I bought Maclear and Arsenault’s gorgeous children’s book recently, and therefore had to write about it for this week’s column.
In her essay “On Being Ill” Virginia Woolf observes how little of our literature is about illness, even though illness is a state of being with which most of us are intimately familiar and which we experience so intensely.
Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault’s Virginia Wolf looks at first like a typo (and if you enter this title into Google it will helpfully assume you’ve got it wrong and provide you with links to the great modernist writer). But it really is about a little wolf named Virginia.
Virginia is not a werewolf, at least in the conventional sense of the term. But sometimes she wakes up feeling “wolfish”, as her sister puts it; she growls, moans and scares people away. She asks her sister not to wear an overly cheerful dress. Her sister can do nothing to make her happier.The whole house sank. Up became down. Bright became dim. Glad became gloom.
It’s possible to read this as a simple mood swing of a sort, but it’s also a surprisingly realistic portrayal of depression. Arsenault’s artwork captures this beautifully. While Vanessa, the sister who narrates the story is a clearly delineated little girl in a yellow dress, Virginia Wolf is an undefined dark smudge with wolfish, pointed ears. She is literally transformed by her depression. The earlier pages of the book are all monochromatic greys and faded colours.
Of course the connections to Virginia Woolf are more than just the pun in the title. It becomes clear that the story is loosely based on Woolf herself. The narrator of the book is named Vanessa after Woolf’s own sister, the artist Vanessa Bell. There is a reference to their brother, Thoby Stephen. The magical place to which Virginia claims she would fly if she could is called “Bloomsberry”. Woolf would later in life live in Bloomsbury, London (and be an important member of the ‘Bloomsbury group’) – though Maclear’s characters, who imagine the place to resemble a beautiful garden, would probably be disappointed in this part of London. And most importantly of all, Woolf suffered from depression.
“There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional), a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals”, says Woolf in “On Being Ill”. Mental illness is a serious topic, it’s a difficult topic, but it’s one that a children’s book is still capable of tackling in ways that feel above all true. Virginia’s despair and Vanessa’s helplessness are familiar, particularly to a reader with any experience of depressive disorders. But to feel helplessness, or sadness that you cannot articulate and that won’t go away, are also things that children understand.
Vanessa’s solution is to recreate Bloomsberry at home. She fills the house with pictures of flowers and fruits, paper butterflies and confetti. She allows Virginia to take refuge in art.The whole house lifted. Down became up. Dim became bright. Gloom became glad.
Suddenly the book is full of bright pinks and sunshiny yellows. Virginia turns and we see that she has been a little girl all along; the ‘wolf ears’ merely the silhouette of the bow in her hair.
For the adult reading it, this isn’t quite the happy ending that it might otherwise be. We know that sometimes loving sisters are not enough, that art can’t always save us. We know that, in 1941 at the age of 59, Virginia Woolf would fill her pockets with stones and walk into a river.
If there’s one concession Virginia Wolf makes to its audience then, it’s not to make this clear. Except perhaps in Vanessa’s nervousness the next morning, it’s possible to believe that the wolf has been banished, or at least tamed for good. As a tale of love and wildness and transformation, this has some of the power of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. As a book about depression it shies away from that last step, and I don’t know whether to be sorry or glad.