What’s next here?

This blog has morphed from a place to keep field notes about a species of bird in a place I used to live, to miscellaneous public musing and a sort of commonplace book, and then (in my mind and plans) to a multimedia chronology and, perhaps, an autobiography. I’m even considering inviting commentary or guest blogging from anyone involved in any events which might appear here. My alarm about the vast tracts of time for which I have no memories at all drives me to do whatever I can to capture the remaining ones. In that respect, this would be documentary as well as remembering (re-membering).

A few weeks later, I add: When I took up the notion of turning this blog into an autobiographical scrapbook, it seemed like a cool idea to transcribe my original diary and journal entries. After all, they are dated and can speak for themselves, and would make a bio-blog totally authentic. But then I actually pulled them out of the box and started reading them again, and the style, gah! I can’t take it. Makes me want to find a TARDIS and fly back in time and get really violent with back-then me. Clear and plain sentences are one out of ten, and the pretentiousness goes to 11. Maybe it can be translated. Or maybe, I tell myself, do the transcription, but don’t turn the posts on until 2064 or sometime way, way away.

Mrs. Dalloway said she would write the screenplay herself

“I foresee, to return to The Hours, that this is going to be the devil of a struggle. The design is so queer & so masterful. I’m always having to wrench my substance to fit it. The design is certainly original, & interests me hugely.” VW, diary, 19 Jun 1923, p. 249.

Since the first time I noted this quotation, I finished reading Mrs. Dalloway. No sooner finished than I knew I’d have to read it again. I found an entire scholarly essay about an episode in the novel of which I had no memory, an that got me going. I’ve also watched the film adaptation, and when you remember that “the design is certainly original” you have to wonder how anyone could produce such a banal treatment of it. But then you have to wonder, too, how one could produce an excellent treatment. Is it mandatory to meet the unconventional with the unconventional? Art with art? And who was the intended audience?

Eminence and Immortality

“How far has our set justified its promise? Lytton maintains that in ourselves we are as remarkable as the Johnson set, though our works may perish — still we’re at the beginning of our works.” VW diary, p. 64

It would be interesting to know if Boswell compared his own set to anything preceding it, or if he distinguished between set and Club. And if by set, Strachey meant The Club, then we have to compare Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell to Reynolds, etc, and immortality certainly falls short. A discussion on immortality was the context for the quotation above in September 1920 (recorded in Virginia Woolf’s diary). Lytton was the believer, and Leonard Woolf the skeptic. “It was an amusing talk,” wrote Virginia, and it apparently included comparisons involving Madame de Sevigné and Macaulay.



Quotations from recent reading

“A feeling of depression is on me, as if we were old & near the end of all things.” VW, diary, 2 Aug 1924, p. 307. The rest of the entry makes it clear this was just a mood, but the metaphor captures much of my own mood in the second half of this second decade of the 21st century.


“I foresee, to return to The Hours, that this is going to be the devil of a struggle. The design is so queer & so masterful. I’m always having to wrench my substance to fit it. The design is certainly original, & interests me hugely.” VW, diary, 19 Jun 1923, p. 249.

“…[Ralph Partridge] behaves like a bull in a garden. And with it he is malicious. He is a male bully, as L[eonard] says. I am reminded of the tantrums of Adrian & Clive. There is something maniacal in masculine vanity.” VW, diary, 28 Jul 1922 (and yet, Ralph was called Ralph because Lytton Strachey re-christened him, and Ralph let him do so, and then named his own son Lytton – a son who married VW’s great-neice. But it’s the last sentence that is the quotation here, only it needs context. Oddly, RP doesn’t have his own wiki, only a link redirecting to the entry for Frances – he literally only exists in the stories about the other BG members).


“It is fatal not to write the thing one wants to write at the moment of wanting to write it. Never thwart a natural process.” VW, diary, 2 Oct 1918

In a letter from Lytton Strachey to Leonard Woolf, two very remarkable events are reported: one is Rupert Brooke’s election to the Cambridge Apostles, and the other is the play-reading group that the Stephen siblings and their Cambridge alumni friends have formed:

p. 139 “If only Clive were a little less Clivy, it would be perfect…”

the editor of VW’s early diaries places the first play-reading in December, 1907. Leonard Woolf was in Ceylon at this time.


After deciding to sync up my reading of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, letters, and essays, I’ve finally reached that point – and the last piece of reading to that end was a very long and unusual essay, titled “Reading.” Believed to have been written in 1919, an important year in Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s lives, it was only published some time after her death. It bears re-reading, as it is dense and woven out of both literary criticism and a form of reminiscince or memoir. At times a stream of consciousness bubbles up from beneath the surface, and by the end of it, one feels to have wandered or been led into “Monday or Tuesday” territory. In the beginning of 1920, VW started on the writing of Jacob’s Room. I had started this some time ago but set it aside in order to catch up the essays and other writing. This has turned out to be a profitable course, because everything up to 1920 has been preparation. And there comes a deep influence from Vanessa Bell’s painting, and the artistic side of Bloomsbury, that began with the post-impressionist exhibitions a decade earlier, that VW soaked in or perhaps marinated herself in, until Jacob’s Room began to gestate. For this observation we are indebted to Justyna Kostkowska. I have tried not to spoil my naive readership of each novel, but the temptation is great and the PDFs are so easy to reach (privilege check: I’m an academic librarian not subject to paywalls). This was not possible 20 years ago when I read Nabokov, when I was not a librarian, when JSTOR was only gestating, when I was really and in many ways naive.

Kostkowska, Julia. “Studland Beach and Jacob’s Room: Vannessa Bell’s and Virginia Woolf’s experiments in portrait making 1910-1922.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, 9 (1), 79-93. 2011.

The Lives

Lyndall Gordon writes in the acknowledgements section of her biography of Virginia Woolf, “A new life would be superfluous if, with undue modesty, [Quentin Bell] had not declined to assess her writing.” This is exactly what impelled me to find additional biographical reading, even though Bell’s portrait of his aunt is clearly drawn and satisfying. My reading of Nabokov twenty years ago was supported superbly by Brian Boyd’s critical biography, and I had assumed that there would be two if not three excellent equivalents in the case of Virginia Woolf. But it is not as simple – nothing in Bloomsbury, I now see, is at all simple. However, Nigel Nicolson’s biography is concise, and so far, is eminently readable. He writes from a distance only slightly greater than Bell’s, being the son of VW’s lover and friend Vita Sackville-West. I did expect it to be more of a tome, but it is very small. One little coincidence is worth noting, that Nicolson was the British publisher of Lolita.

Both Quentin Bell and Lyndall Gordon won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for their efforts. A too-quick glance reveals that only Queen Victoria is also the subject of two winning biographies, one of course written by Lytton Strachey. Virginia Woolf’s father Sir Leslie Stephen is also the subject of an award-winning life on the list. Other VW-connected prize winners are G.M. Trevelyan, Lord David Cecil, Geoffrey Keynes, and H.A.L. Fisher. Before this expedition, I wouldn’t have noticed them as a set, and while E.M. Forster would have stood out among the fiction prizewinners, Bunny Garnett would not. And speaking of the latter, there is a letter VW wrote in 1915 to Duncan Grant, shortly after she recovered from a serious bout of illness, that introduces him to the name David Garnett. Is there a name for when a reader sees a little seed of fate that the writer could not possibly imagine? It’s not serendipity – some form of irony? And then there is the panopticon that one wishes to create out of all their letters and memoirs.

Post script: I couldn’t resist adding The Bloomsbury Group by Frances Spalding to the mix. This is the danger of working in a well-stocked university library. I’m saving her work on Duncan Grant for some future time. His art, and that of Vanessa Bell, have begun to draw me in to what is, but should not be, the less visible legacy of Bloomsbury.

Right brain, left brain: Duncan Grant and Maynard Keynes in 1913.


Categorizing Woolf (Leonard Woolf, that is)

That categorizing should even exist in a hypertext, online encyclopedia is worthy of more study (this proposition will make a lit review of wikipedia and knowledge organization inevitable, of course).

When added to the articles on individuals, the Wikipedia categories, found at the very bottom of the foot of the page, begin to act as tokens of culturally constructed classification that may or may not be warranted by the life or personality of the person in question. Even more, they may not be warranted by the way most people hope to find new information. Some of them may even be said to be marks of ownership. Below are the categories to which Leonard Woolf’s article has been assigned by (presumably) various wikipedians. It is interesting that not only is “Bloomsbury Group” a category, so is “Virginia Woolf.” These are categories that both arise from the subects themselves, and provide more insight into their place in culture and history, if applied well to all relevant articles. But there there are things like birth year and death year, categories so large that the discovery of meaningful connections is not the point – making the list, I think, must be the point. And I really don’t know what to make of the Sri Lankan categories, and I am too tired and timid at the moment to peek into the talk pages.  [Note – I have since learned enough to guess that LW made a good impression as a colonial officer, and is being honored by this inclusion].

Categories that could be applied, if they exist, would include British / English / Jewish printers, British / English / Jewish publishers, Cambridge Apostles, Members of the 1917 Club, People Who Lived in Sussex, People Who Lived in London, and so on. This line of thought highlights the category of Jewish Socialists, with its disturbing suggestion of a lurking anti-semitism, and indeed, if other categories of socialist are left out (Fabians notwithstanding), it seems to me to give the list an accidental and unnecessary anti-semitic tinge. I suspect as well that members of some groups and clubs get lists in Wikipedia, which is where you’d put Apostles and the 1917 Club, while a less formal movement like the BG becomes a category. Just to experiment with a potential career as a categorizer, I have since added “English publishers (people).” It seemed too big an omission to leave unfilled. And where does it stop? If Virginia Woolf is herself a category, why not the Hogarth Press? It feels like a struggle to define correctly more than to inform, to insist that Leonard Woolf means this as well as that, and to continue the work of biography that belongs properly to the (hyper)text of the article per se.

Categories (as of April 2, 2017):
1880 births
1969 deaths
Bloomsbury Group
English Jews
English memoirists
English writers
Stephen-Bell family
British Jewish writers
People educated at St Paul’s School, London
Alumni of Trinity College, Cambridge
Members of the Fabian Society
British Jews
Jewish socialists
British civil servants in Ceylon
Sri Lankan Jews
Sri Lankan people of English descent
20th-century English novelists
Virginia Woolf

Postscript: I have since found a quotation from Edmund Gosse, cited in Anne Olivier Bell’s introduction to VW’s diairies (Bell is overdue for a wikipedia article of her own, category: English centegenarian art historians and editors). Gosse categorizes Leonard Woolf in 1924 from a very non-neutral point of view: “…a perverse, partially educated alien German, who has thrown in his lot violently with Bolshevism and Mr. Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’…” It is quoted to indicate the difficulty that VW’s father’s literary friends had with the new, post-impressionist world being built up by her and her circle. Post-impressionist, oddly, was never picked up (beyond art) to cover Bloomsbury and other movements. Indeed, Bloomsbury could be meant to signify the combination of letters and art that was modernist on paper and post-impressionist on canvas, with cross-pollination, as VW’s recorded thoughts on Cézanne’s influence testify.