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My Virginia Woolf Doll

Published 100 years ago this month, ‘To the Lighthouse’ still shines as a beacon for writer Daphne Merkin

Daphne Merkin
May 30, 2017
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

I have always been fascinated by the concept of the transitional object—that first possession, be it a stuffed animal or a blanket or other favorite toy, that an infant becomes attached to, declaring it as his or her own, staking a claim. The phrase originated with the great British child psychiatrist, D.W. Winnicott, who coined it in a 1951 paper that was given at a meeting of the British Psychoanalytical Society, titled Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena—a Study of the First Not-Me Possession. Although other terms exist for this phenomenon, including “comfort object” and “security blanket,” I think the term “transitional object” carries with it a greater psychological import, alluding as it does to the developmental progress of the infant away from the mother and toward the world. It also suggests, according to Winnicott, the child’s beginning awareness of an objective reality, outside the “subjective omnipotence” with which it is originally endowed, in which the mother and infant are viewed as one and a wish is experienced as creating the object of its own desire. The power of a transitional object is not to be underrated; according to one survey, 35 percent of British adults still sleep with a teddy bear.

As far as I know, I never had a transitional object, à la Linus van Pelt in the Peanuts comic strip—trailing a blue blanket that he clutched to himself while sucking his thumb, the better to feel safe while navigating his Lucy-imperiled surroundings. I often think it would have done me a world of good—it would certainly have eased my anxious absorption of the reality I was facing—if I had made use of a blanket, or a bunny rabbit, or rag doll, to snuggle up with in my crib and later my bed. I was the fourth of six tightly-spaced siblings, and my family was, to put it mildly, a difficult one. It is probably a bit of a simplification to say that I experienced too much of the “Not-Me” and too little of the Me growing up, but not by a great deal. Having such an object might also have helped me understand that the world was not entirely ruled over by my mother, a conviction that held me in its grip for far too long despite years of therapy and introspection.

Would I have sailed through life with greater ease—not had a tendency to scratch insect bites into bloody puddles or grind my lower teeth into stumps—if I had trailed a pink (surely pink!) blanket behind me in those early years? I’ll never know, but meanwhile, I have made my way into the universe all the same, perhaps a bit more tentatively than I otherwise might have and certainly with but the blurriest idea of where my mother stopped and I began. And then one day, I think I was in my early 20s, my mother bought me something—a handmade Virginia Woolf doll, to be exact—that I have come to think of over the years as approximating an adult version of a transitional object. For one thing, although I have a tendency to lose anything and everything of importance to me, I have managed to hold on to this Virginia Woolf doll over four decades. She has moved with me through four changes of address and has stuck with me through thick and thin—through marriage and divorce, motherhood, paralyzing depressions and moments of relative joy. True, she has lost some components of her original costume along the way—the miniature envelopes that were addressed to her care of Hogarth Press in a spidery handwriting got mislaid somewhere, as did first one, and then the other, of her sock-like shoes. But she is still wearing the knitted maroon cardigan with pockets and straight gray wool ankle-length skirt she came in.

The Virginia Woolf doll. (Photo courtesy the author)

The Virginia Woolf doll. (Photo courtesy the author)

Virginia Woolf was one of my mother’s favorite writers, and she in turn became one of mine. My mother emigrated from Nazi Germany to Palestine together with her family in 1936 and in 1949 she came to New York City on what was supposed to be a yearlong visit—she had a job lined up teaching at a school in Washington Heights run by the branch of her family that had emigrated to America instead of Palestine—but ended up meeting my father at a dinner party and staying. My mother had literary aspirations and intermittently pursued them, taking writing courses at Columbia and The New School. I remember her talking about Virginia Woolf’s novels before I ever got to them and I have an image of her, whether true or patched together I’m not entirely sure, reading To the Lighthouse on a couch when I came home from school one day.

I began my own immersion in Woolf’s opus with Mrs. Dalloway, seduced by the in situ opening—“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”—and the immediate plunge into Clarissa Dalloway’s consciousness, a jumble of memories and sensations as she crosses Victoria Street in the middle of June, 1923. From there I went on, unchronologically, to The Voyage Out, Jacob’s Room, and other novels, with To The Lighthouse coming in as my favorite. This was followed in turn by the essays and the diaries, the letters and biographies and memoirs, until I became an expert on all matters Bloomsburyian. If we all have visions in our heads of an ideal society to which we would have liked to belong, Bloomsbury was mine. Although it was not perfect, marred by snobbiness and cattiness and a fair amount of faithlessness, which resulted in various members of the group sleeping with each other despite being married to other members, it exhibited a certain spirit of intellectual curiosity and emotional openness that I found enchanting. It was, for example, within the unshuttered precincts of Bloomsbury that Lytton Strachey, one of the group, first uttered the word “semen?” upon spotting a stain on the dress of Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. Virgnia’s first thought, as she put it in her autobiographical Moments of Being, was: “Can one really say it?”; but then, a moment later, “everyone burst out laughing” and a new, unfettered age was born: “All barriers of reticence and reserve went down.”

Bloomsbury even had its own resident Jew in Leonard Woolf, who joined the group as a Cambridge friend of Thoby Stephen and would go on to marry Thoby’s younger sister, the virginal and fragile Virginia. In announcing their engagement, Virginia referred to Leonard, rather gracelessly, as a “penniless Jew” and took to her bed immediately afterward, there to contemplate the wisdom of her decision. (She also wrote in her diary, “I do not like the Jewish voice,” and, “I do not like the Jewish laugh.”) As has been much observed, British anti-Semitism of the most casual kind was an inherent part of the educated, upper-class society Leonard and Virginia moved in—according to Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Leonard, Virginia used to refer to him at mealtime by saying “give the Jew his food”—but Leonard appeared to take this animosity in stride. Although vastly different interpretations have been put on the Woolfs’ marriage, the most extreme being the one proffered by Cynthia Ozick in her 1973 Commentary essay titled “Mrs. Virginia Woolf,” in which Leonard is portrayed as a madwoman’s keeper, one might also postulate that theirs was a curiously well-matched union of two exotics, one by virtue of ethnicity and the other by virtue of sensibility. Viewed in this way, their shared outsider status—his as a Jew, hers as an emotionally unstable writer—may have helped pave over the things that divided them, not least their irregular, possibly unconsummated sexual life.

These days my Virginia Woolf doll sits in a rocking-chair in my office, overseeing my own writerly labors. Her hair, made of what appears to be grayish-brown yarn, is swept back into a bun that threatens to come apart and her heavy-lidded, hooded eyes—but why are they brown when hers were gray?—stare out dolefully into the famous middle distance. Her elongated body is made of cloth; she looks thin, almost neo-aneroxic, as Woolf was. Pinned to her simple, round-necked beige cotton shirt is a badge that announces “The Brearley School/ VISITOR” from the days when my daughter went there; another round pin that says “AGING TO PERFECTION” is clipped to the bottom left side of her sweater. Did I put these there or did one of my humorously inclined assistants? I’m not sure, but I like their incongruity, the way they bring Virginia into my world and into the present. Once upon a time, I used to put little stones into the pockets of her maroon cardigan, in some kind of gesture of identification with her eventual suicide, but lately I prefer to think of her as radiant with life, waving not drowning, keeping me perpetual company.

Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel,Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.