“Who shall measure the heat and violence of a poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” This was a monumental question posed by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. The implications cannot be missed – don’t do it, unless you know what you are doing.

There have been several attempts to read Woolf’s formidable heart (read oeuvre) in popular culture and imagination, often approached via a morbid fascination for her sexuality, depressive episodes and suicide. These then becomes the fogged lens to assess her craft. It is not always easy for readers, especially young students, to tell the difference between an informed insight and a biographical speculation. It becomes trickier when these misperceptions turn up in the “Introductions” of affordable paperback series by leading international publishers.

As many of us teachers will attest, often the students may read and refer only to the Introduction (cited or not) and never actually read the novel to decide for themselves, or they may then read the novel in the slant light of the Introduction. In a country where programmes in “English literature” form a flourishing enterprise, and the sheer numbers of students reading these novels are staggering, the implications will be on a comparable scale.

And when the writer is dead, as with Virginia Woolf, the prejudices will woefully multiply and go unchecked. This was my reaction on reading the many explicit and implicit prejudices towards mental health and women writers in the Introduction to Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room published in the Collins Classics series.

Introducing the introduction

It’s true that making books a buyable proposition when free electronic versions are floating on the Internet is no easy task. This is a greater challenge with “classics” that enter the public domain after serving the copyright embargo applicable in respective countries. For students on a budget, the preference will inevitably be for a free copy (even girthy Victorian novels come to class on mobile phones).

But should the occasional book-buying student in India order a canonical text, they may well choose a title from Collins Classics. The series has attractive covers, clear print, and is often the most inexpensive version available. There is also the reassurance of the Collins brand – its publication history is included in every copy that one buys in this series.

Let’s first look at this official company history, since it lays claim to a credibility that gets attached to any Introduction in its series. We are told of the millworker William Collins, from Glasgow who set up the printing company in 1819, and his son (also William) who was a “keen humanitarian with a warm heart and a generous spirit.” In the twentieth century, the company galvanised the affordable paperback culture, this history informs us, as HarperCollins continued to be “a champion of the classics.”

The Introduction consists of about five pages of the “Life and Times” of the author, which includes a short overview of the novel. While this biographical introduction seems to be common to all the authors in the imprint, each author’s life necessitates a distinct approach. And the chief component identified specifically for Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is “Mental Health and Creativity”. The biographical sections are written in a format that can be replicated word-to-word in other Woolf titles under the Collins Classics series – I checked with Orlando and this tallied.

If you are a reader who rightfully expects “Introduction”s to be balanced, informed and respectful, then you have to prepare yourself to be not only disappointed but also affronted, on account of writers, women, people with mental illness and Woolf. There is no attribution to these five mortifying pages – they are anonymous and insensitive to any form of nuance.

What is more worrying is that there may be readers who will think nothing is amiss with this official framing; after all, Collins Classics has managed to keep this Introduction afloat in the world through several titles and editions of Woolf’s work. Perhaps this means we have internalised and believed it, or, worse, chosen to ignore the offensive – and surely that needs be resisted.

Bizarre theory

To start with, even if we overlook the exclusive opening spotlight on Woolf’s mental health that is given precedence over all her accomplishments, it is baffling that there is an insistence on divided opinions about the writer’s talent: highly regarded by some and entirely disregarded by others who think them to be “high-maintenance, introspective and obsessive.”

Said of women as of cars, that annoying phrase “high-maintenance” rankles, and then turns interminably worse with this: “Woolf is a classic case of an artist whose creative expression was bad for their health.” Not just content with the withering diagnosis, the “Introduction” benevolently offers the dead writer a solution too: to abandon writing in favour of an occupation that takes her mind away from her obsessive thoughts.

The implication is that the writer called her illness upon herself, and she should do something other than writing for a “happier and more fulfilled life.” It is unimaginable that there will be an “Introduction” that advices Leo Tolstoy to abandon writing since he did write about being suicidal. But we must continue with Woolf for now.

The exquisite insight into the human psyche that Woolf captured in her writings about the suffering of a war-ravaged Septimus Smith (in Mrs Dalloway) or the suffocations that young children endure from overbearing parents (in To the Lighthouse) are all neatly attributed in the “Introduction” to Woolf’s propensity to view “the world in quite a negative light”, a trait that “could be seen as self-indulgent.”

All difficulties with “Woolf and her set” get attributed to her “highly-privileged, upper-middle-class background.” This point about elitism and class disparities gets harped on again and again through the several paragraphs, not as a factual observation, but as causality and character flaw.

Here is an example: “As a human specimen, Woolf was not a very robust figure. She was prone to bouts of depression and breakdown, in part possibly brought on by the lack of any necessity to just get on with activities that were positive for her mental and physical constitution. In the absence of responsibilities to toughen the character, she lived in a world of ever-decreasing circles until, one day, her horizons closed in so tight that she chose suicide as a means of escape.”

Let’s pause, take a deep breath, and then look closer at what has just been suggested to us about mental health and a woman who wrote resplendent fearless prose.

Mental health and women writers

To project mental illness as signs of being a weak specimen of the human species, to tell someone with mental illness that they called it upon themselves because they did not “just get on with activities that were positive”, to indicate that women (of means) don’t have responsibilities that “toughen the character” (never said of male writers irrespective of their class) and to declare that suicide is cowardice and escape – how can we possibly endure and allow such maligning?

I look for another “Introduction” to another author in the same series to escape the claustrophobia of the one on Woolf and I come across Dickens. Here we are told of the (male) author’s “ideas of social injustice and a need for social reform” as also his work as a “humanist novelist” – not a word about the depression that Dickens is known to have suffered at several junctures of his life, or that he should have stopped writing about chimney sweeps and just got on with other activities.

As scholars and readers, we are aware that we can point out and hold writers accountable for their blind spots and privileges, as the writer of the “Introduction” to Virginia Woolf’s life and times is attempting to do in the Collins Classics series, but nothing gives us the licence to condescend or patronise. We cannot assume, as this writer does, that “Woolf and her set could be seen as looking down on those who chose not to analyse human existence in such microscopic detail, but realistically this was probably the result of insecurities about one’s own talent, context and significance.”

And when there is such pedanticism at play, there is the problem of talking down to the other side as well. The “Introduction” speculates that if Woolf were born in a “more typical” working-class milieu, she would “probably not have had the wherewithal to dissect humanity to such a level.” So not only are the “highly-privileged” classes warranting mental illnesses, the working class, according to this view, don’t have insights into human nature. One should fear any praise from the writer of this “Introduction”.

In the section that frames the novel itself (for instance, Jacob’s Room or Orlando), there is an attempt to be generous in crediting Woolf with her remarkable felicity with craft and creative vision, but the contempt hovers on the edges in subtle unnerving ways. In Orlando, the “Introduction” concedes, “Woolf was not so blinded in her curiosity in exploring her subject matter and literary style that she forgot that she was writing for an audience.”

Perhaps I am quibbling here, but it is fair to wonder if this would be said of a male writer. Since I picked Dickens (in the same series) as a point of comparison, I can affirm that there is no such move there, but instead, Dickens is attributed with great intentionality and awareness of his social world.

My concern is not just that a writer’s debilitating mental illness and limitations of her social circles are being laid bare in such Introductions but that they are written about in absolute terms. This is unfair to a writer like Woolf, who demanded as much intellectual dexterity and ethical reflexivity from her readers as she did from her own manuscripts.

We must thus consider why an international publisher would go with anonymous “Introductions”. Is it because this enables zero accountability or is it because we can avoid paying for an expert, or is it both? While it is admirable that books are being made available at affordable prices, this then includes tremendous moral responsibility to offer credible and sensitive information to tens of thousands of Indian students who depend heavily on such notes and context.

Equally, at a time when gender rights and mental health rights are recognised as vital, it is a travesty that this “Introduction” continues to circulate. It must be replaced in any further editions. Woolf deserves better.

Gayathri Prabhu teaches literary studies at the Manipal Centre for Humanities, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.