Books by Peter Dally

Released: Nov. 15, 1999

Retired British psychiatrist Dally (The Fantasy Game, 1975) puts Woolf on the couch in this insubstantial psychobiography. Woolf's mental state has always attracted posthumous diagnoses from her literary biographers, and Dally, who has also essayed a psychological portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, concentrates entirely on this ambiguous task. Woolf is customarily labeled manic depressive—a term (no longer clinically employed) referring to a fairly loose category of mood disorders with a wide range of diagnoses. Dally specifies Woolf's malady as cyclothymic disorder, which presents as comparatively mild depression from January to March and again in September, and an elated mood in the summer. This condition, he argues, would lead to full-blown manic depression, manifested in Woolf's manic breakdowns and severe depressions, culminating in her 1941 suicide. Woolf's milder hypomanic phases featured brilliant conversation and ambitious literary projects. In her outright manic phases, however, she refused food; talked incessantly; grew paranoid; insulted everyone from her nurses to her husband, Leonard, and her sister, Vanessa; had suicidal impulses; and, in some instances, experienced visual and aural hallucinations—most famously seeing her dead mother and hearing birds in London singing in Greek (a detail which found its way into Mrs. Dalloway). Unfortunately, Dally neglects the close examination of Woolf's mind in favor of rote summary of the events of her life, which reduces Leonard to the sort of helpmeet necessary for Woolf's condition. In an appendix, "Manic, Madness and Creativity," Dally cursorily discusses the effects of her illness on her writing, but Woolf, who in her voluminous diary vividly described both her literary impulses and her fluctuating emotions, remains the authority on herself. Less a case study than a Cliff's Notes to better biographical work, such as Hermione Lee's rich treatment (Virginia Woolf: A Biography, 1997). (8 pages b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >