Deaths in the Family
The year Woolf was born, her father, Leslie, had purchased a house in a town called St. Ives. He christened it Talland House. The entire family congregated there at the beginning of each summer, and Woolf especially loved it. There was a lighthouse there, and she could hear the roar of the crashing waves from her bedroom window. Cornwall later provided imagery for Woolf's novels To the Lighthouse and The Waves.
All the Stephen children, her half-brothers Gerald and George (who were by this time on break from Eton and Cambridge respectively) and her half-sister Stella spent long hours outside. One sibling, however, was either kept out of the fun or sent to sanatoriums for stretches of time–Laura. From the beginning of her life, Woolf was susceptible to bouts of extreme nervousness, high anxiety and madness. Having Laura, who was considered by family doctors to be insane, in close proximity made Woolf question her own sanity even more.
In 1894, after a hotel was built directly in front of Talland House, blocking their lovely view of the bay, Leslie decided to sell St. Ives and find another spot for the Stephens' holidays. Back in London, Leslie continued work on the massive Dictionary of National Biography. It was an exhausting, seemingly endless project. In 1888, Leslie collapsed and took to his bed for a number of weeks. But he was back at the project in 1890, when he collapsed again. After a number of attempts, Julia persuaded her husband to take a break from the book, and he did. However, Julia was exhausting herself simply from running a household of eight children. It was in this weakened condition that she contracted rheumatic fever and died on May 5th, 1895. Woolf was only thirteen years old.
Woolf would later call her mother's death "the greatest disaster that could happen." It was a crushing blow to the children, but it nearly killed Leslie. His grieving was so intense, so demonstrative-and so hyperbolic-that it affected his children deeply. He wept openly in front of the children, and began to depend on his children to the extent that it seemed now that they were parenting him. He especially relied on Stella, who had to fall into the role of mother since both Vanessa and Woolf were still young girls, and since Leslie was completely helpless. To make matters, worse, Woolf had her first mental breakdown soon after her mother died. Stella looked after her young stepsiblings as best she could, turning away a number of suitors who asked for her hand in marriage.
George Duckworth, Woolf and Vanessa's handsome half-brother, was now twenty-seven years old. He had matured into a kind, overtly affectionate man who seemed deeply saddened not just by his mother's death, but also by his half-sisters' grief. He comforted them, was generous to them and made sure they were taken care of. However, something more sinister was taking place during these comfort sessions. Woolf's biographer and nephew Quentin Bell writes that George's visits to console Woolf and Vanessa turned into a "nasty erotic skirmish" and that he sexually abused the sisters. Both girls were extremely shy and naïve, and were horrified by what was taking place. However, they told no one. Later, when they were adults, Woolf and Vanessa's friends would be confused by both sisters' intense dislike for their half-brother. He seemed, to everyone else, to be a somewhat dull, inoffensive, nice man. But George had violated both girls, and this experience changed the way Woolf dealt with her own sexuality for the rest of her life.
In January 1897, Woolf began keeping a diary. She would keep a diary off and on for the rest of her life. After she died in 1941, her husband published them. Later they would be a place where Woolf would try to spontaneously compose, to be free from the strictures of formal composition and to record the events of her daily life. But when she was still just a young girl, she used her diary to record each book she read. Meanwhile, her brothers Thoby and Adrian were off at school. Thoby was at Clifton, were he was doing very well. Adrian was at Westminster and, although he was doing passably, wasn't doing quite as well academically as Thoby. After having a break from her home studies after her breakdown, Woolf returned to her subjects and continued to read at a pace that even astonished her father.
Stella became ill during 1897, and remained so off and on all year. Woolf, too, was battling bouts of sickness, though hers were mental. Stella had married and in 1897, became pregnant. However, after an operation designed to alleviate some of her symptoms, Stella died in 1897. It was a shock and yet another debilitating blow to the family structure.
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