Recollections of Virginia Woolf – edited by Joan Russell Noble


I should confess up front that I do tend to get very emotional about Virginia Woolf; in fact, when I visited the National Portrait Gallery Bloomsbury exhibition a couple of years ago, J. and Middle Child had to be standing by with the tissues and sympathy when we got to the end and encountered VW’s original final letter to Leonard. So I can’t promise a rational review of this book because I got very emotional while I was reading it; this will instead be a deeply personal response. Back in the 1980s my first discovery of Woolf’s writing it was a revelation; and I think I’d forgotten what a huge effect she had on me until I read this book and it brought back all my emotions about the woman and her work, and also helped clarify for me some of the reasons why Virginia Woolf means so much to me.

…Virginia was exactly my idea of what one means by a genius. For me, a genius means somebody who sees the world and is able to make other people see it in a different light to anyone else. Geniuses are what I’ve heard somebody else describe as before-and-after writers. Life is not the same after reading them as it has been before. I think she was in the most intense sense a genius. (David Cecil)

But first, about the book, which I picked up as part of Phase 4 of HeavenAli’s admirable Woolfalong. First published in 1972 by the estimable Peter Owen, and in paperback by Penguin in 1975, the book collects together a wide range of reminiscences of Woolf by people who knew her. Edited by Joan Russell Noble (well done, that woman!) and with an introduction by Michael Holroyd which gives a potted biography, it’s worth trying to put ourselves mentally back into the era in which it was published. And yes, I know many of you will be too young to grasp what that means, but I’m old enough to remember the 1970s!

Her life was one long inquiry into the nature of personality and of what one may as well call reality or truth. And surely a nature more given to asking than to dogmatizing is chiefly ‘superior’ in its refusal to take for granted what other people do take for granted. (William Plomer)

In 1972 the Bloomsbury Group were not quite the cultural phenomenon we know nowadays. Several members were still alive or only relatively recently deceased, the younger and later extended members of the group were still about, and there was a faint air of dismissal generally expressed towards their achievements and arts. Certainly, they were viewed as out of keeping with the modern world and cultural realism of the 1950s and 1960s, and Woolf herself was viewed as somewhat anachronistic, snobbish and nasty. Extracts from her diaries had been published in 1953, in the form of “A Writer’s Diary”, but the full publication of her diaries, letters and essays was still to come. So the way Woolf was viewed at the time was very different to how we would view her today.

virginia reading

Into the breach sprang Noble, collecting together a mass of memories of Virginia, and what a service she performed. The pieces come from a wide range of figures, from T.S. Eliot to Rebecca West to Christopher Isherwood to George Rylands to Elizabeth Bowen to Raymond Mortimer to John Lehmann to Vita Sackville West – well, I could go on. Some of the most touching pieces are those by Louie Mayer, cook and general factotum for the Woolves for many years, and from Leonard himself. The stated aim is to replace a negative image of Woolf with something more “human” and the book certainly does that, bringing her to life in a nuanced way which no bare biography could do.

The artist is engaged in a constant effort to create order out of the haphazard, singleness out of multiplicity, to trace a pattern that can be seen in the universal pattern of life, which is too vast and various to comprehend. Virginia’s extraordinary consciousness of the complexity of things and her ability to come to terms with that complexity made her value people who could do likewise, and if there was one thing more than another which her friends had in common, it was their power of being articulate, like herself, in a new way. (William Plomer)

Each contributor has a different angle and a different insight into what Virginia was like, her personality, her foibles and her genius. And reading all these personal reminiscences certainly *does* give you a sense of the real woman, her struggles with her art, her hooting laugh and her love for life. Because it’s clear from these pieces that Woolf was no frail, ethereal invalid; despite the difficulties with her health she enjoyed herself to the full as much as she could (and as much as Leonard would let her!), showing an enduring curiosity and interest in her fellow creatures. Leonard himself emerges from the book as someone who was Virginia’s rock; without his caring for her all those years, his sacrifices and his dragon-like protection of her at times, she most likely would not have lived as long as she did and have produced the wonderful books that she did.

Since “Recollections…” first came out there have of course been myriad books about Woolf, as well as the diaries and letters I mentioned above, all of which have expanded our view of Woolf. However, this is still a valuable book; reading the pure, unadulterated reminiscences of those who knew her in one way or another has an immediacy you don’t get from a more formal biography. Many of the pieces are incredibly moving, particularly that of Louie Mayer, who recalls her life with the Woolves, the day of Virginia’s death and how she looked after Leonard till his later passing in 1969. Leonard’s memories come last, in the form of a transcript from a BBC interview, and this leads me on to the one thing I would do to improve the book.

Several of the pieces are sourced from a 1970 BBC documentary, “A Night’s Darkness, A Day’s Sail”; some are stated as being lectures or extracts from other publications in the acknowledgements at the front of the book. But despite there being a list of contributors at the back there is no information about how Noble gathered her material and whether she approached the interviewees etc. I would have liked a short list of sources at the back – and I suppose it’s possible that a later edition might have this – but that’s a minor quibble.

Her genius was intensely feminine and personal – private, almost. To read one of her books was (if you liked it) to receive a letter from her, addressed specially to you. But this, perhaps, was just the secret of her appeal. (Christopher Isherwood)

So “Recollections of Virginia Woolf” had the effect of sucking me back into my personal obsession with Woolf and Bloomsbury, reminding me what I love about her writing and making me want to just sink myself back into Woolf books and read nothing else (which could be detrimental to the TBR piles….) I make no apologies for the amount of quotes in this post (and I could have pulled out so many more), because really this is a book which brings insight and understanding, and stands as a testament to Virginia Woolf as a person and an author. If you have any interest in, or love of, Virginia Woolf I really can’t recommend the book highly enough, and thanks have to go to Ali for the Woolfalong initiative – I don’t know if I would have otherwise picked the book up at this particular time, and I’m really glad that I did.

(As a side note, all the references to “A Night’s Darkness, A Day’s Sail” sent me off to the Internet and the result is here:

Prepare to weep…)