It wasn’t until 2007 when I bought the late Paul Evans’ 4000 Bloomsbury book collection and started building the Literary Museum at Glenthorne that I discovered Melymbrosia. It was a first edition by Virginia Woolf but published by Cleiss Press in America in 1981 about the emotional and sexual awakening of a young Englishwoman travelling [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Virginia Woolf and the “Melymbrosia” manuscript


It wasn’t until 2007 when I bought the late Paul Evans’ 4000 Bloomsbury book collection and started building the Literary Museum at Glenthorne that I discovered Melymbrosia. It was a first edition by Virginia Woolf but published by Cleiss Press in America in 1981 about the emotional and sexual awakening of a young Englishwoman travelling abroad and bristling with social commentary and issues as varied as homosexuality, the suffrage movement and colonialism. She was warned by colleagues however that publishing an outspoken indictment of Britain could prove disastrous in her fledgling career as a novelist.

Young Virginia Woolf, painting by Thomas Espley. Courtesy Literary Museum Glenthorne

Moreover, the critical offensive from men would be especially harsh towards a woman author trying to break into a male dominated culture. Virginia Woolf thus revised the novel extensively, omitting much of the political candour until, in 1915, the quieter book was published under the title The Voyage Out – a rare look into the formative mind of the modernist master who revolutionised 20th century literature. Young Virginia Woolf was learning her craft and didn’t complete Melymbrosia until 1912 when she was thirty years old. It was written during a period in which she was especially psychologically vulnerable.

The resultant work contains the seeds of all that would blossom in her later work: the innovative writing style, the sexuality and preoccupation with death. Louise de Salvo, of Cleiss Press, worked for seven years reconstructing the text of Melymbrosia based on Woolf’s almost complete draft written mainly in 1910, with the missing pages taken from later versions after a painstaking analysis of Woolf’s typescripts and manuscripts in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection. Virginia Woolf’s eventual novel The Voyage Out went through seven revisions before it was published in London by Duckworth, the imprint run by her half brother.

Many literary critics have written about the influence of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness on The Voyage Out, but only Mark A. Wollaeger, associate professor of English at Vanderbilt University, has noted the relevance of Conrad to the Woolfs’ marriage. Leonard’s first novel, The Village in the Jungle, was also much indebted to Heart of Darkness. Wollaeger argues that both Conrad and Leonard Woolf had considerable influence on Virginia Woolf’s first novel. In her 1906 journal, seeking a simile for the “domesticities” of the “soft grass paths” of Norfolk, she writes: “It is so soft, so melancholy, so wild, yet so willing to be gentle … like some noble untamed woman conscious that she has no beauty to vaunt, that nobody very much wants her.” Wollaeger comments:

The image of the untamed woman goes to the heart of the emotional turbulence that was stirred up by Woolf’s decision in 1912 to marry Leonard … it is precisely the paired notions of domesticity and the taming of women that are at issue in [Virginia] Woolf’s response to The Village in the Jungle, a novel about the domestication of women in the wilds of Ceylon; the untamed woman also suggests the myth of the Amazon warrior, which undoubtedly lies behind Woolf’s decision to send her heroine Rachel Vinrace to South America where she travels up a great river; and finally, the image leads back to Conrad, whose “savage and superb” African women on the banks of the mighty river in Heart of Darkness informs Woolf’s representation of native women upriver in The Voyage Out.

Leonard and Virginia worked closely together in 1912 when they were finishing their first novels. Arguing that his book influenced hers, Wollaeger also cites Melymbrosia as the reconstructed version of The Voyage Out as it existed before the Woolfs’ engagement in May 1912, pointing out that many scenes, including the crucial scenes upriver in which Virginia describes her village in the jungle, were radically revised after her honeymoon. Melymbrosia’s editor, Louise de Salvo, relates the revision process to the engagement but, Wollaeger notes, she never once mentions The Village in the Jungle, and he makes this important statement:

Literary history alone would not assign much weight to Leonard’s novel… But for Virginia The Village in the Jungle was powerful because she found in it a disturbing version of the marriage plot that bore directly on the problems of autonomy she was exploring through Rachel Vinrace and living out in the relationship with Leonard … [her] responses to Conrad and Leonard brought her to the verge of a modernism from which she retreated in her second novel Night and Day (1919), before recovering the modernist impulse that would shape the remainder of her career.

Wollaeger also courageously states something I have long suspected: that Virginia felt threatened by the ease with which Leonard completed The Village in the Jungle, which was published two years before The Voyage Out. “It’s no use,” she remarked to Lady Cecil, “for me to say that I’m glad you liked Leonard’s book, as you know too well the profound and secret vices of authors.”
Wollaeger notes three crucial scenes Virginia Woolf changed after reading The Village in the Jungle:

The moment in which Rachel and Terence declare their love while deep in the jungle; the ensuing moment, in which Helen wrestles Rachel to the ground and stuffs grass into her mouth; and the culminating moment of the expedition, the entry into a native village. In Melymbrosia the love scene is rendered in the lifeless language of pulp romance; in the final text this scene becomes uncanny and dislocated, suffused with highly charged yet alienated desire. In Melymbrosia Helen and Rachel’s embrace is powerfully erotic, much more so than Rachel and Terence’s first kiss; in The Voyage Out it is elliptical, more obscenely motivated, and discordant. Finally, the tableau of staring native women in The Voyage Out – the scene in which, in my view, the entire narrative hinges – is twice as long as the corresponding moment in Melymbrosia…

If we compare Melymbrosia to The Voyage Out with Wollaeger’s observant essay in mind, the complex relationship between the early novels of Virginia Woolf (Melymbrosia, The Voyage Out and Night and Day) and Leonard’s only two novels (The Village in the Jungle and The Wise Virgins) becomes clear. They expose the relationship between the two authors. The Woolfs were living in the same house in Brunswick Square, but on separate floors; they would each write some five hundred words every morning and spend the afternoons walking and discussing their work. Virginia’s more sympathetic later portrayal of the native village in The Voyage Out was certainly influenced by Leonard.

The Helen/Rachel scene mentioned by Wollaeger reads very differently in Melymbrosia and The Voyage Out. In both Helen wrestles Rachel to the ground in a sea of grass but in the former Helen confesses: “I’ve never told you, but you know I love you, my darling.” Rachel reminds Helen of Rachel’s dead mother, whom Helen also loved. This intensely realised moment of lesbian, sororal and maternal desire survives in The Voyage Out only as a glimpse in a scene so dislocated editors have offered explanatory footnotes. The toning down of the erotic encounter is a retreat from self-revelation.

Finally, to quote Wollaeger again, “the recovery of The Village in the Jungle as a key mediator of Conrad’s influence reveals three things: the cross currents of desire that motivate and shape specific literary debts in The Voyage Out; the degree to which violence against the mother is part of the process of undoing subordination to the father; and the importance of the scene upriver in the development of Virginia Woolf’s modernism.”

In 1917 Virginia Woolf founded, with her husband Leonard, Hogarth Press which would become one of the most influential publishing houses of the 20th century. It published the rest of her books and those of other significant authors including T.S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, E.M. Forster and J.M. Keynes. Virginia Woolf’s experimental fiction reached its apogee with her novels Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves, and she also published numerous essays, short stories and biographies. In addition to her role as a modernist, she is remembered as a feminist particularly for her exploration of gender in novels such as Orlando and her book-length essay A Room of One’s Own.

Her literary ambition was always to experiment with the underlying psychological as well as emotional motives of her characters. It is only by recognising the complex mediations of gender, sexuality and literary history among the texts of Virginia and Leonard Woolf and Joseph Conrad, particularly in Melymbrosia, that we can expose the complexities of the Woolf’s enduring marriage.

(The writer is the author
of Woolf in Ceylon)

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