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“…days slipping by unrecorded…” #VirginiaWoolf #AlexandraHarris

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I’ve come to realise that when your TBR is as big a mountain as mine is, a regular reshuffle of the piles is essential to stop coveted arrivals disappearing into the stacks. A case in point is a wonderful book I read recently – “Virginia Woolf” by Alexandra Harris. I first read about this back in 2018 on Simon’s blog and loved the sound of it; I’ve read *a lot* by and about Woolf over the decades and I absolutely love her. I was reassured by Simon’s statement that this was a book even a well-versed Woolf-lover could enjoy, and merrily sent away for a copy. It’s languished in the stacks ever since, to my shame, and when I stumbled upon in during a recent rummage it was exactly the book I was in the mood to read.

Author Alexandra Harris is someone I’ve read before, although I have to say that I was a tiny bit underwhelmed by “Romantic Moderns” when I explored it pre-blog, finding it not quite holding together enough for me. Here, though, her focus is firmly on one woman, the very inspirational Virginia Woolf. In ten relatively short chapters (the book is only 191 pages, including illustrations, notes, appendices etc) she relates clearly Woolf’s life, her work and her legacy in a wonderfully readable tome. Her early life in Hyde Park Gate, holidays in Talland House at St. Ives, the family tragedies, the move to Bloomsbury, the break with convention, the struggles to write, and the successes – all is here, covered brilliantly and evocatively. Also present is the illness – Harris treats Woolf’s breakdowns sensitively and sympathetically, always with a carefully balanced view. And I think it’s this latter element that really stood out for me in the book.

Virginia Woolf has attracted an immense amount of scholarship since her untimely death; much of it is partisan, some of it is downright weird. It was only when I read the section entitled “Afterwards” that I realised how much strangeness has been projected on Woolf over the years. To her credit, Harris is measured in her discussion of this (as with everything in the book) and that was really refreshing. It’s a concise book yet tells you everything you need to know about its subject and that’s a real achievement.

Reading was also, quite practically and literally, a means of survival. Virginia learned how to use it to stabilize herself when she felt the ‘agitation’, the ‘fidgets’, and mood swings that were a part of her illness. She learned this out of necessity during these difficult years.

Even though I’m very familiar with the facts of Woolf’s life, I got much from reading this book. Harris is particularly strong on how Woolf’s life fed into her work, and she gives you the essential VW in a clear and balanced form. I have to say that I have one very minor caveat, and that is that I wouldn’t suggest reading this book *before* you’ve read all of Woolf’s works. There are inevitably spoilers when it comes to discussing the books, and one particular one from “To The Lighthouse” which is a particular bugbear of mine. The specific event which I’ve seen spoiled on a number of occasions had a terrific emotional impact on me when I first read “Lighthouse”, and I do feel that you should read that book with no knowledge of what is to come.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Putting that aside, however, I can highly recommend Harris’s book as a great way to explore Woolf and her life once you’ve read the work. It rekindled my love for Woolf (if it ever needed that!), and really brought wonderful insight into the relationship between Virginia’s life and her writing. Harris’s work was originally published by Thames and Hudson in 2011, 70 years after Woolf took her own life in the River Ouse. When I saw the publication date, I suddenly realised that on the 28th of this month, it will be 80 years since then, and it’s also 40 years ago that I first read her work. Time has passed but Woolf’s work is no less brilliant and will endure – a tribute to her genius and her fight against her demons to produce the works she needed to write.

#Woolfalong Phase 4 – an emotional response…

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Recollections of Virginia Woolf – edited by Joan Russell Noble

recollections

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.

vw
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:

https://youtu.be/fnN_Gik7or4

Prepare to weep…)

A Selection of Bloomsberries in Full Flood!

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Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley

As I admitted here recently, I’m a bit embarrassed to reveal that there are books on Mount TBR that have been there for over 30 years – and Aldous Huxley’s “Crome Yellow” is one of them… I picked up his collection of short stories, Mortal Coils, last month on a whim, and loved it so much that I decided to follow it with CY. I confess I was attracted to CY all those years ago because it’s regarded as such a roman a clef; a thinly veiled portrait of many of the Bloomsbury group, and all set in a house based on Garsington, the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell. The narrator, poet Denis Stone, is modelled on Huxley himself; the painter Gombauld on Mark Gertler; Mary Bracegirdle on the artist Dora Carrington; and so on.

crome

CY is still being written about in these terms which in many ways is a shame, because this tends to obscure the book a little and make it hard to read without referencing the apparent source of the characters; and it’s a very good read in its own right.

The book opens with Dennis travelling down to Crome, a typical English country house of the period, to visit the Wimbushes. Priscilla is an eccentric woman, something of a patron of the arts and artists, and rushing from one fad to another – the current passion being for horoscopes and mysticism. Her husband Henry is lost in family history, and enlivens the narrative with a couple of wonderful tales of Crome’s previous inhabitants.

Also staying with them are a motley collection of guests and as soon as Denis arrives it becomes clear that he’s suffering from a passion for Anne, niece of the Wimbushes. However, he’s almost incapable of expressing any feelings in words and stumbles around trying to find the chance to confess his love. Meanwhile, Mary is trying to decide who she should resolve her issues about sex with, trying to decide between Gombauld and Denis as a likely partner. Anne seems somewhat detached from all men and simply wants Denis to be a friend. Then there is the wonderfully-named Mr. Barbecue-Smith, writer of fashionable books who manages to write 1,500 words an hour by going into a kind of trance and getting in touch with his subconscious. Mr. Scogan is a believer in a scientific future, and when the discussion about free love is taking place Huxley puts some remarkably prescient words in his mouth:

An impersonal generation will take the place of Nature’s hideous system. In vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations; and Eros, beautifully and irresponsibly free, will flit like a gay butterfly from flower to flower through a sunlit world.”

It’s a way of reproduction to which Huxley would return in “Brave New World”.

huxley

“Crome Yellow” is satire at its best, and if it is a glimpse of early Bloomsbury characters, it catches them at the time when Victorian standards were collapsing, with people incapable of really deciding where to go next. Huxley is cruellest to Priscilla, in his physical description of her and also his lambasting of her various crazes; he’s also quite hard on Mary with her desire to resolve the sex question in a clinical manner. However, he can be forgiven because he doesn’t spare himself, giving Denis plenty of insecurities about his writing and his successes (or not!) as a writer and a man. And Huxley’s preoccupation with the process of writing is evident here, as it was in “Mortal Coils”.

Words are man’s first and most grandiose invention. With language, he created a whole new universe; what wonder if he loved words and attributed power to them!

Denis leaves Crome at the end of the book in a flurry, having failed in his love life and also feeling a failure as a writer. “Crome Yellow” was a clever, funny and in some ways touching read (I always find anything involving Carrington desperately moving); and it was more evidence of Huxley’s skill as a writer. Now, if I could only find where I’d put my copy of “Point Counter Point”….

Recent Reads: Let’s Kill Uncle by Rohan O’Grady

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I seem to be on a roll with Bloomsbury Group books lately – but this sounded so intriguing and as if it might be a little darker than the other two volumes I’ve read, so I decided this was the next to read. Again, a lovely cover, with a very clever design revealing One-ear the Cougar. My only disappointment was the fact that I read that the original book featured illustrations by Edward Gorey. Unfortunately, the Bloomsbury edition only has one  illustration as a frontispiece – bearing the wonderful legend “In an idyllic, peaceful island setting two charming children on a summer holiday conspire to execute the perfect murder – and get away with it.”

The book tells the tale of Barnaby Gaunt, a ten-year old orphan, who is travelling to a Canadian island to spend the summer with his Uncle. We meet him on the ferry to the island where he and another child, Christie, are causing havoc on board. Christie has also been sent to the island for the summer, by her mother, and she is staying with the wonderfully named Goat Lady. On arrival, the children encounter the local Mountie, Sergeant Albert Coulter, and soon set about causing havoc on the lovely island. The arrival of the slightly skewed Uncle, who is determined to kill Barnaby for his fortune, forces the children into drastic action – who will succeed in killing who?

This is a beautifully written book with a fantastic supporting cast of characters: Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, who run the island’s shop, have never recovered from the loss of their son in the War, and take Barnaby in as a kind of substitute; Lady Syddyns and Miss Proudfoot are the island’s two venerable old dames, one quiet and a lover of gardening, the other forceful and taking no nonsense; Mr Duncan the farmer and his poor, downtrodden daughter Agnes; Mr. and Mrs. Rice-Hope, the vicar and his wife; the lovely Goat-lady who mothers the children very effectively.

This is quite a dark tale; one which on the surface could be considered quite shocking. The subject of murder is discussed quite casually, and no obvious moral judgements are passed by the author on the actions of the various characters. However, there are hidden depths here – the book is set after the war, and there are no children on the island as all the young people (with the exception of Albert Coulter) were killed in the fighting. The sadness of those who lost their loved ones is portrayed very movingly through Mr. and Mrs. Brooks. In a dramatic dream sequence, Albert recalls the effect of man’s inhumanity to his fellow-man and the anti-war sentiment runs throughout the book. The character of Uncle Sylvester is the most disturbing – at first somewhat cartoon-like, he soon becomes revealed as an evil piece of work, reading de Sade and mentally torturing Barnaby in a really unpleasant way. It came as no surprise to find he had made his way successfully through the War but had obviously been perceived by his colleagues as something of a psychopath.

Although superficially a macabre little tale, this novel actually packs quite a punch with its sub-plots. There is an underlying theme of loneliness – all of the characters, in one way or another, are suffering from this. Barnaby, through lack of family; Christie has an absent father and an overworked mother; Sergeant Coulter has no family, is somewhat isolated from the rest of the Village owing to having survived the War and he nurses a hopeless romantic passion; the Brooks couple have lost their son; Miss Proudfoot loses her pet; Lady Syddyns is a widow; the Goat-Lady’s son is away most of the year; Agnes Duncan through the iron control of her father who basically uses her as slave labour; and so on. Even One-ear the Cougar lives in isolation and unhappiness, and his interior monologues are surprisingly effective.

The book also makes a strong point about things not being as they seem. The children are basically good, their bad behaviour stemming from their environment and circumstances, and once they are in stable, loving surroundings they blossom and change. The metaphor of the statues in the New York museum so beloved of Sergeant Coulter, which turn out to be fake, is another case in point. And Uncle Sylvester is the prime example – fooling the islanders with his acting and convincing them that he is a good man, only concerned for the safety of his poor nephew, when his behaviour is revealed to be quite appalling. He is already a mass murdered by the time he comes to the island and presumably represents the madness of a War that would allow such a man to thrive. Even One-ear has hidden depths and is not what he is seen to be by the islanders and children. Fortunately, the book ends very satisfactorily, with justice being meted out as necessary, and the fact that I slightly guessed who would kill who didn’t spoil things at all!

I loved this book – the quality of the plotting, writing and the storyline were wonderful on their own, and it was very much an unputdownable read. But the different levels added so much and got quite a few messages across without getting in the way of the entertainment. I believe a rather sensational film of the book was made, which I haven’t seen and I’m not sure I would want to now – if it didn’t contain the subtle messages about life and the human condition, it wouldn’t be doing this marvellous book justice!

Recent Reads: Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris/New York by Paul Gallico

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Following on from my first read of a Bloomsbury Group reprint (“Miss Hargreaves”) I thought that it might be time I made the acquaintance of Mrs. Harris, who also comes highly recommended. It seems that Paul Gallico wrote four books of Mrs. Harris’s escapades, of which this book contains the first two, and it’s a very pretty Bloomsbury Group edition. I own three of these volumes now, and the design is super – a pastel cover with black silhouette design on the front, which varies and is relevant to the plot – very nice!

Anyway, Mrs. Harris (or ‘Arris, as she appears often) is a Cockney char from Battersea in London and has spent a straightforward, hard-working life, until she spies a Christian Dior dress in one of the client’s wardrobes. From that point on, her life changes – possessed with a need to own a Dior dress of her own, she scrimps and saves and has a small pools win until she has enough to fly off to Paris to find her dress. Needless to say, all does not go smoothly at first, but Mrs. Harris in her straightforward way affects people for the better – like a kind of magical creature she changes lives and attains her desires. while helping others with hers.

There’s a lovely array of supporting characters, some of whom are – Mrs. Butterfield, who is Mrs. Harris’s best friend, fellow char and back up when she needs help with her work; Mme Colbert, M. Fauvel and Natasha the model who all work at Dior; and the Marquis Hipolyte de Chassange, a venerable gentleman who has a pivotal role to play in the follow-up, “Mrs. Harris Goes to New York”.

The second volume, “Mrs. Harris goes to New York”, has a more convoluted plot, involving an attempt to get an orphan boy away from a hideous family and back to his American father, plus Mrs. Harris and Mrs. Butterfield helping Mrs. Schreiber, an American client, settle back into New York and get some proper staff. Along the way, Mrs. Harris explores a surprising amount of American and matters are eventually resolved, although once again, not in too predictable a way.

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These were fun books, an engaging read, but not quite what I expected. I suppose I thought they would be something like “Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day”, which is one of the best feel-good books I’ve ever read. I couldn’t quite work out what it was about the Mrs. Harris stories that didn’t feel quite like “Miss Pettigrew” and reflecting on it, I think it was the fact that Gallico had to keep sticking a moral in. The spoiling of the dress; the constant set-backs and problems that beset Mrs. Harris and all her endeavours; the fact that in the end, Mrs. Harris has to be kept in her place, despite the fact she could charm the birds down from the trees, and have the captain of a ship in the palm of her hand. She has all these fine qualities and all these wonderful effects on people, but somehow is always let down. I also found Gallico’s homilies and cultural comments to be just a tad patronising at times – but this could be due to my reading the books from a 21st century viewpoint and not from the 1950s/1960s.

Maybe I’m being a little hyper-critical – “Miss Pettigrew” had a wonderful resolution where you felt everything ended up quite as it should be, and there’s no doubt that the Mrs. Harris books I’ve read so far have had happy endings. I just didn’t get quite as big an emotional lift from them as I expected – but there was some lovely description, a lot of humour that had me actually laughing out loud, and I did enjoy them – it will be interesting to see the effect Mrs. Harris has on Russia when I get to read the later books!

(Just don’t mention the cringingly clichéd Cockney accent…….)

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