Virginia Woolf: A Biography
Lytton Strachey: The Really Interesting Question and Other Papers
Bloomsbury is, just now, like one of those ponds on a private estate from which all of the trout have been scooped out for the season. It is not a natural place for fish, but rather a water stocked for the fisherman so that he may not cast his line in vain. It is a sort of catered pastoral, and lively, thoroughbred trout rise to the fly with a special leaping grace and style. But it wearies as an idea, a design, a gathering, and one would like to have each speckled specimen alone, singular. The period, the letters, the houses, the love affairs, the blood lines: these are private anecdotes one is happy enough to meet once or twice but not again and again.
Certain peripheral names vex the spirits. To see the word “Ottoline” on a page, in a letter, gives me the sense of continual defeat, as if I had gone to a party and found an enemy attending the bar. We, foreigners, will never take her in, although it seems we must. She is everywhere, but what is to be made of her? She engages them, Englishmen, endlessly and the rest of us not at all. Her invitations, her gifts, her houses, her costumes—the best minds of a generation (or two) rocked back and forth, pro and con, up and down over the quality and meaning of these. For years I thought Garsington, Lady Ottoline’s house, was a town name, a resort clever people were always going to or making a point of not going to. Hedonism is only a habit and the brightness of its practices fades with the dawn.
“What a fool Clive Bell is!” Lawrence says in one of his letters. Is that true, just? The one certain thing is that he is Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law, husband of Vanessa, father of Quentin—and we are off again, engrossed in the study of Derby winners that came out of Man O’War.
The worst thing before the present exhaustion of Virginia Woolf was the draining of Lytton Strachey. This is a very overblown affair, right down to his friend Carrington, who committed suicide forty years ago—an unreclaimable figure, fluid, arrested, charming, very much a girl of the period, with the typical Bloomsbury orderly profligacy and passionate coldness. Her marriage and her love affairs are held in the mind for a day or so after hard study, but they soon drift away to the Carrington haunt. Ralph Partridge, yes: he turns up again at the Hogarth Press.
In a recent New Statesman, there was a moving and to me instructive portrait by V. S. Pritchett of the painter Mark Gertler, another Bloomsbury figure and another Bloomsbury current biography. Gertler grips your feelings immediately because of the sufferings he has passed and because of their roots in the fatalities and miseries of social history, for his link with the universal, for a drama in which the world plays a part. In him are absent all the proprieties of education, circumstance, and style that marked the Bloomsbury friendships. Gertler was Jewish, poor, contracted tuberculosis from the London slums; his marriage failed, his children suffered illnesses; he was eccentric, melancholy, one of those persons who will, no matter what successes briefly touch them, know lingering failure. “Nazism and anti-Semitism in Germany were the last straw” and he committed suicide.
Idly, even wistfully, pursuing the beaded cross references of this study, I looked him up in the index of Carrington. And there indeed lay the bones of the tormented man: “Gertler, Mark:…C. has sexual relations with, 50-51, 53, 68-69; C.’s break with, 63-67….”
Back to the far too well known Lytton Strachey. The latest issuance holds out some hope of a pause with its advice that “the most important of Lytton Strachey’s literary remains are now in print.” But the sentence before mentioned “the mammoth exception of his correspondence.” Surely that can wait for our children, who can then gather their brows once more over Ottoline, Ham Spray, Ralph, Pippa. The present book, Lytton Strachey: The Really Interesting Question and Other Papers, is an indiscretion. For some reason when I first glanced at the book I had the notion that “the really interesting question” had to do with conscription in the First World War. No: it is instead a printing of one of L. S.’s papers for the meetings of the Apostles group at Cambridge in 1911.
The really interesting question concerns me—the particular me—and Alexis—the particular (but not too particular) Alexis. It concerns the particular kiss I gave him on a particular day, in the sun, with the hollyhocks all round, and the lawn, and some confused people out of sight in the distance—don’t you see it all? Oh, but it is just the all that you don’t see.
Alexis, whom one and perhaps Strachey himself had thought of as a golden-haired youth, is soon admitted to be dull, ugly, nearly bald, and this bit of a reversal, this reality, is the only “interesting” sentence or two in a badly written, embarrassing retrieval, since that is what these last papers seem to be.
And what do we have in the end from the small score of personal anecdote relentlessly repeated? I am struck—in the memorials and essays by writers who were young and yet present when Virginia Woolf was alive—by the sameness of tone, the valuable little core of things each one held close. Still this was it, the reality—and anything further or different would be a straining for novelty and perhaps, for the English, an irreverence, a violation of a genius and character altogether rare, high, and tortured.
Something is wrong. For myself I could never have imagined especially wishing to read Leonard Woolf’s autobiography except for the accounts of Virginia Woolf’s breakdowns and suicide—and these fall very short of what I might in a low moment have liked to have. There are many biographies, from all countries, like that of Leonard Woolf. He was a good man; he worked hard in a number of colorful settings; he knew many interesting people; he engaged in creditable actions and held decent opinions with tenacity. No matter, in the end the suicide letter was worth it all, although one would never have wanted to think this when the books were freshly coming out.
Then the force of Bloomsbury and “brightest things that are theirs” claimed the mind. The wood smoke, a life still courteous and unconventional, people handsome and malicious and serious and never boring—and as all of this swells and inflates there is reason for gratitude and pride in it. It is an English matter. Americans cannot quite get it straight except for the grand, isolated singularities like Virginia Woolf, fortunately a feminist, and E. M. Forster, fortunately the author of an international novel. Bertrand Russell cannot be brought under the umbrella of Bloomsbury, nor can Maynard Keynes except in his homosexual youth. What is popular about Bloomsbury at the moment is its gay liberation, its serious high camp.
The sex life was truly alive. No Brook Farm or Brahmins or Concord Transcendentalists or Midwest alcoholics to deface the pursuit of pleasure, to stumble in the following of where she would go. True, Bloomsbury lacks the demonic. Think of all the years we waited for Forster’s Maurice, a very interesting novel perfectly suited to publication at any time. It was what we might have known it would be: the suspense came from the withholding, the retention, as it were:
The “swapping” is interesting. This practice one had thought confined to certain earnest Americans in the smaller, more tedious cities, to those wives and husbands who had read sex manuals and radically wanted more of life even if it had to be, like pizza, brought in from around the corner—all of this was accomplished by Bloomsbury in the lightest, most spontaneous and good-natured manner. Vanessa Bell is a heroine. She is beautiful, interesting, free. She falls in love and lives with her husband, Clive Bell, and at other times with their friends, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant. Want of industry leaves the affairs without perfect clarity in my mind, but the drift of experience is striking.
Jealousy and possessiveness seem, from the books we have, not so much held in check as somehow never achieving vigorous birth in Bloomsbury. Even Bertrand Russell astonishes with his passionless copulations, his mastery of forgetfulness, his sliding in and out of relationships and marriages as if they were a pair of trousers. When Virginia Woolf “fell in love” it was not with some soft-eyed, sighing, brilliant feminist met in the British Museum, but with Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson’s wife, a woman “suitable” and civilized in the highest degree.
The two transcendent loyalties and fidelities were both angular and chaste. They are impressive and in many ways more of a glory to the ideal of personal relations than the other freely shifting associations. Carrington’s love for Lytton Strachey, her sharing of his life for seventeen years, is a rare instance of a complicated need for a love between man and woman, without sex—a love that miraculously found its object. Carrington’s devotion was so great that when Strachey died of cancer her own life seemed empty and not worth living and she committed suicide.
Leonard Woolf’s endurance of Virginia’s famous frigidity is, we must suppose after the fact, altogether to his credit. Their honeymoon did not bring the amelioration they had hoped for and it is incredibly innocent and moving to think of them discussing it with Vanessa. They wanted to know when she had first had an orgasm. She said she couldn’t remember but she knew she had been “sympathetic” from the age of two. Vita Sackville-West said about Virginia, “She dislikes the possessiveness and love of domination in men. In fact she dislikes the quality of masculinity.”
The arrangements of Bloomsbury, shored up by stout logs of self-regard, are insular in the extreme. One of the advantages of remaining on the upper deck is that the possibilities of jealousy, whining, threats, blackmail, outrage are comfortably diminished. And boredom and effort also. But the need for experience, for danger, for hurt, for life, actually for sex itself as a dramatic and mysterious engagement, is found in the homosexuals. Unfortunately those baffled youths, caught in the unique spidery embraces of Lytton Strachey, do not write letters or diaries—if they did it would likely be with criminal intention. (This sort of letter is perfectly composed by Forster in Maurice: “I waited both nights in the boathouse. I said the boathouse as the ladder is taken away and the woods is to damp to lie down….”) In the long run the boys have a deformed kind of style; virility is itself an aesthetic value.
Style matters. In Virginia Woolf’s novels most of the characters are complicated men and women, creatures of intricate feeling, and they are seen more or less on their own terms, from the inside, profoundly, since this, the inside, was the thing she valued. However, she does occasionally insert a repellent person. In Mrs. Dalloway it is the envying, oppressive Miss Kilman, a shadow from the half-educated, unattractive, resentful underclasses. She is the object of the author’s insolent loathing. Miss Kilman is not evil, she is merely unappetizing. Her social and personal defects are confronted in a peculiarly exasperated mood, without pity or inhibition or the veiling of a mitigating causality. She is externalized, politicized by her exclusion. Characters of this sort are hated for their self-pity and for their yearning ignorance. They are people who know a little and may want to know much. Yet they cannot learn deeply; some lacks of birth or temperament prevent it.