Virginia’s Relativity

                 Virginia Woolf at age 20


Doing some research reading on Virginia Woolf for a post yesterday about her novel To the Lighthouse, I came across an article that made what seemed like a weird connection between Woolf and Albert Einstein.

Imagine this: Virginia has a conversation with poet William Butler Yeats. It is 1934. Yeats wanted to talk about her very experimental novel from 1931, The Waves. Yeats’ interpretation of it was mystical and he had visions of “the Occult.”

She wrote in her diary after the conversation that you “can’t unriddle the universe at tea,” She also noted that Yeats had said that “Neither religion or science explains the world. The occult does explain it.”

Virginia was more interested in science than the occult. She was interested in physics and astronomy. Albert Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity were news in 1905 and 1915 respectively and astronomer Arthur Eddington proved (observationally) relativity in 1919, and it became something heard by (but not really understood by) the general public.

What might a novelist do with Einstein’s theory that events in time are not the same everywhere for everyone? It could certainly change how you used time as a narrative structure.  That is what is happening in To the Lighthouse and the article’s author sees the influence in her Orlando, and The Waves, which are two novels I don’t know very well.

Virginia – and others in and out of the literary world – were influenced by Einstein’s view that this is a non-linear, probably godless and probably impossible to fully understand the world and universe.

The article goes into much greater detail but what seems to at least partially have created some of the popularity of his theories in the culture was that they were just so damned counter-intuitive. They turned earlier ideas upside down.

Did Woolf read Einstein’s work? Not clear. She might have just heard it in conversation with friends like philosopher Bertrand Russell who published the ABC of Relativity in 1925. Maybe she read some of the many newspaper accounts. 

Did it get her thinking in such a way about narrative that the character Orlando in that same-named novel is a boy in Shakespeare’s time but later wakes up as a woman in the 20th century? Time in the novel is relative and it moves much more slowly for Orlando than for the rest of his/her world. That’s a paradox that Einstein suggests, though not in such an extreme fashion.

Yeats wanted her to consider that there is a world beyond this one we see. Einstein would agree, but he wouldn’t explain any of it as mystical or having to do with religion. Either would Woolf, who would have a character in Mrs. Dalloway say that “there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.” It’s a philosophy of simplicity and seeing the marvelous in every day.

And yet, her life ended in suicide. She finished her last novel and fell into another depression as she had before. It was the start of World War II and her London home was destroyed during the Blitz. Her diary was full of thoughts about death. Woolf was overtaken by mental illness throughout her life and was institutionalized several times and attempted suicide at least twice. Her illness may have been bipolar disorder, for which there was no effective intervention during her lifetime. On March 28, 1941, she filled her overcoat pockets with stones, walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned. She left a suicide note, addressed to her husband:

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do… 
I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.  V