Interview with Virginia Woolf

by  Jacques-Emile Blanche

Was I finally going to meet her?  And would it be here, at Auppegard, near Offranville, in Normandy?  Twenty years ago we were reading Thomas Hardy. He was the age that I am now when I drew the two portraits of our dear Jude the Obscure. We still think about Thomas Hardy there on the other side of the Channel and I wait for news of the grand old man. But today it is a young woman who also occupies my thoughts, since the first page of hers that I read.

While seating us in the salon, Loomus, the butler at Auppegard, tells me, “These women will come down for tea in a moment, sir, Mrs. Woolf must be in the garden.”  I noticed several of the women including Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, who had just completed a fresco, with Duncan Grant, in the pavilion where we will most likely be speaking.  I put my copy of To the Lighthouse on the table for her to sign in the nervous childlike handwriting that I know.  

What will we talk about?  Is there a key?  Are the dramatis personae drawn from life like those in Proust’s A la recherché du Temps perdu?  With Proust one key unlocks everything.  He carries it with him.  So, this astonishing Mr. Ramsay who want so much for us to pay attention to him, whose work we admire, could he be based on the father of Virginia and Vanessa, the misses Leslie Stephen?  The beautiful Mrs. Ramsay, who doesn’t know how to tell her husband that she loves him, could she be their mother?  James, Cam, Prue, Andrew, Jasper, Roger, Minta and Lily Brescoe, the painter, and William Banks, and the old M. Carmichael qui would like another bowl of soup, could they be the friends visiting the home of Leslie Stephen? Could all of these unforgettable characters about whom we know so little, have lived?  Are some of them still living?

One of them, a nephew of the terrible Mr. Ramsay, told me the other day in London that his uncle would never have frightened one like that.  That egotist, preoccupied with whether or not he had as many admirers as Sir Walter Scott, was very nice. His daughter Virginia must have been a terrible young girl, she, too, was very strange. That villa on the cost, near Hébrides?  Probably a villa like any other.  There are many villas from which one can see a lighthouse.  The father Ramsay must have had good reasons for not wanting to drive James to the island where the lighthouse was, the lighthouse that gives Virginia Woolf the symbolic title of her latest novel.  

The action – if there is any—turns around the Lighthouse on the island’ and it is the life and the death, the mystery of the beings, the pathos of the house buzzing with children’s voices, with quarrels, and finally vacated by death.  Some return after the war. It’s no longer the same!  But life continues, the livid strokes of the Lighthouse still light the same walls, the same rooms.  One morning they will go to the Lighthouse, but the visitors will have been decimated. One of the sons, Andrew, is one of those who did not return from the war. (The book is also situated in time.) Time Passes.  This one and that one have gotten engaged.  We are not told what has become of them.  The cook, Mrs. MacNab, and the maids, who are preparing the house for the return of their masters and their guests, don’t really know who in the family has died, who is still living. Prue, one of the little Ramsay girls, is supposed to have died in childbirth; had she married then?  Mrs. MacNab remembers that Madame used to great her with “good morning, Mrs. MacNab” when she ran into her in one of the corridors.


But here comes someone.  Mrs. Woolf comes into the salon with our hostess, who introduces us.  We move into the dining room, green with red lacquered furniture. Formal flower beds on one side with the plains of Caux in the background; on the other, the courtyard of the château and the church of Auppegard.  This might also have been the villa on the coast of Scotland, the villa near Hébrides, or the château of Auppegard, it’s not important:  Virginia’s presence transforms the place and the people assembled here.  How beautiful she is, this daughter of the most beautiful Mrs. Ramsay! Hers is a delicate, fragile beauty; her face is in motion as are her fine, nervous hands with which she mixes up the bangs on her forehead so that one cannot tell if they are blond or gray.  Her eyes are the color of blue and black hematite; a mouth resembling a sweet pea is a bit pursed, ready to either laugh or cry.  

This poet, this painter attentive to “the everyday bleakness” is the most amusing talker, brimming with wit—in the manner of Laforgue.  But this magnetic presence, that one wants so much to capture for oneself, is rarely afforded.  The little circle of the intelligentsia, in Bloomsbury, protects the delicate health of its captive from the curiosity of a public that grows larger each year in America and England. One would like to speak with her about her work.  She asks me about Marcel Proust, talks about French literature; she enjoys nothing more than reading our authors, and creates a very flattering image of our country.   

--What was Proust like in his youth?  Tell me, tell me.  How did he début in the world?  The world must have understood very little of what he wrote?   

--And you, Madame, hermetic writer, more difficult in our view than anyone else, how……?  Why do you fail, too often, to name him or her about whom you speak?  One doesn’t know until a page further on, sometimes, about whom we are reading. It is a rebus for the simple reader.  Proust is much clearer than you. However, your Jacob’s Room, your Mrs. Dalloway are on the sofas of many elegant women who can see only black and white. We do know, it’s true, that women in England, in Poland, in China can explain La Jeune Parque, la Soirée avec Monsieur Teste, of Valéry. So, perhaps…

One would like to add, “You are too fashionable, Madame.”  Your critical essays in The Nation form public opinion.  As invisible and distant as you are, you haunt the imagination of your contemporaries.

We moved to the back of the garden to rest in the shade of  the grand Norman trees; dusk descended on Auppegard, the blue sky became pale—it was the time of day so often described by Mrs. Woolf’s pen.


The first part of To the Lighthouse ends with an emotional scene between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay:

“No,” she said, flattening the stocking out upon her knee, “I shan’t finish it.”And what then? For she felt that he was still looking at her, but that his look had changed. He wanted something — wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. He could say things — she never could. So naturally it was always he that said the things, and then for some reason he would mind this suddenly, and would reproach her. A heartless woman he called her; she never told him that she loved him. But it was not so — it was not so. It was only that she never could say what she felt. Was there no crumb on his coat? Nothing she could do for him? Getting up, she stood at the window with the reddish-brown stocking in her hands, partly to turn away from him, partly because she remembered how beautiful it often is — the sea at night. But she knew that he had turned his head as she turned; he was watching her. She knew that he was thinking, You are more beautiful than ever. And she felt herself very beautiful. Will you not tell me just for once that you love me? He was thinking that, for he was roused, what with Minta and his book, and its being the end of the day and their having quarreled about going to the Lighthouse. But she could not do it; she could not say it. Then, knowing that he was watching her, instead of saying anything she turned, holding her stocking, and looked at him. And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it. And smiling she looked out of the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing on earth can equal this happiness)—

“Yes, you were right. It’s going to be wet tomorrow. You won’t be able to go.” And she looked at him smiling. Forshe had triumphed again. She had not said it: yet he knew.”

What happens between the first and second part? Nine short pieces form a section called Time Passes.  These pieces remind one of Joyce.  Less difficult but as disconcerting if one is not used to Mrs. Woolf’s thinking.

“Well, we must wait for the future to show,” said Mr Bankes, coming in from the terrace. 

“It’s almost too dark to see,” said Andrew, coming up from the beach.
“One can hardly tell which is the sea and which is the land,” said Prue.
“Do we leave that light burning?” said Lily as they took their coats off indoors.
“No,” said Prue, “not if every one’s in.”
“Andrew,” she called back, “just put out the light in the hall.”

One by one the lamps were all extinguished, except that Mr Carmichael, who liked to lie awake a little reading Virgil, kept his candle burning rather longer than the rest.”

Dear Mrs. Woolf, would you like to create an atmosphere?  Is there an esoteric meaning here?  Don’t laugh at me!  The moon the disappeared, a fine rain taps on the roof.  Are Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in the house?  The second part doesn’t inform us about that.  It seems that they have disappeared like the moon.  A phrase is muttered by chance and we learn that Mrs. Ramsay is dead.  We didn’t know she was ill, this beautiful Mrs. Ramsay.  She just disappears.  

But all of your characters go away, after having entered the scene without introduction.  You suppose your readers as intelligent, as used as you are to see in the dark, to penetrate mysteries.  They rarely talk among themselves.  You give us their interior monologues.  In sum, your revolution in the art of narrative does not do away with the conventional character of the omniscient author, who is God, omniscient and all-seeing.  

There remains the originality of your “tempo” as Charles Du Bos says—that you are a painter.  I will permit myself to discuss this comparison with you.  Strokes of color that are at once light and precise and incredibly dense, here and there, construct the painting, design the interior with invisible contours.  The Impressionists painted like this.  But you would pout, Madame, if I described you as an impressioniste.  In Bloomsbury, we’re much further advanced than that.  It’s mere chance, perhaps, that you are a writer.  Had you devoted yourself to painting, you would have been the master of a new young school, in England.  But would you have had the same mastery of your technique?  It is unlikely that you would have acquired that command of “craft” that painters no longer have.  But in your case painting and writing would have proceeded from the same mental operation. “Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway” are works of a painter.  “Synchronism, futurism,” has been said, somewhat arbitrarily of your style.  In Mrs. Dalloway, a book in which the action takes place from morning until night in one day, you have us attend countless concurrent episodes, which are not at all related except in your head.  Is it true that in the end your heroine commits suicide, but not to our knowledge while the madman, the one who during the afternoon consulted a pompous psychiatrist (what a portrait!)—puts an end to his horrible suffering?  We foresee Mrs. Dalloway’s suicide. You never confirm it. The eight small pieces remaining are consecrated to describing the desertion of the villa near the Lighthouse.  

On her return, the artist Lily Briscoe’s, interior monologue is very revealing.  She is in front of her study, the easel in a place that it occupies once more after years of absence.  The same recurring motif inspires the same reflections on the aesthetic problems that confront her:  composition; how to distribute the elements of the painting within the space of the canvas?  Lily Briscoe is without a doubt Virginia Woolf herself.  I recall Berthe Morisot and the look of contemplation on her face, her impatient gestures.  The intoxication and the despair of painting Nature.  The “what good is it?” : “so, lightly and swiftly pausing, striking, she scored her canvas with brown running nervous lines which had no sooner settled there than they enclosed ( she felt it looming out at her) a space. Down in the hollow of one wave she saw the next wave towering higher and higher above her. For what could be more formidable than that space? Here she was again, she thought, stepping back to look at it, drawn out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of this formidable ancient enemy of hers — this other thing, this truth, this reality, which suddenly laid hands on her, emerged stark at the back of appearances and commanded reluctant. Why always be drawn out and haled away? Why not left in peace, to talk to Mr. Carmichael on the lawn? It was an exacting form of intercourse anyhow. Other worshipful objects were content with worship; men, women, God, all let one kneel prostrate; but this form, were it only the shape of a white lamp-shade looming on a wicker table, roused one to perpetual combat, challenged one to a fight in which one was bound to be worsted. Always (it was in her nature, or in her sex, she did not know which) before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it? “

May this attempt at as literal a translation as possible (Blanche is referring to his translation into French of the above passage), not deter the French from knowing and translating Virginia Woolf’s works, nor she from desiring it….We still had many questions to ask Mrs. Woolf about her writing habits. But she wanted to hear more about Marcel Proust and France.  Night chased us from the garden.  Mrs. Woolf had to close her trunk; she was leaving the next day for England.

Translated by Anne M.Callahan