Avrom Fleishman’s article, “‘To Return to St. Ives:’ Woolf’s Autobiographical Writings,” offers a bit of a weak interpretation for connecting Woolf’s diary entries, letters, and autobiographical sketches (such as “A Sketch of the Past”) to her fictional works (such as To the Lighthouse and The Waves) for anyone who has spent time engrossed in Woolf’s works. It would seem to me that most of the information provided by Fleishman is a reiteration of connection any Woolf scholar could make among the wide variety of Woolf’s writings. Perhaps I feel this way due to the fact that this article was first published in 1981, a year before I was born. (And I’d like to also note here that since I was born in 1982, I was born exactly 100 years after Woolf. This kind of gives me chills!)
However, for those who haven’t spent time hanging out with Woolf, Fleishman’s article is a good starting point in that he does provide his reader with interesting autobiographical connections. For instance, Fleishman draws upon Woolf’s letters and diary entries when detailing connections that exist between her actual life and the fictional world she creates in To the Lighthouse. As Fleishman notes, “Woolf drew much of the detail for [To the Lighthouse] from her childhood vacations in Cornwall;” however, Fleishman also goes on to say that given Woolf’s strong connections to Cornwall, perhaps we would expect more connections than are readily given in her letters and diary entries (606). Rather, it would seem that Woolf leaves it up to her readers to delve out these connections rather than offering them outright.
Beguilingly, Fleishman theorizes about the reasons behind Woolf’s autobiographical connections. With To the Lighthouse, Fleishman proposes, “[Woolf] has anesthetized her response to the place of her most powerful childhood memories; she had transformed the lasting wound of her life into art” (607). In this way, Fleishman connects Woolf to Lily Briscoe, who, through her art (painting), is able to lay Mrs. Ramsay’s ghost to rest.
With The Waves, one of Woolf’s later novels, Fleishman declares that it is “less an autobiographical novel than a mythic drama of the stages of human existence” (611-612). Even still, The Waves also contains references to people in Woolf’s life. Fleishman goes on to relate how Woolf deals with her brother’s (Thoby) death in this novel. The way Fleishman sets To the Lighthouse and The Waves up feels like he is suggesting Woolf wrote in order to create a personalized and internal therapy in order to deal with familial trauma.
In dealing with Woolf’s imagery, Fleishman connects water with Woolf’s ideas about consciousness, a topic that was almost always in the foreground of her writings. This, veritably, seems to be one of the most crucial connections Fleishman offers to us in his work.
And yet, perhaps what is most moving and memorable about Fleishman’s article occurs at its end: “[With] her memoir unfinished, Woolf walked into the river Ouse [to end her life]…Whether she found there the images she sought, whether the waters carried her round to the coast of her childhood, whether the current was that of heightened consciousness or merged consciousness, we cannot say…[W]riting this most beautiful of autobiographies was a dangerous act, a triumph in raising her ghosts to walk again, and thus an invitation to join them in their mode of being” (617).
Fleishman, Avrom. “‘To Return to St. Ives:’ Woolf’s Autobiographical Writings.” ELH Vol. 48, No. 3 (Autumn 1981). The Johns Hopkins University Press. JSTOR. Web. 606-618. 29 Sept. 2010.