TV REVIEW: What Was Virginia Woolf Afraid Of?

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Directors: Adrian Munsey and Vance Goodwin

On 28 January 1939 Virginia Woolf visited Sigmund Freud for the first time. She and her husband had published English translations of the psychoanalyst’s books, but they never met until he fled Austria to London. He could hardly speak because of throat cancer, but the visit was a success. Dr Freud gave Woolf a narcissus. But this day was also the day that WB Yeats died; the three great Modernists linked in some way. Freud died in September the same year; Woolf died in 1941 by walking in to the River Ouse, her pockets full of stones. Modernism died with them.

Since her death, Woolf has been called on to some heavy lifting in the world of literature and identity politics. She’s heralded as the one of the inventors of the stream of consciousness, a style of writing that is very much back in fashion with recent Booker prize winners Marlon Jones and Anna Burns both adopting Woolf’s pioneering format. Her essay A Room of One’s Own was a feminist tract, and her affair with Vita Sackville-West, made her into a lesbian icon. Now that the word ‘lesbian’ is, for many, too reductive, she’s hailed as queer icon, and her 1928 book Orlando is claimed to be the first trans novel.

Her life still inspires novels, films and plays today. Of course there was Michael Cunningham’s The Hours but more recently we’ve had the film Vita and Virginia and earlier this year the play V&V, based on the women’s letters to each other. But before these works, there was Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and this is where this documentary, first seen on Sky Arts, gets its title.

At first the academics, interviewed in this 45-minute documentary, seem poised to answer the question. Woolf was afraid of death, they suggest at first, pointing out the many deaths in her family that affected her growing up: her mother, her father and her brother. Woolf was afraid of men, they next propose, and the sexual abuse carried out by her two step-brothers, led to her feeling more comfortable spending time in the company of the Bloomsbury Set, where masculinity wasn’t such a sought out characteristic.

But finally, the talking heads seem to agree that she was afraid of the mental illness that appeared at various stages in her life. Hermione Lee believes that Woolf probably had bi-polar, and that her illness only got worse when the Second World War started, and if Britain were to be invaded by the Nazis, she and Leonard, a Jew, would be killed.

Woolf’s life leaves so many legacies that it’s impossible to discuss them in the space of 45-minutes, and although the interviews are interwoven with readings from the novels and family photos, there is a worry that the programme is too academic. So often biographical documentaries have a presenter who goes to the locations important in their subject’s life and yet while this is a different approach you can’t help but wish someone was tramping through Bloomsbury Square, or rooting through Woolf’s belongings in Monk’s House outside Lewes. This would have helped give sense of Woolf’s life.

Woolf’s most famous character is Mrs Dalloway and she ‘always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day’. And this is what this documentary does best; it reveals the dangers in Woolf’s life. But with hardly any outdoors shots, What Was Virginia Woolf Afraid of? is a little too dry.

Available now on DVD

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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