Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction reading’


Soon, I will be boarding a plane to Iceland with three friends, and Names for the Sea; strangers in Iceland, was the book I decided to read in preparation. It’s the kind of book I don’t often read, but it does me good to step outside my comfort zone. A friend of mine who has visited Iceland three times and has also read this book warned me that there were some negative points which didn’t match her experience, so I was ready to be not put off Iceland by those parts. Names for the Sea relates the experience of author and university  teacher Sarah Moss; who takes a job at the university of Reykjavik and moves herself, her husband and two young sons to the Icelandic capital for an entire year. Naturally someone spending a year in Reykjavik, with young children, a job, financial concerns etc. will face entirely different experiences to those of us just visiting.

This is not Sarah’s first visit to Iceland, in 1995 when they were nineteen, she and her friend Kathy spent six wonderful summer weeks in Iceland. Sarah feels like she has always been drawn northward.

“The Arctic is just over the horizon, the six months’ darkness always at the back of the mind, the summer-long day impossible to believe in winter and impossible to doubt when it comes. Here, just below the Earth’s summit, there are towns and villages, a tangle of human lives, in the shadow of Arctic eschatology. I keep going back to the North Atlantic, working my way north and west as the Celts and Vikings did, as if I’m heading for the Vikings’ westernmost point at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.”

It was 2009 when Sarah Moss took a job at Reykjavik university and she and her family left their home in Canterbury for a year in Iceland. Between accepting the job and moving to Iceland, beginning the search for an apartment and all the rest that goes along with moving a family from one country to another, the financial crisis hits Iceland, and the value of her salary is practically halved. The (some would say bad) timing of Sarah’s year in Iceland is quite key – because the financial crisis affects the kinds of goods readily available in the Icelandic supermarkets – and has Sarah soon yearning after the plentiful fruits of Kent.

reyjavikMoving to another country will always be something of a culture shock – I don’t think it is ever something I could do. Sarah is very aware of her ‘foreignness’ finding her few words of Icelandic stick in her throat – it’s that acute embarrassment thing, isn’t it? – but mortified to be continually expecting people to speak English to her. Customs, everyday practices which Icelanders takes for granted must be explained. Living in a new (not yet finished) apartment complex out in the suburbs Sarah learns that just like in California – everybody drives – almost no one of driving age gets the bus, but for the first few months Sarah’s family resist getting a car because they have so little money. It can be quite an operation preparing herself and the children to walk to school from their apartment once the winter begins, and it is at this point a car becomes a necessity. The financial crisis hit Iceland hard, and Sarah and her family – living with very sparse, basic furnishings (sitting on garden chairs in their living room as they were cheaper) – feel very poor. Sarah begins to look for that poverty in Icelanders – and is unable to find it easily – though she knows it must exist. She also discovers that there is practically no such thing as second hand in Iceland – people having a cultural reticence to using other people’s things.

The weather is another key feature – probably unsurprisingly – and again Moss can appear a bit negative, again, I find that totally understandable. Working with children as I do, I know how staff feel when the children haven’t been able to go out to play two days on the trot – it drives us all demented – imagine having two young lively boys effectively cooped up in an apartment for months. She does however find moments within those long winter months that charm and delight her.

“The aurora are unsettling partly because they show the depth of the space, the falsity of our illusion that the sky is two-dimensional, and partly because it’s hard to convince your instincts that something bigger than you and grabbing at the sky isn’t out to get you.”

Overall Sarah’s experiences are fascinating, I was particularly interested in the details of schooling and nursery provision which she had to access for her sons – children start school at six and continue until they are twenty! There is good, full time nursery provision in Reykjavik which it seems everybody takes advantage of. Sarah’s youngest son, picks up Icelandic with impressive speed, young children often do in these situations, while her elder son settles happily at an international school. Sarah is drawn to the Icelandic landscape, the volcanic craters, the scattered farmhouses and isolated communities, she drives at speed along unsurfaced roads as she explores her unique environment.iceland1

During her year in Iceland, Sarah makes a lot of friends and connections among the people she lives and works among. She works hard to learn more about the country and its people. She learns about the elves and the hidden people, who play an important part in the oral histories of the country. Sarah meets Þórunn at her remote house, a house for which Sarah feels immediate envy, Þórunn claims that she is never alone in her isolated summer home, she is surrounded by hidden people.

“Þórunn gestures, and I gaze at the space she’s pointing to. I can see my own reflection, out there under the tree, and I can see the table on the veranda Þórunn a, and the wind stirring the rowan trees, and the ash cloud rising into the blue sky. ‘She’s from the hidden people, and she lives in the lava field with her family. I used to go and visit her, but about three years ago she started to come and see me, just for a visit. And there are tree elves that I can see out there, small tree elves, and the flower elves, which are even smaller’ – Þórunn holds her hand about a foot above the coffee table – ‘but usually elves are very delicate creatures, with a very fine bone structure.”

At the end of the year, Sarah and her family return to England, to Cornwall this time, but a year or so later return to Iceland for a holiday. On this return trip, she notes how the availability of some goods she had so missed while she lived in Reykjavik had improved quite a lot.

I’m glad I read this book, I feel as if I have learnt a lot about a country I have wanted to visit for years. I am only visiting Iceland for a few days, but a whole year – that is an entirely different kettle of fish. The one thing I don’t think I would do very well with however – is that six-month winter, though the long bright days at the other end of the year sound wonderful. As I get older I appreciate the light more and more. I am still, naturally really looking forward to my holiday. Iceland sounds like it is a fascinating country.


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I have read a couple of Diana Athill’s later memoirs, Yesterday Morning (2002) and Somewhere Towards the End (2008). They were wonderful and I have been meaning to read more of her work for ages. Her short stories published by Persephone books are particularly on my radar. I came across this lovely old edition of Instead of a Letter in a second hand bookshop – I love these old dust-jackets.

Instead of a Letter, Diana Athill’s first work of autobiography was written when Diana Athill was only in her 40s, published a year after her first volume of short stories. Since then, she has written several more volumes of memoir, including one quite recently. Considering that Athill didn’t write these in any kind of chronological order I can’t see it matters which order one reads them in, as each book does seem to have a different focus. Born in 1917 – she will be celebrating her 99th birthday just before Christmas.

Diana Athill was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family, and brought up in the Norfolk countryside. Having worked for the BBC before the war, she later worked in publishing and as an editor, working with many very famous literary greats.

In writing this memoir when she did, Diana Athill, was trying to discover something about herself, and crucially about what her life had been for. It was a question which had been prompted by the memory of her maternal grandmother.

“By the end, pain and exhaustion had loosened her grip on life so that when she ‘recovered’ yet again from a heart attack she would whisper, ‘why doesn’t God let me die?’ but for a long time she was afraid of what was happening to her. She was afraid of death, and she was sorrowful – which was worse – because she had much time in which to ask herself what her life had been for, and often she could not answer.”

dianaathill-youngShe is, as ever, uncompromisingly honest. This is a woman, who the reader instantly feels right at home with, someone will a brilliant understanding of herself, and the ability to examine herself with unflinching honesty.
Although this memoir begins when Diana is a child, it is not a childhood memoir (Yesterday Morning is her childhood memoir – and is brilliant). Instead of a Letter takes us from those years when Diana was living in the country with her family, to her happy times at Oxford in the 1930s through to those darker days after the Second World War, as she recovered from a terrible heartbreak. It is this relationship which is at the heart of the novel, and which was brought suddenly and unexpectedly back to her on a chance visit to an Oxfordshire village.

“ ‘Good evening… Oh, my God, it’s Paul’s girl!’
‘Maggie, you recognised me!’
Maggie held my arm for a moment after kissing me, looking as though she might cry, while I stood there feeling a curious internal vertigo. It was almost twenty years since I had last gone through the narrow door into the taproom of the Plough at Appleton, a small village about ten miles from Oxford; almost twenty years since Maggie and I had seen each other.’

When she was in her teens, a young man named Paul was brought into her home to help tutor Diana’s brother for his public-school entrance exam. Paul was only four years older than Diana, though the age gap never seemed very big at all. Diana fell in love with the mere idea of him. When the real Paul turned up Diana found in him all she could have dreamed – and more.

“I wrote to a friend of mine: ‘The tutor’s come and he’s a perfectly marvellous person. He’s got brown eyes and fair hair and I suppose he ought to be taller really but he has got broad shoulders and a good figure, and he’s country and London at the same time. He would be at home anywhere. He’s very funny and reads a lot, but he isn’t a bit highbrow. We took a boat up the stream yesterday, through all that tangly bit beyond the wood, like going up the Amazon, and he made up a tremendous story about who we were and what we were doing. He knows more about birds than anyone I know, but he dances well, too.’ ”

Paul, first more like a brother, eventually became the centre of her world, and she invested almost everything in him. The war separates them, and Diana must content herself with infrequent letters and a long-distance relationship before she becomes an RAF wife. Paul’s dissertation of her is devastating, more so perhaps as she never gets the chance to forgive him.

This memoir perfectly evokes the times in which Diana Athill lived as a young woman, the people she writes about emerge from the pages fully formed. Athill beautifully recreates her greatest love story from which she seemed to emerge a wiser, sadder woman, but one who knew herself, in a way, perhaps not all of us do. She writes in a very un-embarrassed way about her various brief sexual relationships and the abortion she felt she had to have. After the war, saw her begin working with André Deutsch with whom she was to have a long and successful association. Later Diana was to find true happiness when she discovered writing for herself.

This is a wonderful book, in which we see the devastation of a loss, and the redemptive power of finding one’s true self in creative work.





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You may all remember some exciting news over the summer from Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow. Working in conjunction with Dean Street Press nine titles that Scott has raved about and championed on his marvellous blog are at last being brought back into print. I believe that there will be more coming out in the future.

I was delighted to receive two e-books from the publishers out of the blue – a lovely surprise. I chose to read A Chelsea Concerto first, a deeply personal memoir of the London blitz.

Frances Faviell lived in Chelsea both before and during the Second World War. Her remarkable memoir opens early in the war, before the devastating bombardment that was to follow. She becomes a Red Cross volunteer– attached to a first aid post, and in those early days there are a lot of drills. At this time Chelsea is still the bohemian district that she is so familiar with, home to artists such as Faviell herself. Like the Londoners of the time, we are lulled into a false sense of security – in the long quiet, uncertain days before the first bombs fall, everything feels normal – just with added sandbags and men in khaki.

In time of course the blitz over London began, and Chelsea was particularly targeted, Faviell is fairly uncompromising in her descriptions of the devastation, the dead, injured, traumatised and bereaved which became a huge part of their lives, night after night after night. Chelsea came under heavy bombardment due to its proximity to the Thames and the bridges which served the river. Time and again Frances is called upon to help people in desperate situations.

“As I hurried by she turned, said something to the others, then called to me, ‘Nurse!’ I went over. The man bending over the hole straightened up, but I could not look at him because of the appalling sound coming from the hole. Someone was in mortal anguish down there. The woman in nurse’s uniform, who was tall and very largely built, said sharply to me, ‘What are your hip measurements?’ I said, above the horrible moaning from the hole, ‘Thirty-four inches.’ One of the men took a piece of stick and measured it across my shoulders, then across my hips, and then put it across the hole. ‘Easy—an inch to spare each side,’ he said”

Obliged to crawl, semi clad, into a tiny space beneath a pile of rubble to chloroform a terribly injured man, on another occasion to grimly piece together the body parts of bomb victims to return to families for burial.

We meet the characters who Frances lives amongst, the people who for Frances Faviell will be forever synonymous with that time and that place. They become people we care about too, involved with and worried for.

“And suddenly, as I stood there, they all came crowding back again – the grey ghost faces, the wail of the sirens, the sound of gunfire, the crash and reverberation of bombs, the drone of planes and the crackle of flames. Back they all came… Kathleen, Anne, Cecil, Larry, Catherine and the baby, Grannie and the horse, Beauty, the East Enders, the refugees…”

Frances is living in a flat, very close to the Royal Hospital – she is friendly with the people upstairs; a woman and her two daughters, one of who is disabled. Her Dachshund Vicki; has become a bit of a local character, affectionately nicknamed Miss Hitler by the neighbours. Engaged to Richard, who is working for the ministry of home security, Frances is soon considering becoming a fully registered nurse. At this point – Frances has already travelled widely, been married once before, learnt a couple of languages and developed a range of skills she able to put to practical use in helping the people of Chelsea during the difficult times in which they find themselves. When Ruth; a Jewish refugee – who left Germany several years earlier – succumbs to paranoid terror and attempts to gas herself, Frances becomes a surrogate mother figure to her devastated daughter Carla.

blitzIn the months and years which follow, Frances shows herself to be a brave, calm and resourceful volunteer. Working with Belgian refugees, she becomes a safe harbour for these displaced people. There’s Catherine, who arrives in London at nineteen unmarried and pregnant ashamed of her unmarried status, she feels judged and looked down upon, and The Giant – who is responsible for more than one fracas. There are moments of humour too – A Chelsea Concerto isn’t all tension and horror – there is a wedding – the author’s own – during an air raid – fun, and lovely friendships, a beautiful baby is born, and Vicki the Dachshund attracts an ardent admirer.

As Frances’s involvement with the lives of the refugees’ increases, she is doing so, while Chelsea is being subjected to the most horrendous bombardment, and she is constantly assisting with the casualties that each day brings. It is difficult for us now to imagine such relentless devastation, streets filled with rubble, broken glass, yet another gap appearing in a row of houses, people trapped under piles of debris. I couldn’t help but think of the people of Aleppo – our modern day equivalent I suppose.

This is a remarkable memoir, and it’s so good that people will again be able to read Frances Faviell’s memoir – which could so easily have become another old forgotten book.



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There are books I approach reviewing with some caution – or fear – and Three Guineas was one such book – the themes are so huge, the writing (naturally) so good – and the author – is Virginia Woolf. So you can expect a bit of prevaricating and waffle before I get down to it. My edition – the one pictured above, containing A Room of One’s Own – was sent to me by the lovely people at OUP when they heard about #Woolfalong. I had already read A Room of one’s Own last year – but only had it on kindle – this lovely edition with its copious notes gave me the perfect excuse to read Three Guineas for phase 5 of #Woolfalong.

Non-fiction and I don’t always get along, and September is a nightmare month for me – I’m so tired and busy – and I haven’t even got to my very very busy weekend yet – it means non-fiction wasn’t the best fit for me this month. Still I gave it a go – and I did pretty well. Despite my exhaustion and limited reading time I really engaged with this famous essay – well the first two thirds anyway – the final third did drag rather – and I struggled a little at times – due almost certainly to my own tired mind and nothing more. Still the whole is incredible, Woolf’s brilliance demonstrated here by her sharp commentary and fiercely intelligent wit. I found lots to enjoy and marvel at – Woolf’s insight into the society in which she lived with its obvious weaknesses and limitations – especially for women of her own class, is extraordinary.

“No guinea of earned money should go to rebuilding the college on the old plan just as certainly none could be spent upon building a college upon a new plan: therefore the guinea should be earmarked “Rags. Petrol. Matches.” And this note should be attached to it. “Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry, “Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this ‘education!”

Virginia Woolf originally wrote this as a novel-essay which was to form part of her novel The Pargiters – the original idea to have alternating fiction and non-fiction chapters. Of course in the end Woolf re-thought this idea and The Pargiters became The Years, the non-fiction sections removed to become Three Guineas.

The essay is essentially a series of letters – letters which serve to answer the question of how war could be prevented. This was a subject which would have been very much in vogue I assume at this time, written in the mid to late 1930s when everyone felt the world to be on the brink of another war. In her letter –  her reply to an educated gentleman – Woolf wryly wonders why she should be so approached with this difficult question, when as a woman, the daughter of an educated man – she doesn’t enjoy the same access to universities, societies and the professions as the sons of educated men.

“Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with it nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed.”

In her bid to answer this larger question about the prevention of war – Woolf also sets about answering the questions of why the government does not support the education of women and why women must be continually prevented from following professional careers. In asking these question Woolf is naturally considering why educated families are prepared to spend money on educating their boys but not their girls, and what it might mean for society should those girls be allowed to be so educated. Woolf imagines a new kind of women’s college, a college which would be more experimental – less concerned with shoring up the traditional male world.

“…what should be taught in the new college, the poor college? Not the arts of dominating other people; not the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital.”

She envisages a time when women too will be able to deliver sermons from church pulpits, sit in judgement in courts of law, teach young men at university or rise through the ranks of the civil service.

Woolf who had been so badly affected by the horrors of the First Word War, was a famously anti-war pacifist – she was also ardently feminist, and with Three Guineas she combines these two concerns. More than eighty years after it was first published Three Guineas still has lots to say to us in the twenty-first century.

I am very glad I read this for all its challenges because as always Virginia Woolf opens my eyes and gives me food for thought.

Virginia woolf2

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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.

vw2These 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.”

(Duncan Grant)

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.”

(Rosamond Lehmann)

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 vw1positive, 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.”

(Elizabeth Bowen)

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.


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VW critical memoir

So it is already September which means the beginning of #Woolfalong phase 5 and I am still reviewing books for phase 4. This is the first of two books I read in the final week of August for the biography section. Strictly speaking Virginia Woolf; a critical memoir is not a work of biography, it is more a piece of criticism, although there is naturally a biographical element. It was the first critical study of Virginia Woolf in English.

Winifred Holtby was a well-respected novelist, journalist and social reformer, who died tragically young in 1935. Now known best for her novel South Riding, Holtby was a very different kind of writer to Virginia Woolf, but in 1931 she began writing this work of literary criticism at the invitation of an editor working for publisher William Collins – it was finally published by Wishart & Co in 1932. Virginia Woolf was perfectly aware of the book being written, making a note in her diary about it and following that up with a letter to Winifred Holtby saying that she looked forward to reading it. Fascinatingly the two women met once during the writing of the book, and Woolf arranged for an advance copy of The Waves to be sent to Winifred Holtby. These are the kinds of details which fascinate me. The result is a thoughtful piece of literary criticism, in which Holtby considers the limitations of Woolf’s work, while showing that while they were very different writers Holtby quite obviously appreciated it.

Forgive me for quoting perhaps too much from this excellent work, which shows Holtby’s gift as a superb writer (one of my favourites) and her attention to detail, presumably showing the exactitude of a good journalist too.

“In 1919 it is highly probable that she understood Jane Austen better than she understood herself. She appreciated Jane Austen’s perfection, her integrity, her technical skill and her exquisite discrimination of moral values. To a large extent, she shared these.”

Holtby considers her very careful reading of Woolf’s work against the debate – which was prevalent at the time – between modernist and traditional styles of writing explaining:

“Dorothy Richardson did not invent the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, but she had re-introduced it; she had made people talk about it.”

In her first chapter Holtby suggests that Virginia Woolf ‘inherited the instinct to write’ from her mother rather than her father Leslie Stephen; Victorian man of letters. In 1883 Mrs Stephen published a small book called Notes from the Sickroom, a book providing good sense hygiene advice, long out of print by the time Holtby was writing. However, Holtby maintains that in that slight long forgotten work there can be found some resemblance to Virginia Woolf’s later writing style. She quotes a short extract about crumbs in the bed – which seems to bear out what she says, showing what she calls Mrs Stephen’s ‘half-amused detachment.’

Holtby highlights Woolf’s own criticism, at this period Woolf was still known by many as a reviewer and critic first. Pointing out how Woolf’s choice of title for her first collection of essays – The Common Reader – showed how Woolf wanted to distance herself from the idea of a critic and scholar, borrowing the title from Dr Johnson.

Constantly while reading this marvellous book one is aware of Holtby’s intelligent reading of Woolf’s work, and her astute assessment and understanding of it.

“She is, as it happens, enormously aware of time. Throughout her novels time clangs like fate; its sound reverberates with terrifying persistence. When Jacob, when Mrs Dalloway, when Orlando hear clocks strike, the explosion shakes the complex fabric of their being. The whole of Orlando is a fantasia on time sense.”

There is probably very little point – me writing at any length about each chapter of this book, I can’t see any benefit of a long review of it. Holtby considers each of Woolf’s works, shining a light on its brilliance and complexity. For instance, Holtby shows the importance of water and the sea in Woolf’s work, examining everything from Woolf’s childhood holidays in Cornwall, to her use of water in To the Lighthouse, The Voyage Out, Jacob’s Room and The Waves. Of course this was all written before Woolf’s death at her own hand – by water. Holtby acknowledges that she and Woolf were poles apart, perhaps that is what makes this such a great piece of writing. For me, the one thing I loved is how this book has supported my own reading of Woolf.

Holtby considers the reception of Woolf’s work, and how Woolf continually subverted reader’s expectations. Surprising them, challenging them and constantly evolving her own art.

“The significance of To the Lighthouse was tragic. Its analysis was luminous and profound, its mood poetic, its preoccupations spiritual. It concerned life and death and human character. Those who read and admired it awaited eagerly its successor, expecting another Clarissa Dalloway, another Mrs Ramsay. They got, in 1928, Orlando: A Biography; in 1929, A Room of One’s Own.”

True Holtby talks at some length about books I have yet to read – and in a sense there are spoilers – only they weren’t spoilers for me. I have come away from this book slightly less nervous of The Waves (though I am still a bit) and really very excited about reading Jacob’s Room – during phase 6 of #Woolfalong.

This book also served as a reminder of what an excellent writer Winifred Holtby was. Her critical memoir is beautifully written, balanced and fair. 

winifred holtby

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Phase four of #Woolfalong is all about biographies – either biographies about or written by Virginia Woolf. Orlando and Flush immediately come to mind – as does Woolf’s biography of Roger Fry – which I initially overlooked when I put the list together.

Having already read Orlando – last year, and Flush last month I wanted to read a biography about Virginia Woolf. I am not however always very good with non-fiction, I read less and less of it and I have to be in the in the right frame of mind, so I opted for Nigel Nicolson’s short biography. This was actually a re-read – but I had remembered very little about it. I had remembered how I had enjoyed it before, finding it an engaging and readable little biography. I enjoyed it all over again, it is very readable, and Nigel Nicolson provides at times a wonderfully honest and intimate portrait of Virginia Woolf. He tells us of butterfly hunting and conversation with a woman not much used to children.

“One summer’s afternoon when we were sweeping the tall grass with our nets and catching nothing, she suddenly paused, leaning on her bamboo cane as a savage might lean on his assegai, and said to me: ‘What’s it like to be a child?’ I, taken aback, replied, ‘Well, Virginia, you know what it is like. You’ve been a child yourself. I don’t know what it’s like to be you because I have never been grown-up.’ It was the only occasion when I got the better of her, dialectically.”

2016-08-02_17.09.45Nigel Nicolson was the younger son of Vita Sackville West who was Virginia Woolf’s long-time friend and lover. During his childhood Virginia Woolf was a frequent visitor to the Nicolson family home, and it is Nigel Nicolson’s reminiscences of these childhood encounters that make this such a little gem. This edition also includes some wonderful photographs.

There were however things I certainly hadn’t remembered about this book, and which if I am honest I think makes it a slightly weaker work than I had remembered. Nicolson is very dismissive about Virginia Woolf’s feminism. His view of her famous A Room of One’s Own was that VW was referring only to the women of her own class (well yes possibly) – and says of it that it…

“…was in part a polemic, in part a fantasy. The mood of Orlando was still upon her. She was having fun, but the fun was soured by a note of real bitterness. ‘Why did men drink wine and women water?’, she asked again. In Bloomsbury both sexes drank wine. And was it not Virginia herself, by her conduct and achievements, proof that women of her class were already emancipated?”

I’m sorry, but I was a little disappointed in Nigel Nicolson for that. I was further disappointed by his approach to the sexual assault which Virginia Woolf claimed to have been subjected to by her step-brothers. His attitude seems to have been that VW made a big fuss about nothing. His evidence – to me scant – that the surviving family of the step-brothers dispute it (well yes, they would) and that VW continued to have dealings with them in adulthood – (families are odd complicated things – who can say what one person may or may not do).

I don’t want to dwell too heavily on these two points – I still overall very much enjoyed the book. While these opinions can only add to the myriad which exist about many aspects of Virginia Woolf – I felt them to be rather short sighted.

Still there are many things that I liked about this book. Certainly Nicolson doesn’t allow his family connections with VW to prevent him being objective. He discusses her work without bias, providing an interesting viewpoint on her work.

The majority of this slim biography concerns the woman Nigel Nicolson and his mother knew during the years they knew her. Therefore, there is only a little background given about Virginia Woolf’s own family – the Stephens, and her childhood. What Nigel Nicolson does give us is as well as those delicious childhood reminiscences are details about the Bloomsbury group. He explores the relationships which existed between the members of that group, showing us how the group lived and were viewed by others.

“It was an abrasive society, highly stimulating. It was said that the difference between Bloomsbury and Cambridge was that at Cambridge nothing witty was said unless it was also profound and in Bloomsbury nothing profound was said unless it was also witty. Virginia was largely responsible for this change in mood”

We meet VW the writer and publisher. A writer who was her own worst critic, doubting herself terribly, and putting herself under enormous pressure, working  long hours, her mind never far from the book she was writing. She would write in longhand all morning, and type up her writings in the afternoon, in the evening Virginia wrote several letters, each letter unique no phrase ever repeated. As a publisher Virginia would spend hours setting the type – (it must have been an immensely tedious activity) for the Hogarth Press she ran with her husband Leonard.

Through Nicolson’s memory of her we meet Virginia the friend and lover, he acknowledges her love for his mother. Alongside that he shows his own very real affection for the woman he first met as a young boy. Nicolson also clearly shows some very real sympathy for the crippling depression from which VW suffered at various points of her life. In fact Nicolson portrays VW’s suicide in 1941 with tenderness and understanding.

So while I enjoyed Nicolson’s reminiscences of VW – and appreciated his objectivity and the warmth with which this biography is written, I think I probably need to read some other biographies to get a fully rounded picture of this remarkable woman.

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