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.
Miss Kilman is poor, but she has her degree. The war has displaced her as a teacher and she is hanging on by her fingernails to a low-burning encounter with religion. Even this has not come to her with a flush of glory, but rather like a dispiriting brush with a flu germ. The awful woman eats too much; she embarrasses us with her greed for the last pink tea cake. Her green mackintosh is disgusting; “she perspires.”
Remember Leonard Bast in Forster’s Howard’s End: the same heartless, ill-mannered candor on the part of the author.
He knew that he was poor, and would admit it: he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich…. But he was inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it. He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable.
The thing that is unforgivable to the authors is the way the characters reach, in the manner of a car crashing into a wall, a cultural impasse, a stopping. They cannot understand art; they cannot discriminate. They never get it right. “But of a heritage that may expand gradually, he had no conception; he hoped to come to Culture suddenly, much as the Revivalist hopes to come to Jesus.”
Henry James’s seriously disturbing story “In the Cage” is a work written entirely out of a drastic condescension on the part of the author—and it is this, the wonder how far, how painfully he will push on, that holds us to these fascinating pages. Any triumph in this kind of writing is abstract; it is the author’s mimicry of the wretched persons’ handicaps. It is not satire. You cannot satirize an idiot; you can only do that if the idiot has, for instance, achieved the post of judge or come into a fortune. In Mrs. Dalloway the other loathed character is seen satirically because he is the proper object for the satiric mode. He is (son of a shopkeeper—and inevitably so, we must add) Sir William Bradshaw, an appallingly vulgar and shallow psychiatrist, carrying about with him his load of satiric character props, the main one being a pert lecture on “proportion” which he likes to deliver to madmen standing on the ledge of suicide.
In the James story the girl in the cage is a little telegraph operator. During the summer season the most stimulating messages are pushed under the wire for her to send off. Nicknames, codes, engagements made, engagements broken, the prodigality of “the ‘much love’s and the ‘awful’ regrets”; she, through their telegrams, inserts herself into their “struggles and secrets and love affairs and lies….” Characters like the girl in the cage and Miss Kilman swing back and forth between a cow-eyed servility and the flames of a spasmodic, disastrous pride. And as if one character were not enough, James has in his story dialogues and confrontations between two, the other being a foolish widow who has struck up a kind of business looking after the flowers in the houses of the rich. The widow’s folly is in imagining that the iron and stone of social barriers are really “the thinnest of partitions.”
The girl in the cage and the widow of the flowers compete with each other in carefully tense and trembling dialogues:
“Well, I see every one at my place.”
“Lots of swells. They flock. They live, you know, all round, and the place is filled with all the smart people, all the fast people, those whose names are in the papers….”
Mrs. Jordan took this in with complete intelligence. “Yes, and I dare say it’s some of your people that I do.”
Her companion assented, but discriminated. “I doubt if you ‘do’ them as much as I! Their affairs, their appointments and arrangements, their little games and secrets and vices—those things all pass before me.”
“…Their vices? Have they got vices?”
Our young critic even more overtly stared; “…Haven’t you found that out?” The homes of luxury then hadn’t so much to give. “I find out everything.”
Mrs. Jordan, at bottom a very meek person, was visibly struck. “I see. You do ‘have’ them.”
There is something unscrupulous and sadistic in this rendering. One is not prepared to accept simply as writing that Mrs. Dalloway’s disgust with Miss Kilman (perfectly convincing and novelistically suitable) should be so completely shared by Virginia Woolf. We don’t know from whose point of view the telegraph operator and the flower-watcher are being so carefully exposed unless it is from that of the author. And who tells us that Leonard Bast cannot be as lovable as a rich man? These passages are strange, raw insertions, like uncontrollable bits of opinion coming from outside the fiction.
The reader does not necessarily go along with the author. It is recognized more or less unconsciously as the pages go by that we don’t take it all in the way it is meant. Miss Kilman is a mess; but Virginia Woolf is “awful” to write “she perspires.” It doesn’t matter to us that she hates a woman like Miss Kilman; we’d rather not be told. Mrs. Dalloway, the character, is another matter; one of her limitations is lack of curiosity and another is a charming, almost hysterical attachment to surfaces. There are ways in which it is bad taste for authors to come down so heavily on the lacks of the luckless and deprived, to tell off these penniless souls as if they were Veneerings or Verdurins.
I wonder about the “morality” of certain marks of punctuation used by James in “In the Cage.” When characters are seen from the outside, viewed solely in the glinting suspicions of a sensibility utterly foreign to their own, style tells us the author’s prejudices and impatience, his hatreds, his limitations of feeling. He makes as many mistakes as his characters, shows a certain coarseness of perception, or a degree of meanness, or an inclination to self-love. The telegraph girl is allowed only the swiftest, lightest taps of personal identification. It is all down, down, the very bottom—sister, mother, all of them. In the midst of her upward longings, her rising misconnections, the girl pauses unexpectedly, in a clause, at the end of the most externally conceived, impudent Jamesian depiction of her—she pauses and “made up even for the most haunting of her worries, the rage at moments of not knowing how her mother did ‘get it.’ ”
“Get it” is alcohol, gin probably. The down, down mother (“never rebounded any more at the bottom than on the way down”) drinks. The shadow that falls across the brisk superficialities of the girl is one of real misery, torment, hopelessness. It must be so; it cannot be otherwise, even though nothing is made of it. We add the misery from our own experience or imagination to the reduced brief obliquities by which we were informed in the first place. To put “get it” in quotations is a moral failing; it pretends it is a mere colloquialism identified, or asks that we in our minds put some peculiar stress on it that will equal the accentual patterns in the author’s mind, or wants to indicate an affectation on the girl’s part—any of those things the mimicry of quotation marks may suggest. But this is wrong. “Get it” in this case is not on the level of Mrs. Jordan’s “have” quoted above. Even a second of an impoverished mother’s pursuit of gin cannot be put on the page in that way. It accomplishes only a stylistic diminishment of the possibility of pain, of real feeling.
Quentin Bell’s Virginia Woolf is a bit much for those of us who have been through Lytton Strachey, Carrington, and Leonard Woolf—just yesterday it seemed. But that is not Bell’s fault; it is a mere contingency. He tells it all gracefully, having, one imagines, struggled hard to find his way between piety and indiscretion. Some have felt that Bell avoids unfairly the close examination of her work that we might expect from a biographer of a novelist. Yet how is that work to be written about? Exegesis about Virginia Woolf is a trap; the fictions are circular and the critic spins in a drum of tautology.
The novels are beautiful; the language is rich and pure, and you are always, with her, aware of genius, of gifts extraordinary and original. Our emotions are moved, at least some of our emotions are moved, often powerfully. And yet in a sense her novels aren’t interesting. This is the paradox of her work, part of the risk of setting a goal in fiction, of having an idea about it, an abstract idea. Part of the risk also of the bravest and most daring insistence that she would make something new. It is common to speak of her novels as “poetic,” and they are like poetry in their use of language, and also they have that quality so often found in “poetic” prose—that sense of being all chorus, beautiful, urgent, composed rhythmically, stressing theme in an image. All chorus and no plot, that is the danger of her wish, her vision. Part of her freedom, her arrogance was to do just this. She refuses the practical, the complete, doesn’t believe in them. And what can we do except accept that choice?
What is the point of hinting that she might better have a little more of Arnold Bennett than she does? And what is the point of paraphrasing The Waves, of trying for your own circles of ebb and flow to compete with hers? I was immensely moved by this novel when I read it recently and yet I cannot think of anything to say about it except that it is wonderful. The people are not characters, there is no plot in the usual sense. What can you bring to bear: verisimilitude—to what? You can merely say over and over that it is very good, very beautiful, that when you were reading it you were happy.
One of the things that make To the Lighthouse interesting for the reader who is also a writer is that, in this case, one can bring things in from the outside. If Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are in some way Virginia Woolf’s mother and father, then you have Leslie Stephen as a character. And upstairs you have his Hours in a Library, Studies of a Biographer, the thin, green George Eliot. These are books I have used, but I have not learned greatly from them. Still when Mr. Ramsay appears in his being as a writer we are watching something real, immensely affecting—the poignancy of a long, hard literary life. “He wanted sympathy. He was a failure, he said. Mrs. Ramsay flashed her needles. Mr. Ramsay repeated, never taking his eyes from her face, that he was a failure.”
Nostalgia is the emotion most deeply felt in Virginia Woolf’s novels. They are family books. Husbands, wives, old lovers, youth, memories, death, the drift of life. “What is this terror? What is this ecstasy?” and “Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!”…The waves broke on the shore. Nostalgia is passive, the books are passive, requiems, unlike any other. Perhaps this is her melancholy.
The movement, the action, the stir of her life were in her writing. The drama was a book finished, another undertaken. Her madness is in the writing at times, too, perhaps in the endless, stretching sense we have of life as a soliloquy.
“Life, how I have dreaded you,” said Rhoda. “Oh, human beings, how I have hated you! How you have nudged, how you have interrupted, how hideous you have looked in Oxford Street, how squalid sitting opposite each other staring in the Tube! Now as I climb this mountain, from the top of which I shall see Africa, my mind is printed with brown-paper parcels and your faces.”
Her husband Leonard Woolf speaks always of the need for rest. Does he mean restraint? Hard to believe such severe derangements subdued by rest. Their life was difficult and if Leonard Woolf sometimes seems too rigid and puritanical and orderly for her, who can doubt that it was for the best? Her achievement in the face of the hideous distractions of madness is miraculous. He suffered extravagantly, also, but she felt a gratitude uncommon in those afflicted in this way. Her suicide was of the heroic kind; she expressed the determination not to drag others through it once more.
The devotion and gratitude are part of a larger, more courteous and loyal time. That is the appeal of Bloomsbury, yes, that and the economy of scholarship. What a relief it is to have a period that has passed into cultural history, but only yesterday, within our lifetime. It is all contemporary and at the same moment also historical. Seize the day. It will not last long. No sooner have we taken in Lytton Strachey’s homosexuality than Eminent Victorians has gathered too much dust.
Virginia Woolf was a feminist. She thought and wrote seriously not only about being a woman but about the large defaults and defects of the world made by men. Some of her friends found her insistencies about all this a little sharp and tedious; Forster called her feminism “old-fashioned” and felt, writing in the Forties, that it was also unnecessary since, “By the 1930s she had much less to complain of, and seems to keep on grumbling from habit.” He goes on from there to the pondering of the ways in which Virginia Woolf was not only a woman but also “a lady.” It is with this aspect of her life, the social one, that the English memorialists are, to use a strange American locution picked up from psychiatry, “most comfortable.” With us, since our country is not rich in persons even fleetingly acquainted with Virginia Woolf or Bloomsbury, the new phrase is “androgynous vision.”*
“Androgyny” is a way of bringing into line the excessive, almost smothering “femininity” of the fiction of a feminist. In the novels there is no work truly understood except that of painting and writing. Men are in politics or law but we see them at a luncheon party and later at an evening party, and both of the settings, the feminine domination of the scene, are remarkable for the way in which the men and their work are absorbed, contained, almost erased by the powers of the domestic and the social. There is no novelist whose surfaces are as beautiful as Virginia Woolf’s. A mist of loveliness covers everything, even sorrow and regret. The birds sing (” ‘How those birds sing!’ said Mrs. Swithin, at a venture”), Big Ben tolls, life is a sort of tragic pageant, the Boeuf en Daube browns in the kitchen. The inner life of feeling, the shifting, never recovered, never completely to be known flow of existence—this was the aim toward which she had directed her genius.
“The complexity of things becomes more close,” said Bernard, “here at college…. Every hour something new is unburied in the great bran pie. What am I? I ask. This? No, I am that. Especially now, when I have left a room, and people talking, and the stone flags ring out with my solitary footsteps, and I behold the moon rising, sublimely, indifferently, over the ancient chapel—then it becomes clear that I am not one and simple, but complex and many.”
The “masculine” knowledge a writer like George Eliot acquired from her youth in Warwickshire is way beyond anything Virginia Woolf could have imagined and thus she could not have created Lydgate and Rosamund, in whom the destructive power of sex and marriage are perfectly and realistically embodied. The aestheticism of Bloomsbury, the “androgyny” if you will, lies at the root of Virginia Woolf’s narrowness. It imprisons her in femininity, as a writer at least, instead of acting as a way of bringing the masculine and feminine into a whole. But, of course, the “prison” of words and feelings, the drift and color of things, the losses, the flow of time—these were seized by her as a goal, a pattern, a belief. She is a theorist of fiction, like Nathalie Sarraute, even if they come out at the far ends of Idea. (Perhaps there is something feminist in this, a way of testing and confronting the very structure of the novel itself.)
There was a great mind working in Virginia Woolf’s novels. Words, images, scenes are always perfectly there in her works, but only a great conception could have made history out of the pageant on the lawn in Between the Acts. This novel and The Waste Land are the most powerful literary images we have of the movement of life and cultures, the dying of the past in the dying of a day, the shift from one order to another in an overheard conversation.
February 8, 1973
Three recent works using this idea and all of special interest on Virginia Woolf: Towards a Recognition of Androgyny by Carolyn G. Heilbrun (Knopf, 224 pp., $6.95); Feminism and Art: A Study of Virginia Woolf by Herbert Marder (University of Chicago Press, 185 pp., $6.50; $1.95 paper); Virginia Woolf and the Androgynous Vision by Nancy Bazin (Rutgers University Press, 272 pp., $9.00). ↩