Freshwater: A Comedy
The Letters of Virginia Woolf Volume I: 1888-1912
Virginia Woolf and Her World
Good conversation can last, preserved in the shorthand of Boswell or Haydon: good talk is another matter. There is a story about Desmond MacCarthy, reputed to be the best talker of Bloomsbury; competed for by every hostess, intellectual or merely socially grand; and guaranteed to enchant under any circumstances. One day someone had the brilliant idea of recording him—a most unusual procedure in days so long before Watergate—unawares and in full flow. The result, it appears, was not so much disappointing as nonexistent. Everyone present agreed that Desmond had been even more scintillating than usual, but the tape (or more presumptively, at that date, the vulcanite) produced nothing but unmeaning and discontinuous geniality, a transcript of animation that had escaped into the air.
The spirit of Bloomsbury vanishes in the same way. Most of the fascination it continues to exercise is in the mass of artifacts—photographs, pictures, letters—remaining unevaporated, surviving, in Ariosto’s limbo of lost things, the curtain which has come down, even in the lifetime of many who remember it all so well. In his biography of Virginia Woolf, Quentin Bell gives the impression less of a historian than of a superannuated but still agile curator in an overcrowded museum, busily engaged in cataloguing every possible object, down to the chamber pots used by Vanessa and Virginia when they traveled down by the Great Western Railway to St. Ives for happy childhood holidays.
The gaieties at Charleston Farm, Tavistock, or Mecklenburgh Square are not yet enshrined in time like those at Coleridge’s cottage in Nether Stowey, or in Mrs. Thrale’s drawing room. Perhaps, if the Desmond MacCarthy story is anything to go by, they never can be. It was in their nature, and that of their age, to exist in and for the moment, which leads only to the endless detritus of memoir, gossip, and recollection: they have not been changed into their eternal selves by the simplicity and tranquillity of art. That is indeed the point, for even in Virginia Woolf’s novels it is not they which survive. What lives on there is something different—an undertone, a sense of consciousness caught in colors, textures, food, imprisoned in apparently febrile contingency, glittering in life because underwritten by death. Paradoxically, her sense of the passing moment, her success in eternalizing it, destroys by its own success the actuality of a vanished existence. Bloomsbury has disappeared because she wrote about it. She waved her wand, and its voices and tea and buttered toast vanished: it is Cinderella in reverse; on the stroke of midnight the glass coach was all there was left.
Her own personal equivalent of the Desmond MacCarthy tape is a charade play called Freshwater, written in 1923 and revised for a performance in her sister’s London studio in 1935. Desmond MacCarthy was asked to stage-manage, and the cast included Leonard Woolf, Adrian Stephen and Duncan Grant, and the Bell children. It was the eighteenth birthday of Angelica, Virginia …