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The Letters She Left Behind
And so I come to the lady in the water, the sinner (but in the end aren’t we all sinners).
Virginia Woolf in the flesh, that death of the drowning visitor. Her brain cells turned into the cemented atonement of dead moths. Deaths that can be accounted for. Physical bodies that can’t be spirited away, mended only souls torn from the material. Absolutely nothing escaped Virginia. The glory of love (she had that white wedding, the gift of love, she knew it, she knew of it, defended it graciously, she was no failure. I am that failure). Nothing escaped her passionate seeing eyes, her liberty, her meditations on nature, her platelets, mitochondria and bilateral symmetry no more. Only the grit, the brick walls, the mysterious interiors of the mansions of her work remained. Left behind. Granite. Diaries left behind for apprentices. Her intuition, breath and vitality has left this damned for an eternity to hell corpse. What does she have to do with the parenting skills of my distant manic depressive father and my elegant and cold mother, my cool mental illness that needed a room of its own to coexist with my brother’s cigarette smoke, his fatherhood, and his triumph where I had failed and then I voyaged inwards?
River Ouse captivated me. Woolf’s love letters to Vita. The love story of Woolf and West. I am a woman who writes. Virginia Woolf was a woman who was a wife, a lover and woman who wrote. My ordinary madness became a thing of beauty to me. Me an empty vessel who found bright stars in women, in their husbands and children, in flowers in a vase, in the fabric of the universe at night. I am Orlando. I am Lady Lazarus. I have lived vicariously through Hiroshima, Jean Rhys the demimonde and artist’s model and the feminist Sylvia Plath’s cutting-edged authentic words signalling warning, communicating threads of wisdom, and protest poetry. I needed to understand the London scene, Ted Hughes, Assia Wevill, and the child from that union, Shura. I’m afraid of I’m afraid of modernism because it’s not modernism that is taking over the world. It’s writing. The interpretations of an inner life, innerness, marriage, creativity and madness. Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf sitting in a tree. K-I-s-s-I-n-g. Don’t ‘look’ at me. Look at ‘me’. Our intimacy is something special. Your skin is a fabric I could drown in. I can do without religion but I cannot do without you. You have given me the highest form of art, and that is inspiration. How can I ever repay you?
Come to me you elegant creature with all of the hopes that you have for yourself. Your goals have become mine. Your dreams my own. Beautiful, elegant Vita. My Orlando. When I read your work I am filled with a clarity of vision, astute perfection, and I feel as if I am your sole possession to have, to have, to have. Can I borrow some of your inhibitory nature, your anticipatory nostalgia, your poetic descriptions, your sky, and the sky in your eyes, your flowers, the flowers that you meditate upon in your garden, your compass that navigates you across the passages of London and Europe? And I want to share something else with you if you will let me. I have come to care very deeply about you. Understand this. Understand that I don’t want to own you, claim you for my own as I am sure others have wanted to do in the past, and I do not want to possess you, and enter your world as a lover and leave as an interloper. When we are together like this, you reading my words (because there are parts of me that want to be completely honest with you about how safe I feel with the charming and seductive you). When we sit together there is still a veil of privacy, an idea of privacy on my part.
I am sure the same goes for you too. When I’m with you I’m oblivious to everything around me. When we are apart all I can think of is Vita. What is Vita doing? Planting, gardening, writing, letter-writing (is she composing one to me), planning her day ahead, is Vita making lists, running errands, opening a letter (from me, from me). Is Vita smiling, is Vita laughing, and who is making my Vita smile, my Vita laugh? If it is not me, my duty to make you smile I feel a slight hysteria, overcome with emotion and I feel like an empty biblical vessel. I feel useless because how can I be of use to anyone if I, the authentic me is not sincerely, utterly devoted to my Vita. It is all about significant you. There is no one else above you. I am utterly devoted to you. You have the key to my heart. Once opened you will find a Pandora’s Box but I must have secrets. Don’t all female writers allow themselves that latitude at least? I must keep something for myself. Something that I can go to when I begin to become afraid that you will be spirited away from me, of our love waning, you withering Vita and passing into indifference, being erased, never returning to the story of us?
What would I do if you weren’t in my world anymore? You, my most rare paradise, my heaven. Smoking cigarette after cigarette, stockinged feet in your slippers, your hair wild, loose, unkempt in my hands, in my hands and that is when I feel at my most magical. The real and the imagined becomes a twisted union, tantalising revolution and although it fades away in the morning it is still there in memory and all I can think about is when we will be able to meet here again. I watch you put your bathrobe on, as you brush the tangles out of your fashionably cut hair my darling, and you turn around watching me watching you and you smile. My hand caresses the warmth that the physical you left behind on the sheets. I inhale your expensive perfume. And I come to the slow realisation that society will be the death of us. They will never accept us. You make me forget. I like that. You make me forget about Vanessa’s progeny. I like that. You make me forget about my secrets. I like that. You make me forget about my childhood. I like that. You make me forget about being molested by my two half-brothers when I was a child Vita. I like that most of all. You are so right for me woman.
Vita, you’re my gravity, my aorta, and I love how you acknowledge complicated me, my self-punishment, self-imposed exile, and childlike innocence. I love you and Leonard equally and if I were to lose you both, and not live up to both of your expectations then that would be the death of me. You’re an event. When the silence, in my room becomes unquiet, too much for me to endure, and I become self-conscious of it, a writer’s rituals, aware of self-pity I must continue to write. You’ve become my obsession and I can think of no one else’s company that I want to be in. As crazy as it sounds when I’m with you I can feel electricity humming in my bones. Our connection is an infinite one. I find your poetry, your humility, your abandonment, your inhibitory current stunning, Vita. You are the second love of my life. You are all the dimensions of my world. I find you clever, so artistic, your work is electric, so imaginative and you’ve tamed drowning me Vita. I’ve always been curious of married life. I thought I would be surround by the walls of a prison and then I married, became a wife but did not have those children and I discovered how far from the truth that was.
Marriage frees you in a sense in so many wonderful and illuminating ways. I wanted Leonard. I wanted love but not necessarily a husband because I didn’t think that love came with having a husband. Love comes with having a likeminded companion. You, Vita, are that likeminded companion. You come with measures of love, with passion, intelligence, you machine. Observe the adjustments in my personality carefully whenever I am with you, study, and evaluate my dying in your arms. Learn my half-truths and white lies as I do yours Vita. I only have to hear your voice and I thrive. I achieve a new intelligence, a new acting, a new materialism, and a new language in that dry season. It should be as obvious to you now as it is to me that I am utterly besotted, smitten by you. I am in love with you. Let’s set up house together. Get away together if that’s impossible. And when I am without you I am a winter guest in a cold storm. I want to tell you that there is something luxurious and soothing about your skin. My Vita. I am at your mercy. Your perfume fills my head. And when I begin to live vicariously through you, self-consciously or consciously my sadness has a complex wavelength.
Brutal accomplishments threading my humanity. I have longed for them my whole life. The gratitude I have for you being a part of my life has become educational. They did not think of the extraordinary consequences of the gift of their relationship. They did not think. Period. They lived for love like other women did for being regarded as sex objects, parties, men, the London scene and flowers. Instead they are transformed. The lovers whisper to themselves. They don’t want to part. The grass was a dream. And they were both brides rushing to the end of adolescence, the English summer weather, its immediacy of sustaining both women’s ideas of silence in the complexity of detachment. Here in the countryside, shielded by multitudes of simplistic chores, sharing the routine of waking up to their literary work, neither woman could untangle herself from their ‘marriage’. These elegant English heroines, English novelists whose writings were hypnotic were oblivious to reality, the outside world, and men were rendered insignificant, invisible. Men became others and humanity, the female of the species existed in a time and space that became known as the unknown future.
After the dust, the cunning sexual disclosure, the impulsivity of the lesbian love affair between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West no sentence could shame the both of them, their writing process, their divine prowess. Woolf gave Sackville-West authority over her physical body, and in return Sackville-West did the same. Gaps, flashbacks, embarrassing regret should come with the territory of an affair that comes to an end. The silence is textured with what is not being said, the acute longing, and the despair of loneliness, of a seductive theory identifying the beginning of this lifelong romance, the mutual admiration committee between these two gifted English women. I know what it is to suffer. To live with the face of enduring love shining upon my frozen countenance, love realigning my psychological frame, my sexual pace. Your power stifles me, a thing. And a woman alone. At first it’s a glance framing reality, a sensual anticipation and so the landscape’s feast becomes symbolic of what will come after this inconvenient love. Photographs survive. Historical events, knowledge, actors but not manic depressives, the mentally ill, people who have an absence of order in their lives.
The living do not survive. In our world morals are made of shrinking ice. Our love is fingered apocalyptic bliss. The detailed built foundations of the sublime. To hurt someone else is an inconvenience. To be hurt in return embroiders negative patterns in your thoughts for an unseen lifetime, it cheapens secrets, weaving, slaughtering the golden, the sensual image of the physical body. There is nothing that can be a replacement for the latter. Virginia Woolf. Was she still that molested child? Hurt, confused, yet her mind still cool and pure, cleansed of any illness, elements of fantasy, climate change, global warning, world poverty, trafficking did not coexist in her field of vision yet. She delayed the information. The bridges to the onslaught of mental illness. All she wanted was freedom. And this she found with Vita Sackville-West.
And as an adult did she not want children, a whole screaming tribe of them of her own, a child so that she could mend all the wrongs of the past. Already Virginia had a plan while writing in her diary, ‘I know I’ll never love this way again.’ She is gone. Never to return into my arms again. So fleeting was the flame. She burned so bright. I will never fall in love again.
Imagine a humanity in which there was no morality (but isn’t there already signs of this), gravity, confusion, disillusionment, criminal behaviour, sexual violence, or misbehaviour. Not so easy, huh? Instead I imagine the well of desire that is in the inner child of the woman that I love. The name of the woman that I love is Vita Sackville-West. She never contradicts herself. ‘Moral ambiguity’ are not words that are found in her vocabulary. Neither is ‘distressing’. For she is a woman who has everything at her fingertips. Am I saying goodbye? It has come to this. The end of the affair. The parting of the most perfectly likeminded individuals in England. A match that was made in a paradise. I would give away my precious books, hide my diaries forever and forever from prying seeing-eyes just to be in her company. Just to speak to her. To brush her hair, wet from the steam of her bathwater. I will help her dress. Aren’t dresses just costumes anyway? I will help her with anything and everything. Isn’t makeup just the façade of a mask? Pick out rings for her fingers, pearls for her neck, brooches to adorn her chest like medals. Her hands are small in mine or are my hands small in hers. I don’t know.
I sometimes get so carried away in Vita’s presence. This is the last time we will be meeting like things. A tryst. A romantic getaway to our ‘private island’ where no one can find us out. They can guess all they want, and say, ‘This will not do at all. At all.’ And of course there will be someone who will say, ‘Leonard can’t you control your wife. This relationship of theirs is getting out of hand.’ Poor Leonard will say nothing. Just sulk. Poor mute. Remaining pensive for the rest of the evening in the company of men. Sulking, pensive, speaking when spoken to, and of course drinking, smoking, and playing cards. Leonard Woolf is a forgiving man. The man I married is a forgiving man. He might think my behaviour improper but he will forgive me. We took vows in a church. Till death do us part. This man has a forgiving spirit, a forgiving nature. I know what he will be thinking. And that whatever he is thinking will give him some solace and hope. He knows his genius wife will return home to her self-punishment, self-imposed exile in her room. Her room chosen above all other rooms in the house to write and write and write. And she will continue to write no matter how hard it is for her.
Leonard’s Virginia (and I am writing about myself in the third person here strangely detached from my own existence, coolly detached from humanity). I will take cold comfort in the weather and walk and walk and walk breathing in the nutritious air of the English countryside. Perhaps on certain days, just on certain days she will put aside her day’s work, her writing and start on another letter and send it but the aloof, seemingly indifferent Leonard Woolf will be all the wiser. Instead he will be kinder to his wife, more tolerant of her inappropriate mannerisms, and he promises himself he won’t be as irritated with her or annoyed. He must do all he can, because it is in his power to do so. It is in his power to make her forget about cocktails, depression, the hours spent in the company of London’s socialites, her circle of friends that she left behind, and that woman, Vita Sackville-West. Leonard’s Virginia is home.
Sleep is once again her enemy. At night my Leonard kisses me on my cheek, brushes the hair back from my face where it has come loose and he asks me tenderly, quietly, his voice steady, my life-belt in this world that anchors me, the lotus, ‘How was your day Virginia?’
And in return Leonard’s Virginia will answer, ‘Same old. Same old. At last I think I think I have a new book. Everything is there. The essence of the book’ I want to speak, go on and on but I know he can tell that my behaviour is the way it always is when I start a new book. Leonard’s Virginia decides to say nothing further. I can see how tired my husband is. He has worked hard all day printing books for my sake. Yet I still feel this need to explain. I need Vita, want, desire her. She was my diamond ring, my string of pearls, my ruby brooch, my pet, my best friend, my one female companion that I could talk about anything under the sun about, and like any teacher I grew to admire her. I savoured, contemplated, and admired her courage, her intelligence, and her friendship. And I will sorely miss her. I feel the measure of the loss already. The pain of the mind has once again descended upon me. With Vita at my side I could still those voices. Leonard just doesn’t understand why I need her. Do all men just have the sexual transaction on the brain? I never saw any woman who did for me what she did, or who had the psyche of a man. And I never will.
And now I know there will be other women in her life after me. Younger, gamine, cultured, educated, beguiling, and she will love them like she loved me. Like only a woman can love another woman. Or in the beginning she will love her future lovers like daughters before she orchestrates a relationship with them. But I must say goodbye for the last time. I only wish I could do it face to face. And then I remember. Come to me, my pretty one, my pretty thing, my Vita. My thoroughbred. My exotic princess. My Cinderella. I want to tell you everything. Your pretty eyes stare into mine. Progress. That is what they seem to be telling me, to progress. If I am wrong then stop me now. I will dress myself quickly. If you want me to leave this house, I will leave quickly. You won’t have to give me an explanation. We’ve come this far. You have my word. I will destroy our correspondence. I will only feel foolish that I perhaps sensed our beautiful friendship which means more to me than any words I could simply imagine into being could count for something. Anything? Anything? You have taught me about what it means to be a good wife. What it means to be a lover? The nature of the beast that is man.
The very best of them, the loudest, the Machiavellian, perhaps the most brilliant, and the bravest don’t want to share anything with women. Women like us. Clever women. Perhaps they think we will usurp their power by any means necessary by us using our feminine phenomena and wiles, and by using what nature gave us, intended us to have to turn the tables on them, the men. And by us turning the tables on them they will lose all self-control in the process, and instead of them dominating us we will dominate them for a change. I know, I know, I know my dearest Vita I talk too much but then the time we have to spend together, our alone-time, our private life away from the rest of London, I mean, it does seem boring to me but I think, well, I get the feeling that people are talking about us, about this relationship. I’m afraid Leonard has been getting a lot of heat. And yet I tried so hard to be a good wife to him. Maybe I didn’t have the best examples growing up but my sister seems to have done beautifully for herself. You’ve championed my work. It’s only write that I champion yours. You have your house. I have my house. You did not betray anyone. It would be cowardly to think like that.
To adopt that kind of attitude. You’re worth so much more than that. This is the last letter I am writing to you. I must have some dignity, mustn’t I (so far you have refused to see me again and I understand that we are through, that we are done but I will always treasure our friendship.) our friendship has meant so much to me. Give me a second chance. I can make things right between us. I can only translate your physical beauty from a thing into words now. Will I make the guest list to a party at your house now that the word is out that Leonard Woolf’s wife has fallen for another genius female writer? These ‘conversations’ that I have filled diaries with, there’s a book there and it fills me with hope, courage as if you are beside me again listening attentively to everything I am saying. I’m excited once again (all over again like I was with Mrs Dalloway). Humanity is being a good wife, having a married life, a grumpy husband in the morning who mumbles good morning from behind his newspaper and progeny. I don’t want to lose my married life, being a good wife. I don’t want to lose Leonard. I don’t think you want to lose your ‘other life’ either. But Vita, surely you can see I don’t want to lose you too.
So let us embark on the end of this intimate affair and see where it takes us, my Orlando. So much is at stake here. Love, love, love and passion but most of all an education, a life experience, gratitude, wisdom. Where do I end it all? Tell me (write it down) what do they, your eyes, glimpse in the moonlight? We are completely alone. Privacy between the two of us is no longer an issue. It is no longer an idea. I want all of you intimately. Is that asking for too much? Perfumed salt and perfumed light. Cool and wet. Your taste is bittersweet, illumined happiness fills my head. This is the happiest I have ever been in a long time. Perhaps this is best lovemaking experience I have ever had in my life. It’s different with a woman. Leonard is highly sexed. All men are to a varying degrees. They don’t really understand the woman’s orgasm. You see I am happiest with you, my darling.), and you are sensitive to the intimate touch of my hand against the material (what is this fabric) of what you are wearing and its sensation is warmth. Breath is warmth. There is no more self-punishment, self-imposed exile for me only the modus operandi of the female lover with her Orlando. What sensuality is this?
What pleasure? What seduction? What is this intuitive connection between the both of us? It’s become possible for me to imagine us, just the two of us setting up a house together, give me a chance before you laugh my crazy idea away. I’m thinking of a cottage near the sea. A garden for you and a special room for us where we both can write to our heart’s content. Oh, I know how farfetched this beautiful dream is darling but so long as we can steal away, have these few hours together, we can think thoughts that can damn us to a hell. What is this communication between the two of us? When you are not with me Vita I make up conversations between the two of us. I must be in love. And you are always right. Sometimes motherly, always affectionate, ready to give advice, always so concerned when your Adeline Virginia is sad, always ready to cheer me up. I am always very fond of you. Will always be I think? An affair is an affair is an affair. This is one for the history books, for the scholars of trivia, for the ‘apprentices’, ‘our apprentices’ who will still be reading our work. They will be calling it historical research.
And long after the both of us are six feet under pushing up daisies they will be writing about us. Our story. Our glorious, splendid love story. Talented, tall, magnificent, Lesbos. Two intellectuals both novelists writing for women about women ahead of their time but instead of granting us that honour they will first bestow the prize of Lesbos upon us. Vita, you asked me once, ‘What is it about the past that haunts you so?’ In this picture I am the birthday girl with the wildflowers in her hands. It is either a gift or a reward and if it is a reward I must have been a very, very good girl. But then as I grew older I was rewarded less and less. It began to suit my personality. To be the bird with a broken wing with the frosting of her cake on her hands in a place in time, a moment of reflection, fleeting sadness, on the verge of tears, a nervous breakdown? Nobody wanted me. Nobody wanted to speak to me, take responsibility for me, pick me up from the floor, dry my tears, comfort me while I was sobbing, and drive me anywhere. The apparitions would come at night, the voices during the day. They were daring, cunning and full of conceit. Not at all like you my Vita.
Not at all as pretty and lovely as you, my Senorita. They would come and go as they pleased but they were like a security blanket, and that was the only pleasure they gave me. This outward mixture of shame, regret, it gave me a delicate hope (I was ready, well I will admit it to you, that I was ready to take my own life. Yes, I did consider doing that) well I did the next best thing. I poured everything of the spirit, of my soul, my intellect, my ego, identity, psychological framework into my writing. I should have told on them. All those people who hurt me when I was a child. Desolation to me meant perfection. Meant a perfect life. Now, now I had a purpose. And who wants to live without a purpose, without meaning, without a committed companion or life partner to share everything with (like your Virginia shares with you my Vita). And then you said, ‘Why do you remember that? Why do you remember things that made your sad, that made you suffer, that depressed you even further? Nights and days wasted when you could have been writing. It hurt you. Accept that it only reduced you to tears and not much else. You did not turn out to be the much maligned suicide. You must look forward to the future.’
‘Yes, yes, yes. Leonard is wonderful. I think I am lucky to have him but I don’t think that I am deserving of him the same way my sister is completely devoted to her family, her spouse and her children.’
But it was just a dream. A conversation in a diary. Woolf’s voice a night land.
And then the River Ouse, the seducer, was upon Woolf like a lake. And there it was. She wanted to die. She wanted to waste away. Find a wilderness of her own making. She wanted to beg the gods, Jean Rhys’s good-looking tigers. Not domesticated animals like carrier pigeons, cats or dogs. Woolf wanted to find the unwritten freedom which had been her church, like a religion to her, which had left her with an angelic perspective. The dead-end, the shortcut to a hellish parade. The hook tightened. The muscle of injustice multiplied was in her heart. She lived (it was but a pale gesture) but in death she lives (as I hope to live) extraordinarily.
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