Virginia Woolf is acquiring a totally new place in literature. Her fame has always rested on her novels and partly on her essays, which, though they resemble the feathers in a boa beside the achievements of modern literary criticism, can still delight those who have an ear and an eye as well as a mind. She has always been a phenomenon, an event which anyone who regards the novel as a great art form cannot ignore whether or not he dismisses her claim to be as important as she desperately hoped to be.
But now a new fame awaits her. She is emerging as a great literary personage. It may even be that just as we read Boswell more often than we read Johnson, she will seem to future generations more interesting than her own creations because she is her own interpreter. It seems she hardly ever stopped writing: though, as she records in her diary, she really must have done so. For she took country walks, read Sophocles in Greek, attended meetings and parties, kept house, printed on a hand press, and occasionally—as seldom as she could—took up a hem. No work of hers ever appeared without its going through draft after draft. Two of the publications here under review deal with the development of The Years and its evolution from a speech to a women’s society into the six novel-essays entitled “The Pargiters,” and thence to the finished novel which gave her perhaps more agonies of doubt and indecision than any other she wrote. This drive to perfect whatever she wrote was not confined to her novels. It was behind her reviews. Nigel Nicolson tells of a young American scholar at Columbia reading her review of his first book, full of praise yet the only review it had received, on the very day when he read of her suicide—and later receiving from Leonard Woolf not only the manuscript but the six drafts which preceded it.
Then there are still despite the volumes of essays which Leonard Woolf published after her death a further hundred or so from which Mary Lyon has selected fifty pieces of literary and biographical interest. And even this is only part of the story. She spouted letters and for years kept a day-to-day diary. Six volumes of the first will supplement five volumes of the second.
But to twitch this curtain back only reveals other curtains which have now to be pulled aside. For some time, owing to the skillful tactics of the Leavises, Bloomsbury ceased to be a group of people who wrote distinct works. It became an artifact, a shorthand description of a set of values which right-thinking people ought to reject and despise. Bloomsbury was cast in the role of the pantomime Demon King who was out to corrupt the virtue of the dear maid, English culture, and, attired in the clothes of a fop and displaying the manners of a metropolitan snob, minced across the stage, opinionated, shallow, parochial and brittle, to the hisses of the poor but honest audience.
Now Bloomsbury is being revealed for what it really was. In 1967 Michael Holroyd published the first volume of his life of Lytton Strachey. Two years later, on Leonard Woolf’s death, the twenty-seven manuscript volumes of Virginia Woolf’s diaries became available in the New York Public Library, and Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt appeared in 1972. Volumes of biography, autobiography, editions of letters, reprints of works, collections of ephemeral writings—most of them with learned editorial introductions—have been published on the Woolfs, Keynes, Clive Bell, Forster, and Roger Fry; on Lowes Dickinson, Bertrand Russell, David Garnett, Rupert Brooke, Katherine Mansfield, Mark Gertler, Aldous Huxley, Gerald Brenan, Vita Sackville-West, and Julian Bell.
It seems that almost everyone who ever spoke to the denizens of Gordon Square has found an amanuensis. As the critical studies and reminiscences mount, you are seized with panic and exhaustion and go down on your knees begging to be spared yet another account of the Pattle sisters, of Sir Leslie groaning, of the Midnight Society and the Apostles in 1900, and of the familiar anecdotes repeated in every account.
Yet what we are witnessing is the documentation in detail of a kind never before seen in English letters: so that by the time it is completed we shall know more about the members of the Bloomsbury Group than of any other set of people in English literary history. Indeed it may prove to be forever unique. For what comparable group of people today write memoirs to read to each other, keep diaries as they did, write such voluminous and personal letters, and expose the secrets of their lives in such detail? Living in the early days of the telephone and the automobile, Bloomsbury had not lost the habit of writing to one another; as for Leonard Woolf, who possessed the instincts of the Recording Angel himself, he kept meticulous accounts and noted the number of miles he drove, the date he had his hair cut, the number of bushels of apples yielded by each tree in his orchard, the events of every day over fifty years, and the dates of Virginia’s periods because he believed there was evidence to show a correlation between a delay in menstruation and her bouts of manic-depression.
We now know what happened on practically every day of the Woolfs’ lives for over twenty years and the incidents in it can be cross-checked by two or three accounts from other sources. Some purist may object that the sheer volume of Woolf documentation may propel her falsely into the center of the stage whereas in fact the undisputed Queen of Bloomsbury was her sister Vanessa who, not being literary and frequently falling asleep while the other chattered away, has only her paintings to speak for her. Still, who can doubt that it is only a question of time before her achievements and those of Duncan Grant will be catalogued by the art historians? It is true that the Woolfs were far less at the center of the London activities of Bloomsbury than the rest, as owing to Virginia’s illness they had to retire to the country earlier than the others, who later bought primitive country cottages too; and it is also true, as Quentin Bell gently reminds us, that not all of his aunt’s stories or judgments should be accepted as fact or fairminded. Yet probably the most important document in the history of Bloomsbury is Virginia’s diary. Quentin Bell claims that when the five volumes eventually appear, it will be recognized as one of the great diaries of the world.
For a few years at any rate human beings cannot keep a diary; yet those are the years when they experience extraordinarily fierce emotions imprinted forever on their memory. That is why in most autobiographies the chapters devoted to childhood are the freshest and most intense. There is a curious living record of Virginia’s childhood, written in 1895. It was the year her mother died and when she first went mad. This is the book her distraught father wrote to relieve his own anguish and self-torture that he had not loved his wife enough and to tell his own children something about their origins. In so doing, he revealed many of his characteristics in old age—his irritability, nervous exhaustion, taciturnity, suspicion, and self-pity. It is a record of his passion for his wife and of his despair, self-lacerating but also unsparing in self-criticism. This Protestant determination by the great agnostic to examine his soul is as honest as it must have been oppressive—because what does a man demand, having confessed, but sympathy, comfort, reassurance? And who had a duty to give it in his eyes but his daughters, who as women he considered were specially fitted for giving him these things? For years Virginia Woolf remained obsessed by her parents and it was only with the writing of To the Lighthouse in which they are immortalized as Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay that she laid their ghosts.
Leslie Stephen’s memoir is a record of many things. It is a salute to his second wife’s beauty. Her family knew the Pre-Raphaelites. Woolner wanted to sculpt her as a girl, Holman Hunt to paint her, each asked her to marry him, and her aunt Julia Cameron did in fact photograph her. (One of these photographs of Julia Jackson at the age of fourteen so struck a television producer recently that he tried to find a young girl who looked exactly like her to take a part in a feature he was producing; found her, and telling her why she got the part, was astonished to be told by Miss Virginia Bell that she was the great-grand-daughter of the girl in Mrs. Cameron’s photograph.) Stephen describes his anguish that he might at any time have been inconsiderate toward her. He rambles on about the lives of cousins and friends, and records the succession of deaths in the family. As the Stephen collaterals were an enormous tribe (Virginia had seven Stephen and sixteen Pattle first cousins), the record of bereavement became so oppressive that the children called his memoir The Mausoleum Book. In a haphazard way he also gives an impression of the Kensington society his children escaped from on his death.
What was Kensington? It was one step down from Mayfair—inhabited by the beau monde—but slightly superior to Bayswater where the Stracheys, who were poorer, lived. The inhabitants of Kensington belonged to the cultivated professional classes. They might well go to concerts at the Albert Hall, certainly knew much of English poetry by heart, and read the quarterlies, but they had never heard of an impressionist painter and accepted the Victorian conventions as if they were credentials of their status in society. As Quentin Bell says of his grandfather, he was a man ready to lead a revolution against God, who was not afraid of political innovations, who knew the coarser passages of Swift and Sterne but who “could no more have quoted them than he could have alluded to a visit to the lavatory.”
Courtesy, civility, politeness, the social graces, and above all the proprieties were the yardstick of Kensington. To Vanessa, most severely oppressed by her old father’s tyranny and obsessions in the years before his death when she kept house for him, all this was anathema: she was a revolutionary in art and in manners, bitterly opposed to the conventions, the dullness, prudery, asphyxiation, and formality of it. Virginia also rapidly discovered the pleasures of laxity—later in life she discovered that she could, without batting an eyelid, retrieve a hairpin she had dropped in her soup, lick it, and reinsert it in the ruin which claimed to be a coiffure. But as late as 1919 she asked herself, “Why am I calm and indifferent to what people say of Night and Day and fretful of their good opinion of my blue dress?” Unlike Vanessa she never cut the cable with other worlds. She kept some connection with Kensington and used it for an occasional raid into Mayfair.
She was under no illusion about these other worlds and she left some documents which are a sharp commentary on Kensington and Mayfair. “Reminiscences,” covering her life at home with her father, was written for her sister’s children in 1907; “A Sketch of the Past,” written in 1939, is far more lively, less analytical, more visual. Leslie Stephen saw his children and their Duckworth siblings (the offspring of his wife’s first marriage) as darlings who had never grieved their mother, a united and happy brood. Virginia did not.
Certainly the most hilarious memoir in the autobiographical fragments published in Moments of Being is the piece entitled “22 Hyde Park Gate,” which describes her sister’s tribulations in going out into London society with her stepbrother, George Duckworth. It is a wonderful evocation, exceedingly funny, richly malicious, the facts diabolically embroidered yet entirely satisfying, dazzling, and convincing. Since George has been humiliated by Vanessa’s obstinate refusal to say a word at dinner parties and soirees and in the end even to go to them, he takes Virginia out. To make up for her sister’s silence, Virginia holds forth at dinner with great abandon about Plato’s views on love. Scandal of all present at the table: once again humiliation of George. Then comes the theater, unaccountably a French farce of such unbridled innuendo that her hostesses swoop round and now are apologizing to her. Then on to what George regards as a social comedown, namely a party at the house of old Holman Hunt, where ghostly friends of her father dodder up to her. But the end of the evening is not yet. As she lies in the darkness of her bedroom, diamonds and countesses, copulation and the dialogues of Plato all whizzing through her head, the door opens and in comes someone who flings himself on her bed. “Yes, the old ladies of Kensington and Belgravia never knew that George Duckworth was not only father and mother, brother and sister to those poor Stephen girls; he was their lover also.”
And then it all changed. Virginia, like her sister, wrote a memoir on Old Bloomsbury and of the extraordinary sense of relief that no one cared whether you were looking plain or were a failure. It was a world where everyone looked dingy, dressed down to the point where any further would have led to rank indecency, where the young men talked not of engagements and marriages but of their sexual adventures. In a well-known passage in his biography Quentin Bell dates when the new world was born. The climactic moment was when Lytton Strachey, noticing a stain on Vanessa Bell’s skirt, asked inquiringly, “Semen?” From then on anything and everything could be discussed between men and women, and if Mayfair or Kensington put their hands over their ears, what did it matter? Henry James, Edmund Gosse, and Mr. Cox, the already formidable guardian of the London Library, were bewildered to see Leslie Stephen’s daughters go about with such young men; but Mr. Cox observed it was not all that surprising as they had never been baptized.
The notion of belonging to the Elect was, of course, what people have always detested about Bloomsbury. Yet in Virginia’s case, as she etched her impressions of her circle in her diary, two acids ate into the plate. The first was her scorn for a man-centered world with its clubs and societies such as the Apostles and its bland astonishment that women should expect anything more than they had already got. The second was that loyalty to Bloomsbury did not cloud her power of observation.
To read Virginia’s diary is to see how candid she was herself about them. No one was quicker to spot that her friends had feet of clay, and she had a geologist’s instinct for knowing what precise kind of clay it was. Keynes “is like quick-silver on a sloping board—a little inhuman, but very kindly, as inhuman people are.” (She thought better of Keynes than Leonard did, who considered him sexually rapacious, a cold sensualist, and cruel. The one vice he did not attribute to Keynes, which others such as Forster did, was ruthlessness in money matters: he could hardly have done so since he was every whit as hard-headed about money himself.)
She saw through Clive Bell, did not share his endless delight in company mistresses, bonhomie, superficiality; she was pleased when Leonard Woolf blackballed him (properly enough) from the 1917 Club founded by socialists and progressives to celebrate the fall of the tsarist regime in Russia, which was hardly Bell’s natural habitat. Comparing him with Forster she wrote:
Clive showed as gaslight beside Morgan’s normal day…a day of pure light, capable of showing up the rouge and powder, the dust and the wrinkles, the cracks and contortions of my poor parakeet.
But she would write: “He has an odd gift of making one talk sense…his enthusiasm is the engaging thing about him. Moreover whatever one may think of his taste in life, however one may feel him a little battered and dusty in the pursuit of pleasure, still there’s his honesty; his vivacity; his determination not to be bored and not to bore.” Saxon Turner, that monstre sacré of tedium, hardly ever appears among her pages without an allusion to his speechlessness “giving off a sound of a boiling, but not over boiling, kettle…. He reminded me of a hen who has laid an egg—but only one.” But he belonged to her past and was part of those first days of freedom in Gordon Square. Eventually, however, the boredom got too intense.
Lytton Strachey never ceased to fascinate her. “The most supple of our friends…whose mind seems softest to impressions least starched by any formality or impediment…of infinite intelligence—not brain, but intelligence.” But it is an error to imagine that she thought his writing original or profound. As a creative artist she thought little of what critics such as he wrote: for her Hardy or Conrad or Hudson were far more interesting writers. She cared more for Forster’s than for Strachey’s opinion, even though she could not pin him down—he was a “blue butterfly,” transparent, light, unworldly, “caring very little I should think what people say, and with a clear idea of what he writes.” She was enormously an insider. In a sense for her Bloomsbury was herself and her sister. They were the daughters of Sir Leslie. Fascinating as she found the Bell children—and she was marvelous with children—they had a failing. They were not wholly Stephen. Her younger brother was undeniably a Stephen, but as a male was not of much account, and she found his wife, Karin, hearty rather than convivial.
Her malice but also her truthfulness comes out when she records in her diary a friend mimicking Karin “breaking in late at night and asking ‘have you a bite for Carry?’ and proceeding to ransack their larder. Karin slapping her thigh and exclaiming ‘We’ll have a jaunt, we’ll crack a joke’; and also Karin bursting into tears one night from a sense that Maynard etc. didn’t want to see her.” Virginia had no shame in thinking herself a slight cut above the rest and several above what she called the cropheads, the younger adherents such as Bunny Garnett or Barbara Hiles or Carrington or Alix Strachey. She had the clearest possible vision of what was valuable, and if those in her circle infringed it she made her own individual reservations.
As for that outside world, which might at first sight have appeared possibly to be congenial, it had better beware. She records in her diary her contempt for Margot Asquith’s love letters and her approval of Arnold Toynbee’s hostile description of the arrogance of the younger Asquith set, the Grenfell and Lister boys who were to be killed in the war. She hated upper-class women changing books at the lending library. “They come in furred like seals and scented like civets, condescend to pull a few novels from the counter and then demand languidly whether there is anything amusing.” She had only to meet Gerald Duckworth, whose “likeness to a pampered overfed pug dog has much increased,” or even Walter Lamb, “whose satisfaction is amazing: it oozes out everywhere,” to rejoice that she did not need to keep up with all of her early acquaintances.
Indeed if one wants to judge just how loyal Virginia was to Bloomsbury standards and how devastating she could be about the Mayfair world into which she liked to flit, her reminiscence (in Moments of Being) called “Am I a Snob?” is her answer. At the end of it poor Lady Colefax, the hostess, was shredded, and her rivals, Lady Cunard and Lady Londonderry, were consigned to some outer wilderness where they lay howling. But it is done without a word of censure or a posture of rectitude. The gaiety with which the story unfolds, the way in which everyone, herself included, stands as at least compromised by and at worst sunk fathoms deep in worldliness, is a masterpiece of satire. Yes, she admitted candidly to being a snob. She could not accept people whose manners and dearest concerns differed from hers. Leonard was entirely free of snobbery: what mattered to him was the job in hand, the objective, rather than the people with whom he had to work.
Virginia Woolf had a low tolerance of reformers. Mrs. Humphry Ward and all her works became a symbol of the insensitivity of the charitable. So indeed did Beatrice Webb. Leonard Woolf naturally saw much of the Webbs and Virginia was willing during the first part of her marriage, when politics was much more exciting than it was after the war, to endorse in her own fashion Leonard’s causes. But she sensed what sundered her from the Fabians. They might dress as dingily, they might appear as austere, but their earnestness was not the same as Bloomsbury’s intellectual intensity and she looked askance at Mrs. Webb, that “industrious spider surrounded by earnest drab women and broad nosed sallow shock-headed young men, who all looked unhealthy and singular and impotent.” She could enjoy a pacifist meeting and gave a spirited account of H.G. Wells, who was defending the war, being punctured and emitting squeaks of rage at a League of Nations meeting “where the jingoes were defeated by the cranks. It was a splendid sight to see.” But she declined to identify with those “gnomes as always creep out on these occasions—old women in coats and skirts with voluminous red ties and little buttons and badges attached to them—crippled, stammering men and old patriarchs with beards.”
She joined the 1917 Club for Leonard’s sake and used at one time to drop in; but after listening to Annie Besant berate the British for their policy in India, she did not disagree but recorded: “It seems to me more and more clear that the only honest people are the artists and that these social reformers and philanthropists get so out of hand and harbour so many discreditable desires under the disguise of loving their kind, that in the end there’s more to find fault with in them than in us.” She sensed the danger of becoming a committee woman. In the middle of writing a reference for a servant she detected herself acquiring “a thick and shiny official skin.”
She was as much a pacifist as all their friends, she shared their contempt for upper-class attitudes and that self-satisfied assumption by those who rule that parliamentary politics is the spice of life. Whatever the diaries may be, they are not the diaries of a socialclimbing snob. Throughout them runs her astonishment that “They,” the Establishment, should behave as they do and she could not have lived with Leonard Woolf had she not accepted his belief in socialism and concern for justice. But she was not in the remotest sense politically minded. She would not dissemble about color or class. Her comments on both were scabrous. Her husband did as much as anyone, certainly as much as Kingsley Martin or Harold Laski, to persuade Asians and Africans that there were anti-imperialists among the English upper classes who demanded that they be treated as equals and be given political independence. But Virginia referred to Leonard’s Sinhalese friends as darkies. To her they appeared as maimed beings, “caged monkeys” with apparently no other topics of conversation than the injustice of the Colonial Office.
Forster may have created Leonard Bast, and Virginia appears to have met him or his double often enough in real life. But whereas Forster at this time was beginning to make friends among the working class and understand how plucky and honorable his new friends were, Virginia, like Lytton Strachey, regarded them as a vast, incomprehensible tribe beyond the reach of intelligence. “The poor,” she wrote, “have no chance, no manner or self control to protect themselves with; we have a monopoly of all the generous feeling.” That was what she thought. Characteristically she added, “I dare say this isn’t true; but there is something in it. Poverty degrades as Gissing said.” And what is one to make of her reaction when she met on the towpath by the Thames a line of imbecile patients from a mental hospital whom she finds “perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed”? She could enchant whom she wanted, but mankind was not a concept which meant anything to her. “About one person in a fortnight seems to be nice—most are nothing at all.”
Virginia Woolf’s diary illustrates her times through her days. You know what it is like to go to market, what was the price of eggs, what the weather was like that day, why Nellie was particularly maddening when peeling the potatoes, and what it was like to live in a country cottage with a huge copper bowl on top of a brick oven at the bottom of which one lit a fire to do the weekly wash.
She jots down the trivial events which in fact make so much more direct an impression than great political events—a barge has hit one of the Thames bridges; she sees the hawks circling in the sky, feels the soft wind and notes how the hard autumn weather has made the trees an “ugly leaden colour.” The war itself occasionally gets a mention: the German offensive of 1918 occupies her thought neither more nor less than the luckless affair which Marjorie Strachey is having with Josiah Wedgwood or the triangle which Barbara Hiles and Nick Bagenal establish with Saxon Sydney-Turner. Her corn is cured and she cannot get on with Michelet and the Middle Ages. Reading in the train, she is bowled over by The Rape of the Lock, but when she gets home that evening she picks up The Idiot.
Clearly music meant much to her: before the time when someone such as she would have had a gramophone and radio, concerts were her solace. So was Nature. Georgian poetry is often criticized for the over-elaborate, guindé descriptions of flowers, trees, and fields: but intellectuals knew in those days that rural England was fast disappearing, and on her walks Virginia recorded the changing of the seasons and the sights and smells of the ploughland and hedgerows.
What makes her diary different from a diary which one might keep oneself? Her power of observation. She is always observing and finding words to express what she sees and hears and feels. Gilbert Murray’s look of unnatural cleanliness: “A great nurse must rub him smooth with pumice stone every morning: he is so discreet, so sensitive, so low in tone and immaculate in taste that you hardly understand how he has the boldness to beget children.” Suddenly, listening to her nine-year-old nephew curled up on her bed talk of history books and saying that he found Irish history shapeless, and kings dull, and could not see which side was right in the American war, she gets “rather a shock to find a child inheriting all these puzzles.”
The third volume of the letters is headier stuff. Virginia’s letters revolve like Catherine wheels, sparkling, spluttering, dangerously explosive. To read them is to know what it was like to listen to her talk. The vitality is astonishing; the recklessness unbridled; the mischief-making shameless. In one of the best short pieces yet written about Virginia Woolf,1 the editor of the letters, Nigel Nicolson, declares that he asked a lady about whom Virginia had written “She’s a fat slug filled with venom” whether she minded the passage being included. She replied that she minded very much indeed, so out it came. In this respect the Letters are not a totally inclusive record. But the good sense and tolerance of numbers of those still living who are not always referred to in terms flowing with the milk of human kindness have saved the edition from being bowdlerized.
They show good sense because you soon perceive that what Virginia Woolf wanted to do in her letters was to entertain her correspondent, seduce him by her vivacity, so bewilder him by her own passionate interest in his affairs, by her sympathy for his plight, that she whipped him into a conspiracy of intimacy in which she and he surveyed the world of their friends, whispered the unmentionable to each other, and among peals of laughter rushed on to the next indiscretion. Her letters are not all gossip—far from it. They contain news dressed up piping hot, but still recognizable as fact. They contain judgments on books, events, descriptions of travel, they convey encouragement, they tease and cajole. Everything is told and discussed at the gallop.
The third volume shows her in the Twenties dropping old friends whom she had outgrown—Violet Dickinson, Saxon Sydney-Turner, and Ka Arnold-Forster—and picking new ones, Raymond Mortimer, Dadie Rylands, Eddie Sackville-West, and forever thinking about literature. But through them one new experience unfolds. She falls in love with Vita Sackville-West and she with her. On Vita’s side it was easily explicable: to have captivated the greatest woman novelist of the day, an intoxicating talker, someone over whom hostesses fought yet through her illness refused so many approaches for friendship, intensified the feeling which overcame her when they met. But why was Virginia entranced? After all, Vita had deficiencies which would have been fatal in another. She was not an intellectual, she did not know Bloomsbury, and could not begin to compete in it. When Virginia referred to George Moore, Vita imagined she was talking of the novelist and was pityingly put down. (In fact the philosopher continued for years hardly to be known outside Cambridge: in Oxford, where philosophy was dominated by Cook Wilson and Joseph, Moore was disregarded; and when toward the end of Moore’s life King George VI was advised to award him the Order of Merit, the monarch had never heard of him.) Nor was it an advantage to be a writer. Virginia did not take kindly to other writers, particularly if they were women—she could never learn to master her jealousy of Katherine Mansfield, although she knew it was petty; and she was too sharp not to see the limitations in Vita’s writing.
The letters show clearly why all this was irrelevant. Vita Sackville-West was an aristocrat and, more to the point, an eccentric aristocrat. In Virginia’s eyes, eccentricity of members of the aristocracy was their sole justification—her essays often explore this theme. Possessed of boundless self-confidence (in her theory of the stereotype) an aristocrat owed society the duty to be an esprit libre, free from guilt, above trivial social conventions, behaving “naturally” because he did not have to reason how to behave. A favorite Bloomsbury comparison was the equation of aristocratic with working-class sexual behavior. As both were free from guilt, the one through position, the other through poverty, neither minded how many skeletons fell out of the cupboard, or what unusual couplings took place.
Vita behaved like an aristocrat. It was her second nature to give orders. Workmen, servants, and dogs obeyed her happily, she could organize, she could manage a marriage and bring up a family in circumstances where both might have disintegrated. “I wish,” said her father when she was a girl, “that Vita was more normal.” She was anything but normal. When Virginia met her, the tempest of her affair with Violet Trefusis was in the past, but she had opted out of the life of embassies and the dreariness of the social round, as emphatically as the Stephen sisters had a generation before. From the first she excited Virginia’s imagination; and her background—the gypsy blood, the great country house, the interminable family law suits, the pride, insolence, and indolence of her forebears—set up in Virginia’s mind romance, fantasy, and those extraordinary trains of thought which culminated in Orlando. All this is an essential part of innocent European snobbery: without it Proust could not have lived or written.
She was beautiful—again the exact opposite of Virginia’s virginal beauty. The olive skin, the heavy features, the self-confidence flowing from her. Virginia gashed and scarred her friendships with women by her habit of merciless teasing; but here was someone who stood up to her and was at once intimate and glowing but remote. She was not impervious: but just as Virginia if wounded could rally by appealing to her destiny as a creator, Vita when hurt summoned up her patrician aloofness to surmount trouble. They both had within them the tough nut of egoism which artists must have in order to create; but their tenderness for each other was not contrived. Nor is there any doubt that Vita was attracted not just by Virginia’s eminence, intelligence, and brilliance. It was Virginia’s beauty that caught her: the marvelous bones of her face, the light and shade of her expression continually flitting across her face, the slender, lovely body, with all its reticence, which she wanted to explore and please.
Virginia’s letters show that she too was genuinely entranced, and this friendship was the nearest she ever got to experiencing physical passion. Vita was perhaps the only person apart from Vanessa and Leonard who penetrated through layers of complicated sensibility to what she rightly discerned was Virginia’s “sweet and childlike nature.” It was a love affair which did both the greatest credit: in their passion for each other, their self-respect, their restraint toward each other, their restraint toward their husbands, and their affection when at the end of three years the passion dissolved and they found other friends and preoccupations. Of the three volumes of letters so far published, this is the richest.
There was never any doubt that Virginia’s first and lasting love was Leonard. Somehow in the mass of diary entries and letters to others this union evaporates; and perhaps for this reason George Spater, the American friend who lived at Rodmell after Leonard Woolf’s death, and Ian Parsons, who with his wife Trekkie were favorite neighbors of Leonard in the twenty-eight years of his widowerhood, collaborated to produce a short book on the Woolf marriage. Inevitably it covers the same ground as Quentin Bell’s biography and Woolf’s vast autobiography; but the shrewd commentary makes it worth reading for its own sake.
For instance they explain in detail the regime which Leonard devised to prevent recurrence of her madness. In 1917 he spent nearly a third of their income on food in order to build up her weight, and his perception of the relationship between weight and menstruation prefigured predictors of the approach of mental disorder today. So often he appeared to Virginia’s friends as a tyrant, forbidding her this party, insisting on her departure from that. He was oblivious to such criticism. Once at lunch when Barbara Hiles and Virginia were giggling together he suddenly saw Virginia begin mischievously to flick the meat off her plate at Barbara. He at once rebuked Barbara for overexciting Virginia and led his wife by the hand to a room to lie down. Calm, nourishment, rest, and reassurance were what he provided.
For Virginia’s madness was terrifying. She fought and screamed, she turned on Leonard with every barbed insult that could hurt, she starved herself, she tried to kill herself, she had to be held down in her torments, she saw the dead, and heard birds singing Greek obscenities in the trees. And—ultimately the most alarming of paradoxes and ironies—it was in these fits of madness, or periods leading up to what might have been an outbreak, that her most original ideas for her novels came. To her friends, Virginia always appeared to be gay, happy, smiling; and so she was. When depression threatened, her husband simply made her disappear from society to rest, eat, and recuperate.
Their life was more austere than that of anyone else in Bloomsbury—Morgan Forster excepted. They seldom bought wine or spirits, they spent as little as possible on clothes, Leonard even used printer’s proofs for lavatory paper: Virginia’s heavily corrected typescript seemed to serve admirably for that purpose and consequently was put to use. Not until 1923 did they replace the earth-closet with a lavatory. They bought books second hand or got them from a library or borrowed them or got them to review. Disorder reigned in their rooms. Only in 1930 did they get four comfortable armchairs. The ground and first floor of their London house was let to solicitors for offices and the Hogarth Press was lodged in their basement. In the Twenties they began going abroad but they traveled very cheaply.
The reason why A Marriage of True Minds is a success is that the authors set out to answer a lot of questions which anyone who becomes fascinated by the Woolfs must find himself asking. Was theirs a happy marriage when sexually it was a nullity? Virginia recognized that, as she put it, she was a eunuch: and both regretted they had no children. But time and again they affirmed their happiness and love for each other. Her physical frigidity did not freeze her heart. She addressed him in a dozen terms of endearment: he was her Dadyka, her dusky, darky marmot, and when she was motoring in France with Vita, she told her how much she missed him. Yes, they quarrelled—over Bernard Shaw or Nellie and Lottie, their wayward servants, Leonard harshly insisting that he and she should get the service for which they paid, Virginia pleading that though Lottie was an “intoxicated Jay,” she was often “perfectly angelic and humble as a caterpillar.” Similarly Virginia resented the strict regime for her health imposed by Leonard, and could bicker even over their recreations such as bowls: Leonard was as intensely competitive in play as he was in business. But her suicide note, which can bring tears to the eyes, speaks only of her happiness and her determination not to allow her madness to blight the rest of his life.
The authors, however, do not conjecture how Leonard Woolf endured this enforced monasticism. Nor do they convey how sexually attractive he was. He appears in recollections as untidily dressed, intensely serious and passionate only about politics and moral problems. He was in fact handsome, intensely masculine, with blazing eyes, a sensual mouth, a man who was attractive to women. But what they convey admirably is the character of this fierce, passionate, truthful, fearless, ascetic, hard yet just man, who could charm when he chose as seductively as Keynes. He governed his life by his precepts. He was the only deeply convinced socialist in Bloomsbury and much of his life was spent in sweaty committee rooms working on drafts of memoranda with people of half his ability. His socialism was singularly pure, and had his precepts, so free from compromise, been followed, no Labour Government could ever have held office. His detestation of religion was such as to embrace Judaism no less than Christianity: indeed he could not in any but the most formal sense understand how anyone could believe in God or worship.
On this issue tolerance flew out of the window. His fierceness emerged in his reviews: old friends were torn limb from limb and you feel he revelled in the very fact that they were his friends—his regret, expressed rarely in public after a ream of correspondence, was usually grudging. The authors believe these traits were due to insecurity and maintain that he was an outsider in English life even in the Apostles. I know of no evidence for this and a good deal to the contrary. But they are entirely right to declare that he was stubborn to the point of impregnability to other ideas in argument. In many ways he was blinkered and convinced of his own rectitude and the folly of others. That was the main cause of the failure of the work on which he worked for so long and immodestly called Principia Politica, echoing the title of Russell’s famous work. Perhaps more than anyone else in Bloomsbury he was convinced of the invincible stupidity of those who did not share his convictions. And yet his life was a model of unselfishness, devotion to his wife, willingness to take hard moral decisions, and a winning sense of humor. He frequently included himself in his harsh judgments. A note he wrote after Virginia’s suicide runs: “I know Virginia will not come across the garden from the lodge, and yet I look in that direction for her. I know she is drowned and yet I listen for her to come in at the door. I know that it is the last page and yet I turn it over. There is no limit to one’s stupidity and selfishness.”
A word must be said about the standard of editing in these volumes. It is extremely high. The standard is set by Mrs. Olivier Bell, the editor of the Diary. As the daughter of a meticulous British Museum scholar, she also had the advantage of never going to a university. The techniques of scholarly editing are not taught in graduate schools in England as they are in America. So she had to learn them, whereas had she been an English graduate she might have assumed she knew them. Her footnotes are a mine of information about the period and for that matter about many things. We learn that the privet is not only a hedge but a variety of the hawk-moth, and are warned that when Virginia criticizes Pippa Strachey for being untidy “as all Strachey women become at the least provocation” that this is “rather a case of the pot calling the kettles black.” She should let herself go as an editor rather more often.
Jeanne Schulkind, Mary Lyon, and Mitchell Leaska display comparable feats of accuracy and the introductions which they write are models of modesty and helpfulness to their readers. The special edition of the Bulletin of the New York Public Library would have given Virginia Woolf satirical pleasure. To have nine articles by women devoted to The Years and Three Guineas might have convinced her that there were signs of a new age dawning and that offensive male superiority had received a check; Jane Marcus’s contribution seemed to me outstanding. Mr. Alan Bell, who has brought out The Mausoleum Book, is an old hand and as might be expected produces an admirable edition. The editing of the Letters is a good deal less elaborate: no doubt wisely, otherwise every page would be punctuated by footnotes. The index has a charming way in some cases of omitting a reference to the most wounding comment made about the person under that heading. Presiding over every enterprise and acknowledged in every preface is Dr. Lola Szladits of the Berg Collection, a sort of tutelary goddess who interprets omens, provides information, and is indispensable to everyone who researches in the field.
At the end of hours of reading the old questions return to one’s mind. Was Virginia Woolf a snob? Was she viciously cruel and malicious? How important is she as an artist? What does Bloomsbury amount to? Were they overrated poseurs who captured English letters by the coterie that formed about them? Were they responsible for the decline of English culture, fortune, and power? Or were they liberators who led a revolt against obsessively strong social conventions, restrictions, and hypocrisies—a revolt which is still at work today? Or was Forster right when he wrote of his friends: “I don’t think these people are little, but they belittle all those who come into their power”? There will never be a definitive reply to these questions because the answers, even the most dispassionate answers, will depend to some extent upon the temperament, class, and disposition of the person who tries to answer. They will also depend on the knowledge of and sympathy for people different from ourselves in a particular given historical moment—and not too many people have the ability to develop such detachment.
But no one will ever again be able to write about them in the way that was common before these books were published. The more you know the more difficult it is to make dismissive or gushing judgments. Yet in one significant sense the lighting in which they stand bathed on the stage has changed. One claim that they made for themselves appears more and more valid. They were the first example of the modern English intelligentsia. Their sexual license was not new: in the European capitals homosexuality was more openly acknowledged than in London and the great lesbian salons in Paris of the Princesse de Polignac, Natalie Barney, and Gertrude Stein exceeded anything which occurred in England. But Bloomsbury broke with the style of upper-class life and set a new fashion in living: the cheap, unfashionable town house or flat and the modest country cottage; the contempt for moneymaking and the status which money brings, and the spending of it on the arts and travel; refusal to wear respectable clothes; detestation of the public school ethos; rejection of “the glittering prizes” which Lord Birkenhead used to hold out to the young as the pursuit that justified life; adherence to certain causes dear to the hearts of progressives, such as the abolition of capital punishment, the reform of the laws on sexual offenses and on censorship so as to make the law more humane toward individuals; and finally support for equality for women, anti-imperialism, pacifism, and in general suspicion of the Establishment and of those who wield power however petty.
Of course any scholar can cast doubt on this claim by dredging up instances from earlier times or by pointing to the provinces where the young described by Lawrence or Arnold Bennett or Wells were also emancipating themselves. But no group, I think, made such an impact as Bloomsbury; and though in the Thirties the new left-wing intelligentsia seemed to make a break with them, in retrospect those middle-class revolutionaries look more and more like those whom they spoke of as old-fashioned. After the war the survivors of Bloomsbury lived to see some of their most cherished causes accepted by the Establishment and the laws relating to obscenity, censorship, abortion, divorce, and homosexuality substantially reformed. Large sections of the public began to accept that the life of the professional classes was only supportable and that of industry and commerce degrading. Generations of students emerging from the universities yearned to join a publishing house, such as the Hogarth Press, or to take any job which involved work in the arts so long as it was as remotely connected as possible with those distasteful business activities which seem to be inseparable from trade. They would have evoked a sardonic comment from Leonard Woolf, a most grasping businessman, who rarely thought he got value from those young people who worked for him. But when people complain of a certain harshness and cruelty in Bloomsbury’s outspokenness, they forget that softness is apt to produce muddle and gentility instead of truth and art.
“Suppose we do settle exactly what Roger’s character is,” wrote Virginia in her diary, “and what degree of spite to allow Clive, and how far Logan has a heart?—well, what then? Are we going nowhere? Does the mist move with us?” Yes, even the subject dearest to the heart of Bloomsbury—personal relations—turns to ashes in the end. You come to realize that such minute chipping away at people’s characters and motives does not produce that perfect statue which reconciles you to the idiosyncrasies and failings of your friend because it is such a satisfying explanation. On the contrary: the heart sinks when you see that after all the whittling all that is left are the shavings on the floor. E.M. Forster got on to this when he wrote that the men from King’s College, Cambridge, who were identified with Bloomsbury.
stand for personal relationships and these still seem to me to be the most real things on the surface of the earth, but I have acquired a feeling that people must go away from each other (spiritually) every now and then, and improve themselves if the relationship is to develop or even endure…. Individuals progress alternatively by loneliness and intimacy…. The King’s view over-simplified people: that I think was its defect. We are more complicated, also richer than we knew and affection grows more difficult than it used to be, and also more glorious.2
Some readers are bound to feel that these volumes end by being nothing more than an irridescent bubble of self-satisfaction. I do not. I consider that when the enterprise is complete we will have an incomparable record of the intelligence and sensibility of a curious and fascinating artist as well as a portrait of a group of friends who practiced not over self-consciously a way of living. The record is incomparable, not because the events or the relationships described are so admirable or sensational. It is because they were written by someone who held a diamond pen, the only guarantee for writing a signature for immortality.
April 20, 1978