MS, Virginia Woolf and the Raverats

M

He was slowly dying from MS. His renewed friendship with the writer Virginia Woolf sustained him in the final years.

More than one hundred years ago, the French artist Jacques Raverat and his wife Gwen, née Darwin, a wood engraver and granddaughter of the evolutionist, moved to southern France in hopes of slowing the progression of his multiple sclerosis.

While living in Vence, away from the orbit of the Bloomsbury Group, Jacques revived his friendship with Virginia Woolf through a series of extraordinary letters, invigorating and comforting him up to his death aged 40 in 1922.

The lively correspondence between Jacques and Virginia – with Gwen acting as a scribe when he could no longer write – touches on gossip about mutual acquaintances (will Maynard Keynes marry his new love Lydia Lopokova?) and veers onto Woolf’s sapphism, religion and revisits the past.

But for those reading more closely the exchanges reveal much more: an insight into the relentlessness of his disabling disease; the toll it extracts and, in the face of looming death, how an artist can live best while slowly dying. 

Jacques was a French student in his early 20’s at Cambridge University when he began to be overwhelmed with excessive fatigue, which led him to drop out in 1908.

Over the next couple of years, he began to experience symptoms known all too well to MSers, such as recurrent difficulties walking, balance problems and painful leg spasms which meant he could no longer hike with close friends like the poet Rupert Brooke or the writer Andre Gide.

Jacques Raverat by Gwen Raverat around 1912

Doctors were consulted, but they also were left mystified. One suggested rest, another milk, while Dr JM Bramwell, one of Britain’s leading hypnotists, claimed he had ‘cured’ Jacques after ministering to his ‘subliminal self’.

In 1911, Jacques married Gwen Darwin who he had met at art school. She was aware of his ‘nervous’ episodes, but was not overly concerned. She had grown up in the Darwin family where it was a “distinction and a mournful pleasure to be ill.

However, six months into her marriage, Gwen wrote to her mother about Jacques: “It is so difficult to understand his health and his nerves: they puzzle me more and more, I feel awfully stupid taking care of him.”

At the outbreak of WWI Jacques attempted to enlist in the French army, but was immediately rejected on health grounds. This led to a diagnosis of disseminated sclerosis – as MS was known then – by renowned Queen Square neurologist James Risen Russell.

James Russell, pioneering neurologist and one of UK’s first black consultants

While Jacques was relieved on one hand to hear a definitive diagnosis, it led to a period of acute depression. This was hardly surprising. A century ago experts had little knowledge of his disease – and no way to treat it.

“The therapeutic prospects in disseminated sclerosis are gloomy in the extreme,” wrote Russell in TC Allbutt’s A System of Medicine. “No medicinal agent has the slightest effect in arresting the disease, or of retarding its progress.”

Gradually, Jacques mood began to lift. He could only take a few steps, but he could still paint. “So long as there remains to me a hand and eye…” he wrote to Gide.

By 1920, the lure of a more favourable climate led Jacques, Gwen and their two daughters to move to Vence. By now Jacques had to be carried everywhere and his right hand was steadily weakening.

He also was growing more detached from life, retreating more often into his painting and books. As for doctors, he no longer consulted them for they only “tell me to rest and I am anyhow spending 18 hours out of 24 in bed,” he wrote.

Raverat in Vence

It was then in 1922, after a silence of ten years, that Jacques and Woolf began to exchange letters.

The two had met years earlier and held deep affection for each other. She called him the ‘Volatile Frog’; he said she had beauty, wit and a “queer streak of genius somewhere.”

The initial exchange at first is almost formal. But soon Jacques and Woolf are very much at ease – exchanging news, debating the difference between painting and writing and discussing illness and mortality.

What also makes these letters so remarkable, is not just how clever and lighthearted they are (this is Woolf, one of the 20th centuries best novelists, writing after all), but the circumstances under which they were composed.

“Death hovers around everything they write to each other, if not on the surface, then close to it,” writes William Pryor, the Raverat’s grandson.

Yet the tedium and horrors of living daily with the disease do not overwhelm their correspondence. Instead “they serve as a profound affirmation of life, spirit and art,” writes Kimberly Engdahl Coates.

For Woolf, too, was familiar with illness having endured periods of depression and bouts of influenza in the past. She knew what it was like to be a patient.

This kinship means Jacques can write: “Being ill is sometimes almost intolerable, but I rather despise the people that aren’t – don’t you? I’m sure we have a finer sensitiveness and a keener appreciation of life.”

It also creates a crucial bond between the two. With Jacques, Woolf is more compassionate, honest and less persistently egoistic compared to her correspondence with more intimate friends, according to Pryor, editor of Virginia Woolf and the Raverats: A Different Sort of Friendship. “She is putting on less of a performance,” he writes.

              

Virginia Woolf

As for Jacques, he too opens up. In one letter, he reveals to Woolf he has “neither the advantage of death nor life: not of life because I have lost almost every pleasure in the world. Not of death because I am still damnable capable of feeling pain. Please do not repeat this.”

Woolf’s familiarity with illness also allows her to assume the role of his ‘epistolary’ nurse. She cannot stop Jacques body from irrevocably declining, but she can keep his imagination and intellect alive.

She challenges him; regales him with funny stories and needles him about the past. Do you remember, she asks, when “you made your grand attack on Bloomsbury, and left us.” 

It works. Jacques, provoked, writes back at length defending himself.

She also enquires about his painting, knowing how essential it is to his being. “When I can paint it’s all right and I don’t much care for anything else. When I’m too tired to paint or too ill, its hell,” he writes back.

Later, knowing his weakness in both arms may force him to abandon his painting, she asks if he would be interested in writing something for the Hogarth Press.

Jacques is flattered, but declines. Painting is his medium, he insists. But his optimism is short-lived. In the next letter he tells her he is dictating his autobiography to Gwen.

To this, Woolf urges him on: “let it be the waste paper basket, conduit pipe, cesspool, treasure house, and larder and pantry . . . of your existence”.

By late 1923, one can sense a shift in the letters. Jacques is now, almost permanently in pain and is relying on morphine. He calls on her to continue writing: “… they help to keep me human not a mere amorphous invalid”.

It is then Woolf does something she has never done before. She sends Jacques a proof copy of her novel Mrs. Dalloway and adds in the accompanying letter: “For no other human being in the world would I do this.”

Jacques was both delighted and honoured. In fits and starts, he dictated a reply to her. He was now extremely weak, surviving on sugar and water.

The letter Jacques sent back to Woolf about the book gave Woolf “one of the happiest days of [her] life,” she records in her diary.

By early 1924, Jacques’ mind was as lucid as ever, but he was despairing at how long it was taking to die. He dictated a final letter to Woolf which is breathtaking in its poignancy and also a grim reminder of the devastating destructiveness of MS.

He asks if she is happy before adding: “I think I should have had a certain gift for happiness also; but destiny or fate or whatever you call it has broken me to bits instead. An awful waste. Goodbye dear Virginia.”

On March 6, 1925 after four days of watching him struggle to breathe, Gwen grabbed a pillow and suffocated Jacques.

Postscript

A year after Raverat’s death, Woolf published “On Being Ill” – asking why illness is not seen as serious subject of literature as it confers upon the patient a unique perspective of the world.

In 1941, Woolf filled her pockets with rocks and drowned herself – as she feared she was going mad.

Gwen returned to Cambridge with her daughters after his death and became one of England’s premier wood-engravers.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and nobody else.

@RachelHorne19

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Rachel Horne

18 comments

  • How very interesting. It’s on my reading list now. I too have found that painting has kept me going and it gives me reliance when I think about the future and what it holds. I have advances MS now, always just outside the criteria for treatment, but my right hand and brain remain intact. All power to the paintbrush!

    • So nice to hear this – and thanks for the comment. Hope you don’t think I am being nosey, but did you take up painting post-MS – and if so, do you find it more rewarding now? I think having a creative outlet is so essential.
      Take care…

  • Rachel,

    1922 – “He was slowly dying from MS.”

    Unfortunately 100 years later, the same is still happening. Researchers / pharma have provided drugs to reduce / stop relapses, but the underlying neurodegeneration (smouldering MS) continues (the real MS according to Prof G). If you don’t believe me visit an MS local meeting or a care home specialising in neurological conditions. Would Jacques be any better off if he visited a neuro today? I doubt it. Progressive MSers usually get an annual appointment, a shrug of the shoulders, and a “nothing we can do”.

    We’ve given the MS specialists and MS neuros way too much praise. Until the underlying mechanisms that are destroying our brains and spinal cords are stopped we should limit our gratitude. The story you posted is sad – a man who suffered and had his life cut short. A century later and MS is still a chronic, disabling, life shortening disease.

    • Thanks for posting. It is something I have given some thought to… ie what would have happened if J Raverat saw a neuro today as a student in his 20’s when his episodes were definitely relapse then remitting in character? I would hope he would have received an effective DMT which would have slowed at least his MS advancement… and his death would not have been at 40.
      But I am no neuro… and I do agree that MS is an absolutely awful disease.

  • Thanks for this, Rachel. A fascinating and sad story. I like the idea of illness giving you a different perspective on life – very true I think.

    • Thank you. And yes, I agree that illness gives ou a different perspective on life. I love this quote from V Woolf in On Being Ill – explaining why we see things differently. Tried to fit it in, but couldn’t…
      “We cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters.”

  • Excellent research Rachel. I wonder where you first found the materials about this friendship. I wonder, too, how much it sustained Jaques. I have read twice lately, that the health system is responsible for much less of the benefiting treatment, than we realise; various articles cite 11% and 20%. Let’s call it 15%. Mostly it’s the social determinants of health that count for or against our health, poorer if deprived and vice versa. MS may strike but having support is as important as treatment. Jaques couldn’t have that, though Russell must have been a remarkable neurologist.

    It means such a lot to sick people, to have connection, whether friendship or other contact. I had lunch with a fellow alumnus from student days, last week. He said he believed our meetings and the enjoyment we get from them makes as much, if not more difference to him, as his blood transfusions. Now steroids aren’t working (he doesn’t have MS) he yearns for as much contact with friends as possible.

    So where we know pwMS which is worsening, we need to get in touch with them as often as we can. It helps us and them such a lot. This applies to all illnesses, I think.

    • Thank you for your lovely, wise comments. I agree wholeheartedly with you. I think social contact/friendships has such an impact on chronic illnesses. It invigorates us – warms us… and as you say – makes us feel good too. Sometimes just saying “How are you?” and meaning it is enough. I can’t tell you how much I have gained from being part of the MS community. I wouldn’t have met you – would I?
      x

  • Rachel I’m so glad you’ve chosen to share posts on the Blog as each and every one of them are so interesting, insightful and thought-provoking.

    • Thank you so much. I love doing them… though I found this one a bit tough to write at the end. Take care…

    • And thank you for letting me know. It’s always a bit strange when you hit send and it goes into the void. Find it much more rewarding these days when I get feed-back. In the pre-internet days – it was just silence…
      Take care.

  • Thank you for the post. I’ll read Virginia Woolf’s essay soon.

    Raverat was fortunate that he had a talent and a creative outlet and that he had a temperament that helped him to make friends (in pre-MS days). And he was fortunate to have a friend like Virginia Woolf, who maintained this correspondence. It takes time and effort

    • Thanks…. I agree with what you say.
      Also what I would have liked to add (or perhaps another post on its own) is how fortunate he was in his partner – his wife, Gwen. Every day she read to him for several hours, made sure their villa was always filled with people who would speak to him, learned how to drive so as to take him places and acted as his nurse (until 6 weeks before his death).

  • Hello Rachel- Thanks for the story, I guess :-). It was depressing and made me think how awful it could be in such isolation, even though he navigated this well (coming from an upper class situation). I am supposing that in the 1920’s, most did not see a neurologist (if there were such a thing) and even if they did, what did they know and what could be offered?

    This led me to thinking about my MS roots, particularly on my mother’s side. Her parents immigrated from Europe after WWI. My mother had two sisters; one of them had a girl (my cousin), who has MS today. This immigrated grandmother was brought up in a church orphanage in Italy, and the “story” goes that her father was wealthy until WWI and then lost all his money, so she was raised in an orphanage. ???

    I doubt many people could see a neurologist back then. The remedies and quack medicine that might be offered and tried… The hopelessness of it all, if one had aggressive MS back then. Denial and accusations with no definitions or courses of action. Little or no info. I suppose rarely would one be in the positions to take care of themselves, not to mention a family, if they had MS in 1920. So why really was my grandmother in an orphanage? So I’ll ask more questions at our next family gathering (there is one “sharp” sister [90 yrs.] surviving.) All this, because of your sad story. But thanks…got me thinking!

    • Thanks for your comments. I think when we all got diagnosed we tend to look at our families and wonder if there was an MS hereditary link at work. I know my mother talked about a great aunt that was completely bed-bound for years and couldn’t walk. MS or something else… who knows?
      As you say, what would have been terrible if you had MS was the lack of knowing and treatment – and the devastation it wrought on families and loved ones.
      Plus imagine how difficult life would have been without the NHS – if you didn’t have money or loved ones to look after you?
      Jacques Raverat was lucky that he came from a wealthy French family and that he had such a supportive wife. But it was still pretty wretched… as MS is.

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