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‘Who’s Virginia Woolf Afraid Of?’

Stephen Unwin explores how the famed author’s views about disability were typical of a growing intellectual endorsement of the dangerous ideology of eugenics in the early 20th century

A poster of Virginia Woolf in San Polo, Venice. Photo: John Cairns/Alamy

Who’s Virginia Woolf Afraid Of?

Stephen Unwin explores how the famed author’s views about disability were typical of a growing intellectual endorsement of the dangerous ideology of eugenics in the early 20th century

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With the stage adaptation of Orlando opening in the West End, the opera The Hours playing in New York, and a statue of the writer being unveiled in Richmond-upon-Thames, Virginia Woolf is everywhere at the moment.

Without wanting to spoil the party, I thought it might be opportune to remind ourselves of an entry in her diary which offers a less palatable view of Woolf – not to cast doubt on her considerable achievements, but to explore the contradictions that mar the movement that she so brilliantly represented and to see what they can teach us today.

On Sunday 9 January 1915, Woolf and her husband Leonard went out for a “very good walk” along the river from Richmond to Kingston, when they encountered “a long line of imbeciles”.

“The first was a very tall man, just queer enough to look at twice, but no more; the second shuffled, and looked aside; and then one realised that everyone in that long line was a miserable, ineffective, shuffling, idiotic creature with no forehead, or no chin, and an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.”

It’s an extraordinary passage, made all the more shocking by the fact that, within a sentence or two, Woolf writes condescendingly about a “very pretentious place” in Kingston where they had tea, and the “working man and two small boys” they met on the train returning home. ‘The banality of evil’ one could almost call it.

Critics have responded to this entry in different ways. Some have excused it as an early symptom of Woolf’s impending nervous breakdown. Others as uncensored private musings which weren’t written to be read. An expression of Woolf’s growing rage with her own sense of misery and waste. Or a fully-formed, if extreme, articulation of the eugenics to which so many people in intellectual circles subscribed.

We should start, perhaps, by thinking of who these “creatures” were – if only as a way of granting them a modicum of the humanity of which the great writer is so keen to deprive them.

It’s impossible to know the precise nature of their disabilities from Woolf’s hate-filled invective, though since the towpath runs just across the river from the Normansfield Training Institution for Imbeciles, founded by John Langdon Down in 1868, they may well have been men with Down’s Syndrome. 

We should also recall that Woolf’s half-sister Laura spent much of her life as a patient in the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots in Surrey and that Virginia was at least familiar with intellectual disability, though her weary description of “a vacant-eyed girl whose idiocy was becoming daily more serious, who would hardly read, who would throw the scissors into the fire, who was tongue-tied and stammered and yet had to appear at table with the rest of us” doesn’t suggest much in the way of familial solidarity. There was no ‘room of her own’ for a learning-disabled sister, it seems.

The theme of idiocy and mental impairment crops up several times in Woolf’s work.

‘Life Unworthy of Life’The Lessons of T4

Stephen Unwin

Her last experimental, poetic novel, Between the Acts (1941), features a so-called “village idiot”. But Albert isn’t a fully developed character with an inner life – he’s a “creepy” threat to good order (“suppose he suddenly did something dreadful?”) who creates chaos. He causes one of the characters to lose the “thread of his discourse” with the result that “his command over words seemed gone”. Throughout, you can see Woolf’s terror of the inarticulate; a deep horror of what cannot be communicated in language or shared in society; a visceral loathing for weakness. 

Woolf may have been going through a psychological crisis in 1915, but it is hard not to conclude from this diary entry that she saw in these men what one critic memorably called “denizens of a parallel world of abnormality”. Thus this is an expression of horror at the very fact of human frailty, perhaps her own, but more likely other people who fail to live up to the aesthetic, intellectual and social standards that she felt were essential. 

Finally, we should set this entry within its broader context. The meeting on the towpath took place only three years after the first international eugenics conference in London and less than two years after the passing of the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, the high-water mark of the British eugenics movement, which condemned hundreds of thousands of ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘defective’ people to live their entire lives in strictly segregated, economically self-sufficient and geographically remote ‘colonies’ – as distant from the general population as possible.

This passed the Commons with only three MPs voting against and was welcomed by many, including a large number of church leaders, artists and other intellectuals. If Woolf’s private thoughts went one step further than the champions of the Act argued, it expressed the logical endpoint of what had so recently been embraced as law. In other words, it won’t do to excuse Woolf on the grounds of her psychological state.

After all, murderous thoughts are always the product of some kind of psychosis. Anxiety about disabled minds was rife in Edwardian Britain, and was especially common among people eager to break free of the hypocrisy, sentimentality and corruption of the Victorian world.

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And so, in this diary entry, we can sense the unshackled, intellectually independent woman, subscribing to Socrates’ dictum that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’; who found these people, and everything that they represented, an impossible challenge who needed to be done away with. In their blankness, they lived what Hitler was to call “lives unworthy of life”. Thus, they could not be given full personhood and “should certainly be killed”.

Woolf’s diary entry should make us think very carefully – not so much about her, but about ourselves.

I’m not arguing that her books should be banned, her canonical status ‘cancelled’ or her statue (ironically, erected on the same towpath) be torn down and thrown into the Thames. But I do think that we should finally accept that these terrible words come from the same place that we inhabit every time we glibly champion ‘meritocracy’, talk about the ‘brightest and the best’, or dismiss our opponents as ‘idiots’, ‘morons’ or ‘retards’. 

Virginia Woolf was wrong – disgustingly, criminally wrong – in thinking this. But all those clever people who still, deep down, feel that learning-disabled people are to be feared, mocked or despised are also wrong. Those of us who love a learning-disabled person know that the opposite is true: not only are they not to be feared, they can teach us more than we can ever teach them.

I stand with Hamlet – there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. We must do better.

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