I think it was Kaggsy who first alerted me to this book, I knew I had to buy it immediately – one I certainly hadn’t heard of, but which was perfect for phase 4 of #Woolfalong. Since then Liz has also read it, and having bought it a few weeks earlier Liz’s enthusiasm prompted me to move it up my tbr.
These recollections from friends and contemporaries of Virginia Woolf leave us with a wonderfully multi-faceted portrait of Virginia Woolf, we see her here as a friend an acquaintance, an employer, sister-in-law and wife. In his introduction Michael Holroyd, reminds us of the salient facts of Virginia Woolf’s life and death in his brief biography. From here we move straight to the testimonies of the people who knew her. Joan Russell Noble has collected together a raft of different voices, who share their memories, impressions and criticisms of a woman who still has the power to fascinate and move us.
There are some big names in this book – another reason it is so readable – Vita Sackville West, T S Eliot, E M Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Rebecca West and David Cecil – to name just a few.
The collection opens with a lovely childhood memory from Ann Stephens, she relates how she heard servants gossiping about Mrs W, the talk made her rather nervous, yet when Virginia appeared, young Ann was totally charmed. So right away we begin to get the idea that the idea people had of Virginia Woolf was not always borne out by their later experiences of actually knowing or at least meeting her.
Duncan Grant explains how the famous Bloomsbury group came into being and of what these evenings consisted.
“About 10 o’clock in the evening people used to appear and continue to come at intervals till 12 o’clock at night, and it was seldom that the last guest left before two or three in the morning. Whiskey, buns and cocoa were the diet and people talked to each other. If someone had lit a pipe he would sometimes hold out the lighted match to Hans the dog, who would snap at it and put it out. Conversation; that was all. Yet many people made a habit of coming, and few who did so will forget those evenings.”
There are far too many recollections in this book for me to talk about individually, instead I am trying to give a flavour. Some of the main impressions I was left with after reading this book were ones of Virginia Woolf’s appearance; referred to in many of these essays. Continually described as beautiful, her grace, slender height, beautiful hands and even her voice are described with affection. It seems that for those who knew her, Virginia Woolf left a lasting impression.
There is plenty of honesty in these accounts too. We hear from John Lehmann who worked alongside Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, it was not always an easy time, and there was a falling out which lasted a few years. Still Lehmann writes honestly and with affection. His sister Rosamond Lehmann herself a successful novelist, describes the Roger Fry biography as her masterpiece, remembers a woman whose…
“…conversation was a brilliant mixture of reminiscence, gossip, extravagantly fanciful speculation and serious, critical discussion of books and pictures. She was malicious and she liked to tease. Now and then her tongue had a corrosive edge, and one suspected that she enjoyed the embarrassment and discomfiture of a victim.”
Several people consider the question of Virginia Woolf’s genius, I suspect it was a question asked of the contributors.
My favourite pieces are the ones from people who knew Virginia and her husband for a lengthy period of time, Clive Bell, Nigel Nicolson of course but my two favourites are from Louie Mayer, and Leonard Woolf himself. Louie Mayer worked as a cook and housekeeper for Leonard and Virginia Woolf for over thirty years. Through her reminiscence we see Virginia Woolf at Monks House, witness Virginia’s talent for bread making, her excitement at finishing The Years, her inability to sew. We also, movingly witness the trauma of Virginia Woolf’s death. Louie Mayer stayed with Leonard Woolf after his wife’s death for the rest of his life.
The Leonard Woolf who emerges from this book, for me was a wise – though occasionally temperamental – figure, but his care and understanding of his wife was absolute. His protection quite probably ensuring that she lived as long as she did. The book ends with an adaptation of a conversation between Malcolm Muggeridge and Leonard Woolf recorded in 1967. Leonard Woolf has always been a shadowy figure for me – not having read any biographies of him, here he becomes a more real and sympathetic man than I had ever thought him – he was probably overshadowed in my mind by Virginia.
Despite her illnesses, which were crippling at several points during her life – the reader of this collection is not left with the impression of a sad, fragile half broken woman, quite the reverse. She was a woman prone to hooting laughter, wit, love and enjoyment, she drove herself hard, and doubted herself terribly. She adored children and they loved her, they appreciated the way she talked to them. There are lots of fabulous personal reminiscences, plaudits and criticisms, which together show us how Virginia Woolf touched people in a variety of ways, not all the recollections are a hundred percent positive, as not all recollections could be – it just goes to make a realistic whole.
I will leave you however with this wonderful memory from Elizabeth Bowen –
“As it happened the last day I saw her I was staying at Rodmell and I remember her kneeling back on her heels and put her head back in a patch of sun, early spring sun. Then she laughed in this consuming, chocking, delightful, hooting way. And that is what has remained with me.”
I am very glad I managed to read this right at the end of phase 4 – it has added yet another dimension to my knowledge and understanding of Virginia Woolf.