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Jane-Maree Maher

Further information

About the author

Jane-Maree Maher teaches at the Centre for Women's Studies & Gender Research at Monash University in Melbourne. She teaches and researches in the fields of women's studies, cultural studies and literary theory. Her current research includes feminist theories of embodiment, reproductive technologies and representations of maternity.

Publication details

Volume 6, May 2000

Who's Really Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Notes on Medical Advertising

In the August edition of Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, (33(4):617-18, 1999) there is a double-page advertisement for Epilim, a medication for treating bi-polar disorder. It features Virginia Woolf. The advertisement contains a picture of Woolf and a brief description of her medical history. The image of Woolf shows her eyes turned away from the camera and the context determines that it appears sad, possibly resigned. The headline for the advertisement reads as follows;

'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

She Was'

The text of the advertisement describes Woolf's suicide and includes a final letter to Leonard, her husband, where she said she could 'no longer go on spoiling [his] life'. Her status as writer appears only in the paragraph after this highly charged quotation and she is identified only as a 'member of the Bloomsbury Group'. In this piece, I examine the use of Woolf in this advertising campaign, arguing that the conditions for the social and cultural reception of the female artist can be seen in the text and structure of the advertisement. The advertisement works to close down Woolf's challenge to social structures of gender and subjectivity by identifying her primarily through her illness, which in turn is represented as chemical, curable and inherently problematic. I argue that Woolf's work itself contests the comfortable separation of the domestic and the public, the affective and the rational, and sanity and insanity that the advertisement seeks to deploy.

In describing Woolf's illness directly as 'manic depression', and bi-polar disorder by inference, the advertisers fit Woolf's complex history and symptomatolgy into a neat frame. It is not the purpose of this article to contest what might be the appropriate terms by which Woolf's illness could be characterised, but rather to consider the use to which such a label and such a representation have been put. I do note, however, that Hermoine Lee's close examination of Woolf's periods of illness presents a complex interaction of social, cultural and personal factors that mediated and confined Woolf's life and her experience of illness. (1996:175-200) Lee argues that Woolf's description of her own symptoms, the ways in which sanity and insanity are characterised in texts like Mrs Dalloway, and the actions and reactions of those around her show 'a sane woman who had an illness … often a patient but never a victim'. (1996:175) She contends that to define and determine her symptoms as a particular illness and to give it a particular meaning empties out, decontextualises and depoliticises much of Woolf's work. (1996:194) I share Lee's sense that Woolf's writing, language and politics demonstrate an intricate and nuanced understanding of subjectivity and society that cannot be bound over into closed definitions. This reluctance to confine Woolf's symptomatic constellation is not shared by the advertisers, however. The specificity and deployment of Woolf's illness in this advertisement offer a profoundly gendered and closed frame for her image and iconic status.

In examining the nature of medical advertising, Elaine Scarry distinguishes between those advertisements that are consumed by the general public and those that appear in medical journals such as the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. In medical advertisements, she identifies the functions of 're-enactment and coercion' as key structuring imperatives for the prescription of the drugs in question. (1994:40) Here, the coercion operates at the level of how the reader might understand Woolf's episodes of illness; a series of outbreaks, frightening in their character, that need to be contained. The question of social and environmental factors is removed from view. The illness requires only medication. But it is pertinent to note that this clear definition and program of management for bi-polar disorder is contentious. Bi-polar disorder is used to describe a person who shifts between mania and depression, but there is general acknowledgment that 'the majority of psychiatrists have never agreed on how these disorders should be classified, and controversy has been continuous since the 1920s'. (Kendall & Zealley, 1993:429) 'There is no precise dividing line'. (Bloch & Singh, 1997:93) The assumption of Woolf then into such a frame, which emphasises bisection and division, operates to confine the illness in a way that does not represent its lived experience, even as it is medically defined. This drive to definition and comfortably closed categories in the space of illness crosses over into the way the text defines Woolf and her work. The tension between female subjectivity and artistry is evident in the shifting binarisms through which the text moves the reader. The term bi-polar I suggest might be appropriately applied to the reception of the female artist as it is displayed here. As a cultural snapshot of how women writing can be understood, this advertisement offers little space where female subjectivity and authorial power might co-exist.

The domestic context of Woolf's life is the first point of call for the advertisers and they utilise stereotypical notions of feminine subjectivity. Woolf's illness is first presented in the context of its weight for others, the burden she represents for her husband through her difference. Her apparent desire to alleviate Leonard Woolf's lot lays her subjectivity out in classic roles of support and helpmeet. The letter quoted contains the phrase 'we can't go through another of those terrible times'. The possibility of her own spaces and projects are linked necessarily to the subjectivity of her husband. Even her illness is not her own. This is further emphasised by her positioning as a member of the Bloomsbury Group of artists rather than as the pre-eminent member of that Group and an artist recognised and revered for her on-going importance in definitions of literary modernism and feminist and gender politics. The immersion of Woolf in the river which forms the text of the opening paragraph is thus intensified as she is represented immersed in domesticity and in a group of artists, rather than as a singular and creative literary force. Her immersion in the river is mimicked by the immersion of her life and work in a sea of others.

The use of the title of Edward Albee's play as the headline for the advertisement, followed by the sentence 'She was', disassociates Woolf the artist and Woolf the woman. In the play, Woolf's name operates as a powerful icon and that weight is imported here, distancing Woolf the writer from the ill woman that the advertisement is mediating for the reader. The use of the name as an entity somehow outside the experience of the subject, the one feeling fear, lends itself to the separation of literary greatness and subjective life as it can exist in a woman writer. As Christine Battersby notes in her study of the gendered nature of genuis, biological femaleness is often seen as inimical to the nature of true genius. (1989:3) Here, there is a doubled containment of Woolf along these axes of embodiment and social identity. In the first instance, her identity as writer is represented as secondary to her representation as wife with all the connotations of embodied activity represented in the term. Ironically, Lee notes that accounts of the morning of Woolf's death have her indicating that she would do housework and then go for a walk. (1996: 760) In the second part of the advertisement, her writing is also subsumed beneath an embodied frame, since it is represented as the one panacea for her illness.

'More than twenty years later, she intimated that only words could take away the pain'.

Here, Battersby's contention that 'the creative woman is an anomaly' (1989:3) is clearly marked out. Woolf's writing is disengaged from the exercise of her subjective will and becomes a therapeutic tool. The words that Woolf penned do not represent craft or labor, but rather are psychic or physiological responses to her fear of herself. The advertisement closes with the assertion that she would have had much less to be afraid of, had this drug been available. The question of the impact on her literary output in this scenario, presumably that if she were not afraid, she would not have had to write, is unexplored.

In the analysis above, the divisions between woman, and writer, wife and artist, rational and irrational are used and confined through a series of shifting divisions and boundaries. Woolf is at once the artist and the woman, the wife and the writer, the ill and afraid and the author. She is always already both terms, but this possibility disturbs discourses of femininity and authorship. It is acceptable that a woman worry about the effect of her illness on her husband, but the notion that her gender and life experience might allow here to reframe subjectivity in ways that shift authorship and the concept of self cannot be canvassed. Thus, the structure of the advertisement moves us through a series of binarisms designed to close down the anxieties these questions might generate. Although it is her status as a 'great writer' that is the reason for her inclusion in the advertisement, the text itself presents her as wife and as part player in a literary scene. But it is interesting to note is that the text of the advertisement drowns Woolf in the first sentence, thus rendering her absent from the divisions and explanations that follow. I argue that this metaphorical absence allows these divisions to be confounded and refigured. A brief survey of some salient facts clearly offers a different reading of Woolf's import for the reader of this text.

In an article about Woolf's printing press, Lois Cucullu notes that when the press arrived, it was set up in the drawing room. (1998: 25) Cucullu reads this location as seminal in the paradigm of Woolf's revision of literary modernism. She contends that this intersection of commercial activity and writing, or the contamination of 'modern[ism's] sanctified autonomy with art's commodification at the epicentre of domesticity', represents Woolf's clear understanding of the inevitable collision of the market, creativity and artistic integrity. (1998:26,40) This sense of the orchestrated collision of traditionally separate spheres forms the central thesis of A Room of One's Own, where domestic concerns such as adequate nourishment and space are linked with economic independence and intellectual freedom. These intersections are central, in my view, to how we read and understand Woolf's work.

Woolf's writing in texts such as To the Lighthouse and the Waves represented and constructed new modes of subjective representation. Rather than the 'aridity' of the determined 'I' that she identified in A Room of One's Own, (1974:99) these texts set notions of subjectivity and consciousness in motion. Strategies such polyvocality, stream of consciousness and shifting viewpoints allowed for the refiguration of that 'I' that exists only 'as a convenient term for somebody who has no real being'. (1974:6) This strategy represents a fundamental challenge to the notion of Enlightenment subject, both as object and creator, that phenomenon that Battersby describes as 'I am the author, I am male. I am God'. (1989:43) In terms that were explicitly gendered by Woolf and most clearly epitomised in the creation of Judith Shakespeare in A Room of One's Own, the ways in which society's reads and constructs the writer were examined and critiqued. The creation and celebration of the writer were revealed as congruent with social divisions along the lines of gender and sex. Woolf's own trajectory represents in a myriad of ways a contamination of this process. She achieved status and recognition as an artist, but in so doing, she confronted the terms of this process itself. In her recognition that social and cultural pressures make or unmake the artist, she destabilized frames of reception and recognition. In her construction of new subject voices, she laid bare the anxieties of the closed 'I' and offered productive ways of rethinking sex, gender and selfhood. The text of this Epilim advertisement seeks to take that refigured 'I' and reinsert it into discourses that separate domesticity and public life, femininity and subjectivity, and writing and selfhood. Woolf's legacy does not allow that readers of her work do that.


Battersby, Christine. Gender & Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics. London, Women's Press, 1989.

Bloch, Sidney & Singh, Bruce. Understanding troubled minds: A Guide to Mental Illness and Its Treatment. Carlton, Melbourne UP, 1997.

Cucullu, Lois. 'Retailing the Female Intellectual', in differences, 9(2):25-68, 1998.

Kendell, R. & Zealley, A. Companion to Psychiatric Studies. 5th Edition. London, & New York, Churchill Livingstone, 1993.

Lee, Hermoine. Virginia Woolf. London, Chatto & Windus, 1996.

Scarry, Elaine. Resisting Representation. New York & Oxford, Oxford UP, 1994.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. London, Penguin, 1974 [1928].

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