FAQ: The Waves

Biographical References

Updated December 11, 2000
Created January 25, 1999

Does Woolf base any characters in The Waves on real people?

Bernard:  Since childhood, Bernard is a storyteller; however, he never seems to finish anything he writes. He speaks more than the others, and in the final episode attempts to sum up the meaning of his life –a synthesis of the other characters and the interludes. For many readers, Bernard is Woolf’s alter ego. In several passages in The Waves, he describes a fin passing out in the waters, just as Woolf describes a fin in her diaries (Hussey 25).  Fogel asserts that Bernard is a clear surrogate for Virginia Woolf herself (157). Leonard Woolf suggests that Desmond MacCarthy may have been used as a model for Bernard – a connection made also by Aileen Pippett and Mitchell Leaska. Roger Fry has also been suggested.
Desmond MacCarthy,
portrait head
by Quentin Bell
Roger Fry,
Jinny:   Jinny is characterized as sensual, alert to vivid color and to the power of her own body to attract men. As a school girl, Jinny says "I never cease to move and to dance" (Waves 42). Woolf’s father called his daughter "Jinny," and Howard Harper has written that Sir Leslie "would have been sexually attracted toward, and morally disapproving of a woman like "Jinny" (Hussey 131). Virginia was Leslie’s favorite child. . . "a mutual admiration plainly seen on the evening when the two young sisters were jumping about naked in the bathroom. . . Virginia explains why she likes her father better. Leslie fondly recollected, 2 year old Virginia once delayed him departure for his study, ‘Little Ginia is already an accomplished flirt. . . she nestled herself down in the sofa by me . . . as said don’t go Papa" (Lee 33-34). Virginia Woolf herself may have been a model for Jinny.  James Haule suggests that Mary Hutchinson is also a possible source for the characterization of Jinny.

Louis:  Louis is different from the others in The Waves because he is not English. He is Australian. His life is defined by the need to overcome the sense of inferiority his Australian accent gives him. He eventually becomes successful, but the sense never leaves him (Hussey 149).   Both Doris Eder and Lyndall Gordon suggests that there is a probable connection between Louis and T.S. Eliot because Woolf uses the same adjectives to describe them: pale and marmoreal (Gordon 250). Also according to Gordon, some external details of Louis may also be derived from Saxon Sydney-Turner, a brilliant classics scholar (Hussey 281), and Leonard Woolf.

(T.S. Eliot, drawing by Wyndham Lewis, 1938)

Neville:  Neville, a homosexual scholar, is described by Louis as the son of a gentleman. He is also the only one of the three writers in The Waves who publishes and wins some fame for his writing (Hussey 182). He decides as a child to have one lover and is a seeker of order.  John Maynard Keynes, economist and prolific writer on economics (Hussey 137), and Lytton Strachey, hailed as an intellectual and know as a homosexual, have been suggested as sources for Neville’s character. (Left, photo of Maynard Keynes, by Vanessa Bell.  Right, caricature of Lytton Strachey.)

Rhoda:  Rhoda is described by Louis as having "no body as the others have" (The Waves 22). Rhoda spends most of her life avoiding others and afraid of life itself. Rhoda has no father and falls in love with the girls at school and her teacher (Hussey 228).   Diane Gillespie has asserted that there may be a possible link between Rhoda and the faceless portraits of Vanessa Bell. Also Rhoda is associated with Percy Bysshe Shelley, drawing on her question, "oh, to whom? (Hussey 228).

Susan:  The adult Susan is a representation of the maternal "instinct." Throughout life, she is closely associated with the natural world: marrying a farmer, living in the country and protective of her children.   Several critics identify traits of Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell in the characterization of Susan. Vanessa was "exalted, in the most tragic way, to a strange position, full of power and responsibility.  Everyone turned to her, and she moved, like some young Queen, all weighed down with pomp of her ceremonial robes" (Moments of Being 53). This exaltation was given to Vanessa after the death of Stella; she becomes the maternal and wifely one to Leslie Stephen. (Self-portrait by Vanessa Bell)


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