Adeline : a novel of Virginia Woolf /

"On April 18th, 1941, twenty-two days after Virginia Woolf went for a walk near her weekend house and never returned, her body was reclaimed from the River Ouse. For more than half a century, Woolf's suicide has been attributed to alleged depression; bipolar disorder; her impaired mental s...

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Main Author: Vincent, Norah.
Format: Book
Language:English
Published:Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.
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8:23 A.M. She is lying full down in the bath, with the tepid water hooding her head and lapping just below the vaulted arches of her nostrils. Her breath, shallow and short, ripples the surface gently. She can hear her heart galloping distantly, as it so often does when she is ill, thrumming weakly but so quickly, a soft insistence sucking at the drums of her ears. The swells of her breasts rise from the water, glistening and cool, the nipples pruned in the morning air. Her long, exhausted feet rise, too, at the far end of her, well out of the water, lean-boned and pale, marred with the angry knots and weals of tortured walks in ill-fitting shoes. They clutch the livid brass spout, flexing and squirming like newborns of an alien brood, quailing under the light. She drifts in the shallow dream of herself, the lulling of the water, her breath, her heartbeat, audible and palpable at once, the other life inside her going on moment by moment, beat by beat, and all the vying thoughts going with it. Always the thoughts. Does the heartbeat have its own thoughts? she wonders. Or does it merely drive and amplify the dread that is coursing through her so wildly these mornings, urging the breath on with it, faster, shorter, sharper. Then, too, there are the headaches mounting all day, clenching her skull from the nape of the neck to the roots of the eyes like a caul of barbed iron. Yet? -- ?and here she halts her own description, for the panic must stop. It must. She will not let this happen again. There is the stall of recognition, for she knows this feeling, this progression of decline, she knows it very well, the consciousness curling under the despair, helpless as a page in the fire, succumbing to the grey, darkening possession. Slowly, slowly comes the blackness with its burning edge-glow eating inward to the center until all the parchment of her right mind is consumed and there is nothing but ash. Flaked and so fragile, it trembles there, fluttering on the balance of the unbearable heat, until at last it collapses and disappears with only the faintest of whists. She knows what this is like. She watches it, she thinks it. She watches herself thinking it, and that is perhaps? -- ?she remembers this particularly? -- ?her only defense. She bends her knees slightly and lets her feet sink back into the water. The toes are cold, the injuries ripe. They melt in the vague warmth and comfort of the bath. She lets herself feel this, every blister weeping, every scar moistening, and she sighs. Now think, she urges herself. Think it away. I know you can. Concentrate. She furrows her brow and frowns, narrowing her huge, sunken eyes at the bounding rim of the porcelain tub, as if conjuring out of its whiteness the necessary will that is already so weak. This, at least, she can control, if only she thinks of it well enough, attentively enough, if she makes herself tall and bending like the pair of priestly elms in the garden. Yes, she thinks, the elms. In the garden. Her mind begins to coast, moving within the picture, the mood of the morning, through the opened window and the unasserted light, out into the garden, over the moistening grass, the vaporous earth, and the insects hard at work, then up, as groundwater in root and trunk and branch and twig, all through the fretwork of elms. She thinks of them, swaying softly, outward to the smallest filigree of veins, the harmless air gossiping through their varied separations, making the tender leaves susurrate. Now, she enjoins herself, as them. Think as them. She loosens her grip, rolls her scapulae down flatter against the belly of the tub, closes her bulbous eyes, breathes in once deeply, then sighs slowly, very slowly, eking out the breath. She begins to glide into the vision, just there, on the shushing in her flooded ears. She breathes again, and the exaggeration of the sound fills her, releases her. My branches, she thinks. My branches are wide and firm, yet delicate, intricate, sensitive as flesh, clean and open to the air as two clear ramifying lungs. I am these trees, these elms? -- ?she loosens, breathes again, enfolding and dispersing the breath. "Breathe." She hears her sister Nessa's tender voice intoning out of the past. "Breathe, Virginia, breathe." And she does, pushing her breasts high above the water line and down again; she watches their ringed shorelines advance and recede over the puckered skin. She listens to the breath slowing, deepening. She thinks as the elms, of being the elms, healing the air. She thinks of her sister's hands on her chest those days so long ago in the sickroom, lightly resting, the fingers faintly exploring, as if reading the Braille of her brocaded dress. Distress. She raises her mouth above the water and says this aloud, quietly, "Distress. The dress." Then, as if startled by the sound of her own voice, she sits upright with a great sloshing urgency, her buttocks squealing on the porcelain, her knees bucking, legs tensing straight and splashing. She listens to the esses of the spoken words hiss as they race around the bathroom, and she says them again, louder. "Distress. The dress." She cocks her head to one side and considers the sounds and meanings of words, the one creating the other, the sound of the thing being the thing, the original thing, blazing through the world in true spirit? -- ? dress, distress. The sound of it and the light of it as one. The wavelengths traveling in tandem. And yet, she squints disapprovingly, the wretched intellect at work. Always the masculine mind interferes, taking the magic out of sounds and shutting it into words. The very word for this, the academic word? -- ?onomatopoeia? -- ?sounds like what it is, a chained sprite falling down the stairs. She laughs at this, and the sound of her laugh pops around the bathroom. She is breathing harder again, she notices. Too animated once more by the thoughts. Too many thoughts. Too fast. She tries to think again of the elms and calm herself. Calm, she tells herself. Calm. You cannot take all of this at once. Again she thinks of Nessa's hands on her and the voice guiding her. She folds her hands in her lap, in the pool of water there. She drops her shoulders, circles her neck. But then she stops abruptly, midturn, and looks up. "That's it," she says, quite loudly now, the outburst crashing back and forth between the tiled walls like a dropped pot. "Eureka in the bath, you infernal Greek! I have it." This she has absolutely shouted, and she regrets it at once. She puts her hand over her mouth like a child caught in a gaffe, for the noise will bring concerned footsteps and a careful knock on the door. But she will finish this idea quietly first. She puts a finger to her lips: "Shhhhh." She shoots her eyes to the unlocked door, listens for a moment, then, satisfied, resumes. So, the image to start. The perception of the world as it is, the phantasm, the flare of the visionary idea is flattened to a page by the male intellect. Controlled, categorized, c-a-t-a-l-o-g-u-e-d. The ethereal is squashed. Address, that beautiful oratory of life announcing itself, becomes a dress feebly worn, becomes a picture of a dress in a catalogue. Yes. She will begin her story like this, with a catalogue, where James? -- ?who will stand in part for herself, in part for her younger brother Adrian? -- ?the visionary, the dreaming boy with scissors, is cutting out the deflated picture of a man-made thing. A machine, perhaps, is most pointed, she thinks, a refrigerator, a wheelbarrow, a lawnmower, because that is all he is allowed, all that his pedantic, gloating father? -- ?their father? -- ?will grant him. But all the while the boy's mind, his hope, his lifeblood, is in the sea, just as hers was, and in the waves, the unreachable, the soothing finger of light, silvering each night across the bay. The stroke of the lighthouse laid its caress. She does not say this last part aloud, but it hums in her repeatedly, and she feels its hypnotizing influence. Her breath begins to pace itself once again, quelling the kindled thoughts. Caress. The stroke. The lighthouse laid its caress. Her lips move over the music of it, making no sound, and a swell fills her chest, warming outward and through her, down her slackened arms and wrists and fingers to the very tips, which are touching now, five to five. Gratified, she sighs. Now there is the expected tap on the door, one soft knuckle, meek and respectful, but a touch alarmed in spite of itself. Leonard's voice is kind but firm, treading the balance of care and ?control. "Are you there?" He says this with the accustomed lilt, and she grins accordingly. It is one of their jokes, a relic of his Cambridge days, something the ruggers were supposed to have called to each other down the field through cupped hands before kickoff. Where he would have heard this or judged the truth of it is, for them, most of the joke, since at college he, the spindly, bookish Jew of newsprint caricature (another joke), had been an intellectual of the proudest and most rarefied sort, as were all his closest friends. The Apostles, they had called themselves, joining the select and secret group. They had not been, to say the least, grasshoppers hanging about the rugby pitch. They had spent their time arguing about Plato. She is still smiling fondly at this as she rings the appropriate response to Leonard's greeting, parting the syllables and rounding them with added plum to reassure him that she is fine. "Ra- ther, " she says. There is a pause in which she can almost hear his relief, and then his encouragement attempting to displace it. This morning will go on as usual. Pat the head of your feral wife, she thinks, contain her and proceed, or so the regiments of doctors have always advised. He is only doing what they have told him to do, after all, or the few sensible things that he has managed to cull from their nonsense over the years. Then, more gently than before, if this is possible, he says, "Have all the animals had breakfast?" "Yeees," she drawls, with only a trace of impatience. "Bath always follows breakfast." In truth, her breakfast tray lies mostly untouched beside the chair in her room, the bun picked at as if by a marauding sparrow. The egg is still in its coddling cup, uncracked, the mug of milk has gone cold, its scorched meniscus wrinkled into a skin. "Splendid," he says, as if replacing a prop stethoscope around his neck. "And the music?" he adds jauntily. Obediently, she places her fingers on her wrist, counts the beats, which are eager now, but not uproarious. "Positively funereal," she lies. "A veritable dirge." "Love?" He prods, knowing he must push her for the fair answer. She sighs loudly, bustling into the words, so that he will not hear the strain of irritation in her reply. "Coming down from the climax, dear heart. Not to worry. We are not at full tilt." He places his right palm and his forehead very gently against the door. "Promise?" he says. "Promise," she echoes wearily. He rests there for a moment, rolling his brow against the grain of the wood, fighting back the momentary impulse to kick open the door, rush in, hoist her from the water by her throbbing wrists, drag her dripping and kicking into her room and belt her into her armchair, beside which he knows the breakfast tray has long since been abandoned to the drying air, like the heap of last night's ?supper. But the fury passes as quickly as it came, and he feels his sudden burst of will dissolve into the helplessness of his regard for her. Let her be, it counsels for the thousandth time. Let her be. She is where she is, and where she is you cannot follow. So it is. He knows this is true. He has always known it. He thinks of the way she is in the world, of how her mind separates her from it even as it aids a deeper communion, and this helps him to relax. Let go. He thinks of how, when they are out walking together in town, people, women, children stare and titter, discomfited by her; something in her slightly shabby, raffish style of dress, perhaps, or her distracted air of always being not quite there, that marks her out as one of the touched, the unlike. Why this makes people laugh he has never quite understood. But there is more of awe than ridicule in it, and he knows that it is really just a shortfall in them, an inability to compass her strangeness. They, too, cannot follow. Yet, he reminds himself, as he so often must at times like this, when she is on the precipice of breakdown, her strangeness is just that. Other, not wrong. Not mad, or not wholly mad. Verging on it, yes, but she is there, in a real place nonetheless, threading the shadow line of thought where light and darkness meet, a line that is no line to speak of, and has abysses either side. Yes. He knows all of this. Yet he cannot back away from the door. His palm is still there flat against it, reaching for her. Will you be all right? it pleads. Will we? Thinking this, he smiles at his own need, his own willing part in the conjugation. He worships her oddity even as he worries it, wringing it through his mind like beads through his fingers. He pulls his head away from the door, straightens himself as if one of the servants has come into the hall, though no one has. It is only her discernment he fears, even through the thick oak planking between them. Superstition gets the better of him, even as his hand drifts toward the knob, then retreats: She will know what I am thinking. She has that gift. She knows the ciphers of my brain, just as she knows the secret speech of rocks and trees and the language of the light on them. Silliness, he chides himself, to think this way, but there it is. He remembers her teasing him early on in their courtship and in that first teetering year of their marriage, when he did not yet know what she was capable of. Taking his habitually trembling hand in hers, and looking contemplatively into the middle distance, she had simply tossed the atrocious cliché at him, or so he'd thought, as if he wouldn't know what it was. "You are my rock," she'd said solemnly. And he, hurt, not getting it, had answered flatly, "Yes, of course, and rocks don't speak or think or feel." She had started violently at this as soon as he'd said it, turning on him and taking his gaunt face in her cold, searching fingertips. "Oh, but they do," she'd protested. "They do." Trust her, says the voice of his experience now, and obediently he steps back from the threshold. Excerpted from Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.