Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Maybe we should be afraid of Virginia Woolf

Carlyle's House and Other Sketches by Virginia Woolf and edited by David Bradshaw (Hesperus Press, 2003) 56 pp.

This slight book is a series of seven short sketches which were not meant to be published but served as exercises for a young VW at the turn of the century. The sketches themselves are not extraordinary but point the way to the elegance of future novels and the acerbic nature of her personal diaries. The most interesting part of this book is the commentary appended with a historical context for her writing which is written by David Bradshaw.

Five of the sketches stand out for me ...

In "Carlyle's House", VW visits the home of eminent Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881) and his wife Jane Welsh. Here Bradshaw suggests that the Carlyle marriage perhaps resembled that of Virginia's parents Leslie and Julia Stephen who had a close but intense relationship. Her father was a friend of Carlyle's and VW had visited his home as a young girl with her father.

Leslie Stephen was said to have moaned after Julia's death, "But I am not so bad as Carlyle am I?" Apparently he was. Some might argue that Leslie's self absorbed demands, and the stresses of managing a large family, drove Julia into her final illness and death. A brief aside: there are some lovely personal photographs of the Stephen family at this website taken from father Leslie's private album.

"Miss Reeves" is one page long and is based on VW's perception of Amber Reeves, a well known Fabian and the one time lover of H.G. Wells. VW exercises her well known razor sharp insights, comparing Reeves to "the girl whose mother was a snake". Bradshaw notes this reference is to Robert Browning's poem "Porphyria's Lover" ("porphyria" meaning snake). But also, VW surmises that Reeves is "so much determined to embrace everything that she fails".

Coincidentally, I have also begun Katie Roiphe's newest book Uncommon Arrangements which chronicles seven unconventional marriages/relationships between the literarti in early 20th c. Britain among whom are included the ever priaptic Wells and yet another lover Rebecca West who also bore him a child.

In "Cambridge", VW has afternoon tea with, and scrutinizes in quick succession, the Freudian psychoanalyst James Strachey (1887 - 1945), brother of one time Virginia Woolf suitor Lytton Strachey; the mathematician H.T.J. Norton (1886 - 1937) and the poet Rupert Brooke (1887 - 1915). She writes of them that she was conscious that "not only my remarks but my presence was criticized. They wished for the truth and doubted that as woman could speak it or be it" and then adds more charitably that "I had to remember that one is not full grown at 21".

She leaves with the dispiriting thought that "it seemed as though the highest efforts of the most civilized people produced a negative result. One could not honestly be anything." It has the ring of truth to it, as if excessive education immobilizes you and prevents you from living in a way. You are like rarefied flower in a hothouse. Haven't we all met people like that?

Ottoline Morrell, the aristocratic host of many a Bloomsbury literary salon is similarly skewered in "Salon". VW's assessment is honest but vituperative. She uses words like "careful", "elaborate", "passive rather than active" to describe Ottoline. But, as always, it comes down to her looks, for none of us can forgive a woman her ugliness. Ottoline is "remarkable if not beautiful" and "takes the utmost pains to set off her beauty". The suggestion is that she fails in this for VW concludes that she has the aspect of "some marble Medusa".

The worst piece of writing is, I think, "Jews". The title alone alarms, as if she believes that her observations pertain to all Jews. The thinking is sloppy and mean-spirited, compeltely unbalanced in its perspective. Anyone who knows VW's personal writings, letters and diaries is aware of her really unpleasant anti-semitism despite her marriage to Leonard Woolf and her sympathetic portrayal of a Jewish family in her last novel The Years. She, who famously said that she hated "the sound of the Jewish voice", etc ... softened somewhat it seemed when she aged but that is not evident here. She profiles the wife of a wealthy stockbroker, here named simply Mrs. Loeb, whose spouse became a connoisseur of opera and operatic singers.

It is truly offensively written even though meant for her eyes only. The physical person of Mrs. Loeb repels her: her girth, her expansiveness, her desire to marry off all young eligible women like VW. The food served "swam in oil" and was "nasty". She adds "of course" after this remark as if it is a foregone conclusion. Bradshaw, while condemning the anti-semitic remarks in the commentary, emphasizes that this bias was not uncommon amongst the upper classes. Still it shocks to read it today and he tries a little too hard to explain this ugliness, I think. Could she not be a great writer and a nasty anti-semite? Ezra Pound, Simone Weil par esample ...

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