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Panken, S. (1990). Virginia Woolf: The Feminine Self. Am. J. Psychoanal., 50(1):45-55.

(1990). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 50(1):45-55

Virginia Woolf: The Feminine Self

Shirley Panken, Ph.D.

Virginia Woolf claimed to feel most feminine when writing, which was shakily noted in her diary following a long digression on the aging process. Most characteristically, she equated writing with images of fertility and motherhood, or with what she alluded to as the “pain”1 of childbirth, experiences of which she felt deprived. Corresponding with her sister, Virginia at 26 tells Vanessa Bell, her maternal and ego ideal, that she writes as her nephew Julian “sucks his bottle,”2 telling us in effect that she autonomously creates her own milk or words;3 this correspondence alerts us to the oral dimension defining her creative process, as she competes with both mother and child.

Showing her deep enmeshment with her sister, Virginia in embarking on her novel Night and Day,4 wrote Vanessa: “I greatly envy your brats. I am very much interested in your life which I think of writing another novel about. It's fatal staying with you—you start so many new ideas.”5 Vanessa as wife, mother, and artist was prototype for a good number of Woolf's fictional women. Many of Woolf's novels might be seen as offerings, or in Greenacre's designation, as “love gifts”;6 these are dedicated to the recipient with “pride and misgiving, the desire to placate or ingratiate, the need to idealize.” Woolf sought to place herself in her sister's skin as it were, to fathom feminine, heterosexual, or maternal emotions.

In her diary, Woolf stated that a novel might best be written in “breathless anguish so that for 9 months one is in despair.” Then, she reaches the “hatching, the portal, the opening through which I shall go upon this experience.”7 Her metaphor is of course a fairly obvious equation of writing with gestating a baby, in addition suggesting a desire for rebirth, or the possibility of giving birth to another self.

In contrast to Woolf's groping toward a feminine self, which she predominantly linked to the maternal modality, she frequently sounded an aggressive note concerning her writing, for example, she must make “instant and direct shots”8 at her object.

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