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’s niece, to whom she was much attached, and who played the part of the young Ellen Terry, married to Watts the painter, in a “hilarious farce” located in the Isle of Wight. All was done in “an atmosphere of noise and levity,” as Professor Ruotolo, who has done a good job on the editing, remarks, “in which Clive Bell’s booming voice and laughter in particular were heard throughout the performance.”

They are heard no longer, which is a pity, for the play certainly needs them, as it needs the party afterward in Duncan Grant’s studio—“an unbuttoned laughing evening.” Without these things it seems an embarrassingly overdone attempt at wit and humor, not in any case Virginia Woolf’s strong suit. We hear a great deal about her sense of fun; how she would build up fantasies about those she met and saw briefly; bemusing a waitress, who told her there was Castle Pudding to follow, with an elaborate verbal construction of this masterpiece, rising, like the pudding in A Room of One’s Own, “all sugar from the waves.”

Alas, these things have ceased to charm, if ever they did. Here one takes one’s great aunt, the great Victorian photographer Julia Cameron, the painter Watts and his young wife Ellen Terry, a dashing young naval officer, and a ponderously comical Tennyson; one mixes them with comic business, much facetious quotation from Maud and Matthew Arnold, and a few dashingly risqué touches. (“Life is a dream!” “Rather a wet one, Charles.”) No doubt there was a lot of instant merriment, for the Victorians were still being sent up—Lytton Strachey had shown the way years before—but now, in cold print, it will not do. A great writer is left with no privacies, and of course there is clinical interest in preserving this little charade, but what is left of soul I wonder? The effortful hilarity is even rather sinister, for the garbled quotation reminds us of madness, of the birds talking Greek, of the manic excitement which made Virginia Woolf in her madness talk incessantly for days at a time, “at first partially coherently, and then incoherently, a mere jumble of dissociated words.”


True humor is sanity itself, indeed a kind of exaggeration of sanity. One service which the publication of Freshwater does the reader is to show how art in Virginia Woolf can achieve this kind of humor, as in the transformation of her family in To the Lighthouse—and yet how inimical to her art was Bloomsburian gaiety—“we all talk at once and make such brilliant jokes as never was seen”—however much she may have thrown herself into it. Orlando, “the holiday escapade,” was, she tells us, the result of “wanting fun, wanting fantasy.” The result is a painful artificiality which reveals how different is the depth and naturalness in her masterpieces, even in her first and in some ways never surpassed novel The Voyage Out, when the striven-for settles out into the assured, the timeless, and the achieved. Freshwater is on a much less satisfactory level of send-up even than Orlando, and has the same coy breathlessness of time and place which mark that “escapade,” as she called it, with its flattery of the spoilt posturing of Vita Sackville-West. The writing in both is almost deliberately arch, as if Virginia Woolf was both pleasuring herself with the sense of an in-joke, and sending it up, with the kind of malign detachment that lived somewhere at the back of her need to be made much of by the Group, and share in their self-approving gaiety.

She knew—none better—what form bad writing took, for herself as for others. In The Common Reader she lays a deadly finger on Robert Louis Stevenson’s weakness, by referring to his “dapper little adjectives.” Escapades like Orlando and Freshwater draw the same kind of attention to the weakness of her own style, as though it was parodying itself. And she could not do this in a relaxed way, could not laugh at herself as those despised Victorians, Tennyson and Swinburne, could do: behind the gaiety is something like self-hatred, the frenzy of despair that was never far away, and that could only be allayed by submersion in her true art, the art described by her beloved Roger Fry when speaking of the post-Impressionists: “These artists do not seek to give what can, after all, be but a pale reflex of actual appearance, but to arouse the conviction of a new and definite reality. They do not seek to imitate form but to create form, not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for life.” In the escapades Virginia Woolf seeks in a self-damaging way to imitate and to identify with the self-congratulations of Bloomsbury; in her great novels she finds “a new and definite reality.”

But one does not want to be too priggish about Freshwater. It has interest. Though the “fun” has evaporated, together with the family jokes, there remain some curiosities, even beauties, and students of significant misquotation will be intrigued by the opening lines of Maud, as given in one of the two versions. Great Aunt Julia Cameron, who arranged that she and her husband should take coffins with them to India, just in case, observes to Tennyson:

Think, Alfred. When we lie dead under the Southern Cross my head will be pillowed by your immortal poem In Memoriam. Maud will lie upon my heart…. The silence is only broken by the sobs of my husband and the occasional howl of a solitary tiger. And then what is this—what infamy do I perceive? An ant, Alfred, a white ant. They are advancing in hordes from the jungle. Alfred, they are devouring Maud!

Tennyson: God bless my soul…. But what an awful fate! What a hideous prospect! Here are my two honoured old friends, setting sail, in less than three hours, for an unknown land where, whatever else may happen, they can never by any possible chance hear me read Maud again. But what is the time? We still have two hours and twenty-three minutes. I have read it in less. Let us begin….

I hate the dreadful hollow beneath the little wood,
Its lips in the field above are dab- bled with blood-red heath,
The red-ribb’d ledges drip with a silent horror of blood,
And Echo there, whatever is ask’d her, answers “Death.”

For there in the ghastly pit long since a body was found,
His who had given me life—O father!—O God!…

Mrs. Cameron: That’s the very attitude I want! Sit still, Alfred. Don’t blink your eyes. Charles, you’re sitting on my lens….

As the editor points out, the two texts are impossible to date exactly and are both in the rough, presumably intended simply as acting copies. The joke on Tennyson and Mrs. Cameron, as on Watts, is innocent enough; but what is more remarkable is the repetition of that powerful and disturbing opening passage of Maud, with its uncompromising—even if unconscious—image of menstruation and the vagina, an image Virginia Woolf made all the more uncompromising by substituting her own adverb (Tennyson wrote “behind the little wood”).


It is just the kind of concealed innuendo that Strachey would have made, and encouraged her to make, when he was the doyen of Bloomsburian knowingness. She too, encouraged by him, acquired an almost hysterical zest for the sexual and scatological giggle, which sounds more like children on the stair than adults in the drawing room. Is this what Professor Ruotolo means by “her gift for comedy—a facet of her personality familiar to intimates but seldom revealed in her writing”? Comedy requires restraint, as well as sanity, and her imagination had an accelerator but no brake, as Quentin Bell remarked. But that is her social imagination, as Bloomsbury saw it: the solitary imagination of her real writing never spins out of control.

Nor would it reveal—how involuntarily?—a kind of ugliness behind the archness, a wrinkling up the nose at sex merging into the equivocal feelings about her father, who, as she later put it, had to die before she could really begin to write. Here is perhaps the clue and the sign of her peculiar uniqueness as a writer: she had to get clear of everything in order to become one, and now posterity insists on pushing her back into the matrix and joining her works on to it. Many, indeed most, great writers increase in stature from this process; everything we know of Chekhov, say, as of D.H. Lawrence or Yeats, can be added on to them—their works are all the richer for the sum of themselves. Of her this is not the case. Difficult not to feel that the industry of memoir, biography, letters, and fragments, which is now gathering momentum, not only obscures the image of her best work, but appeals primarily to those who are not in any case concerned with it.

When we first read The Voyage Out, To the Lighthouse, or The Waves, which should be before the age of twenty-five or so, we are not conscious of a complete personality at work in them or behind them, just as we are not when we read Shelley for the first time. They belong to the world of poetry rather than prose, and Rachel Vinrace, the heroine of The Voyage Out, has much of the purely visionary quality of Alastor, or of the heroine of Philip Larkin’s extended prose-poem, A Girl in Winter. She does in fact have all the stuff of the novel about her, what Edith Wharton called the fringes we trail round with us through life, and yet she appears not to have: she inhabits an Elsewhere, the world where the waves are ceaselessly breaking like glass on the rocks below the lighthouse; where Mrs. Dalloway draws her needle through the green silk, and Rhoda rocks the petals in her basin.

Virginia Woolf herself did not of course live there, though the image of it and the struggle to realize the vision in her books was her greatest protection against madness. It was an unceasing struggle, which condemned her, as she wrote in her diary, “to dance on hot bricks till I die,” and left nothing over for the natural world. The mysterious thing about her madness, as John Lehmann suggests in his excellent short study, is the kind of objective sanity, drained of her unique sort of inspiration, which followed an attack. No sooner had she got over her worst spell, after her marriage in 1912. than she took up work on her second novel, Night and Day, which is, as John Lehmann says, “not only sane but almost boringly so.” It is in fact what Leonard Woolf called one of her “dead” books, in which everything that is historically determined, commonplace, and not very prepossessing about her emerges, as it does in her letters, her social “comedy,” sometimes in her diary. She was, one imagines, fully conscious of the fact, and it is possible to wonder whether her suicide was triggered not so much by fear of madness as of the permanent sanity which might that time succeed it, and which might condemn her to a perpetual sort of ordinariness. The world of her vision cannot be seen by her from the outside—it is wholly subjective. When she actually tried to describe madness as she knew it, in the character Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway, the result was remarkably unconvincing.

Short as it is, John Lehmann’s text is brilliant, as expertly intimate as her nephew Quentin Bell’s vast biography, and with a more critical edge: there are some interesting analyses and judgments, particularly on The Years and Between the Acts. It may seem blue-nosed to reiterate it, for they have obvious interest, but the innumerable photographs, of Bloomsburies and busts, of paintings and portraits, seem now wholly familiar, tedious, déjà vu, as secondhand as much of Mr. Lehmann’s prose is fresh and intriguing.

The first volume of her letters, admirably put together and annotated as it is, affords an equally multitudinous equivalent, in words, of those photographic memorials. The trouble is partly, of course, that Quentin Bell has pillaged them for so much of the detail of his own work, and yet, more than that, their lowering effect—when perused in the mass—is again connected with a sense of their disattachment from Virginia Woolf’s genius. They are a social rather than a personal document. The genius of Keats or of D.H. Lawrence simply and naturally overflows, at every age and in any context of their lives, into letters. Hers are careful, chétif, often malign, attempting to hone words with the deliberation of a dedicated apprentice, and missing the mark surprisingly often, proffering a phrase, a summing-up, a ramified epigram which has not quite come off. Teaching a milkman at Morley College is like “floating your brains in cold mist.” “I sat for an hour (perhaps it was ten minutes) on a rock this afternoon, and considered how I should describe the colour of the Atlantic.”

She seems to strive, in the letters, to practice her prose, and the result is often anxious and narcissistic. She wrote them obsessively, but not, one feels, to communicate. To her sister Vanessa and to Violet Dickinson, who was very much a mother figure to her, she wrote all the time, but without anything that sounds like intimacy: even her baby language has something conscientiously experimental in its tone.

But here again the tone is one of an upper-class young girl of the period; the part of her that resembled everyone else; gossiping with calculated degrees of spite, giggling over the uncouth behavior of the lower classes. Just occasionally we get something of the incisive shrewdness which will distinguish The Common Reader, as in her comments to her brother-in-law Clive Bell on Lytton Strachey’s verses. She says they are “exquisite,” and reading them “a pretty occupation for a virgin on the Sabbath!”

But (you will expect that but, and relish it) there is something of ingenuity that prevents me from approving as warmly as I should; do you know what I mean when I talk of his verbal felicities, which somehow evade, when a true poet, I think, would have committed himself? “Enormous mouth,” “unimaginable repose,” “mysterious ease,” “incomparably dim”; when I come on these I hesitate, I roll them upon my tongue, I do not feel that I am breasting fresh streams…. I sometimes think that Lytton’s mind is too pliant and supple ever to make anything lasting.

It is curiously typical of Virginia Woolf that what should be the most dramatic and moving episode in the narrative of the letters remains blurred, dully enigmatic. In 1906 her brother Thoby died of typhoid, contracted in Greece. Her sister Vanessa and Violet Dickinson, who had been on the same expedition, also fell ill but recovered. After her brother had died Virginia continued to write every day to Violet on her sick bed, pretending Thoby was still alive and giving numerous details of what he was eating, reading, and saying. This she kept up for a month, until her friend was well on the road to recovery.

This was in its way a heroic action, but it was something more: it reveals the deep reserve into which she withdrew in moments of real crisis and misery, and from which her art itself cannot emerge or speak out. There seems no doubt that she was permanently affected by her brother’s death, but the act of pretense that he still lived seems to have been a way of burying the shock, of using words as concealment rather than as revelation. Her stoicism went very deep, its strength not only that of her class and upbringing but of her own sense of herself and her isolation. She has no pity for herself, or for her readers, and this, ultimately, is perhaps the most exhilarating aspect of her art. But it is less cheerful when we are only looking into her life, or reading what she wrote about it.

This Issue

July 15, 1976