephen Woolf (Virginia Woolf) with her mother, Julia Stephen, 1884

In "A Sketch of the Past," Virginia Woolf describes her mother, who died when Woolf was thirteen; this memory is written forty-four years after her death, when Woolf was herself fifty-seven:

Certainly there she was, in the very centre of that great Cathedral space which was childhood; there she was from the very first.  My first memory is of her lap; the scratch of some beads on her dress comes back to me as I pressed my cheek against it.  Then I see her in her white dressing gown on the balcony; and the passion flower with the purple star on its petals.  Her voice is still faintly in my ears -- decided, quick; and in particular the little drops with which her laugh ended -- three diminshing ahs... "Ah -- ah -- ah..."  I sometimes end a laugh that way myself.  And I see her hands, like Adrian's [Woolf's brother], with the very individual square-tipped fingers, each finger with a waist to it, and the nail broadening out. (My own are the same size all the way, so that I can slip a ring over my thumb.)  She had three rings; a diamond ring, an emerald ring, and an opal ring.  My eyes used to fix themselves upon the lights in the opal as it moved across the page of the lesson book when she taught us, and I was glad that she left it to me (I gave it to Leonard [Woolf's husband]).  Also I hear the tinkle of her bracelets, made of twisted silver, given her by Mr Lowell, as she went about the house; especially as she came up at night to see if we were asleep, holding a candle shaded; this is a distinct memory, for, like all children, I lay awake sometimes and longed for her to come.  Then she told me to think of all the lovely things I could imagine.  Rainbows and bells...
But apart from her beauty, if the two can be separated, what was she herself like? Very quick; very direct; practical; and amusing, I say at once offhand.  She could be sharp, she disliked affectation.  "If you put your head on one side like that you shan't come to the party," I remember she said to me as we drew up in a carriage in front of some house.  Severe; with a background knowledge that made her sad.
But can I get any closer to her without drawing upon all those descriptions and anecdotes which after she was dead imposed themselves upon my view of her?  Very quick; very definite; very upright; and behind the active, the sad, the silent.  And of course she was central.  I suspect the word "central" gets closest to the general feeling I had of living so completely in her atmosphere that one never got far enough away from her to see her as a person.... She was the whole thing; Talland House was full of her; Hyde Park Gate [the homes where Woolf's family lived during her childhood] was full of her.  I see now, though the sentence is hasty, feeble and inexpressive, why it was that it was impossible for her to leave a very private and particular impression upon a child.  She was keeping what I call in my shorthand the panoply of life -- that which we all lived in common -- in being.  I see now that she was living on such an extended surface that she had not time, nor strength, to concentrate, except for a moment if one were ill or in some child's crisis, up on me, or upon anyone -- unless it were Adrian.  Him she cherished separately; she called him 'My Joy'.  The later view, the understanding that I now have of her position must have its say; and it shows me that a woman of forty with seven children, some of them needing grown-up attention, and four still in the nursery; and an eighth, Laura, an idiot, yet living with us; and a husband fifteen years her elder, difficult, exacting, dependent on her; I see now that a woman who had to keep all this in being and under control must have been a general presence rather than a particular person to a child of seven or eight.
Virginia Woolf, "A Sketch of the Past"
Moments of Being, pp. 81-83 

Julia Stephen (rear) with six of her seven children, plus a friend.
Front row: Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia, and Adrian Stephen
photos from Dust on the Shelves

This meditation by a daughter on her soul-deep longing for her mother was beautiful and reassuring to me.  The things that Julia Stephen did for her daughters (Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, were both home schooled, with mixed results -- both women counted on their fingers to the end of their days, but could follow Cambridge and Oxford educated scholars with confidence), were less important to her than the fact of her presence.  Woolf doesn't remember the lessons so much as watching the opal ring during the lessons.  She knows she was loved, and though she may have resented all the distractions from her mother's attention, she remembers her lovingly, not resentfully.  She misses those individual attentions, but recognizes that her mother created and sustained the entire shape of her life, a life which she remembers with laughter, and nostalgia, and as a time of the greatest confidence.

In an era when mothers are bombarded with often-conflicting information about the "right" way to parent, when we're constantly told we're not doing enough or when Time magazine can demand "Are you MOM enough?" it's nice to be reminded that it's not so much each individual choice that adds up to "Mom enough" but the simple fact of our loving presence, the "natural quality that a mother -- she seemed typical, universal, yet our own in particular -- had by virtue of being our mother."

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