Virginia Woolf‘s great niece has decided to drum up some publicity by announcing that the famous feminist writer suffered from anorexia during her lifetime.
Writing in the Daily Mail, Emma Woolf describes the shock of recognition she experienced after seeing a particular photo of her great aunt (pictured in the articles linked above):
I’ve seen many photos of my great-aunt Virginia from the early 20th century, of course: tall, stern-looking, serious in the way that people used to be in front of the camera. But there’s something in this one I’ve never seen before, and for me it’s a painful moment of recognition – the image of Virginia is of someone suffering from anorexia.
Emma, herself in recovery from anorexia, speculates widely about Virginia’s life and habits: Was her “madness” actually bipolar disorder? Did she truly enjoy food? Were her spells of not eating connected to her depression or to her creative process?
I am by no means a Woolf fan or scholar; I don’t dislike her or anything, but the majority of my involvement with her oeuvre was in college when I wrote one measly biographical criticism paper of her book To The Lighthouse (And I got an A, thank you very much!) Despite the fact that the least little bit of information or speculation about her is fascinating to literary nerds in the cult of Woolf, I think it’s strange for Emma Woolf to be retroactively diagnosing a woman she never actually met. Of course, Emma has a recent memoir (with a new book coming out on June 3rd, too) about her own struggle with anorexia, so it’s in her best interests to closely connect herself to Virginia Woolf, especially by inciting controversy about the family member who just happens to be one of the most famous writers of the last century.
I will say that Emma Woolf seems to back her theory up with a lot of interesting evidence, namely from Virginia’s husband Leonard Woolf‘s journals, where he obsessively recorded information about his wife, everything from her menstrual cycles to her diet. He wrote, among other pronouncements about his wife’s figure and eating habits:
“The most difficult and distressing problem was to get Virginia to eat.”
Emma alleges that people are 12 times as likely to suffer from anorexia if someone in their family has had it. The APA did report on a genetic link back in 2002 and more research continues to support this theory.
Still, I really can’t force myself to care whether Virginia Woolf was anorexic or not. Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Her legacy, her work and her impact on literature remain totally and completely unchanged regardless of her health issues. Of course, much of Virginia’s mystique comes from her famous struggles with mental health…but new allegations aren’t going to either add to or detract from that mystique. What the anorexia allegations will add to, though, is the notoriety of her niece Emma Woolf.
Photo: Photo Researchers/Getty Images