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.

Woolf on Wednesday

Because I’m reading Virginia Woolf this year. And probably next year.

If I wish to add some cooking and eating to the reading, the Guardian provides plenty of help. (The Manchester Guardian, as Woolf would have written; I have learned that she wrote a number of her earliest articles and essays for a Church of England paper also called the Guardian). There are also suggestions and analyses available in the literature, for example, the following from an article discussing Woolf’s repurposing of Mansfield: “In each of these stories, in a scene whose details reveal how patriarchy secures women’s cooperation in their own disempowerment, female characters devour a tasty roast fowl whose fate symbolizes their own.” (Nardin, Jane. “Poultry for Dinner in Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Prelude’ and Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Shooting Party’.” The Midwest Quarterly, no. 3, 2011, p. 293.)

Some librarians still get to answer wonderful reference questions like “What brand of typewriter did Virginia Woolf use?” Yes, I’m honestly jealous.

Finally, Ursula K. Le Guin, in Steering the Craft, quotes Woolf on “the mystery at the very center of what a writer does,” and also notes that “there is going to be more Virginia Woolf in this book than any other author.”

“Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it…”