Monday, May 19, 2008

Aspects of Virginia: VIRGINIA WOOLF by E. M. Forster

I recently found at Half Price Books a first edition (with the dust jacket) of E. M. Forster's slim volume Virginia Woolf, which was originally delivered as the Rede Lecture at Cambridge on 29 May 1941, a mere two months after Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse in Sussex. I'd read the essay some years ago, when I first got interested in Woolf and before I'd read all of her novels. Now that I know more (and now that I'm more opinionated about her), I decided it was time to revisit the essay, but thought that at $50.00, Half Price was asking too much for this particular copy. Showing remarkable and rare self-restraint, I waited, and last week the price dropped to $25.00--and they'd removed it from the locked glass case and tossed it among the other books. Armed with an additional 15% off in the form of a coupon, I marched to the counter.

Forster and Woolf had been friends since about 1910, but their friendship was an odd one. When they met, Forster had already published four novels (Where Angels Fear to Tread [1905], The Longest Journey [1907], A Room with a View [1908], and Howards End [1910]) and was considered one of the best and most promising writers of his generation; Woolf was still writing her first novel. While Woolf liked him a great deal, she found him, as Hermione Lee notes, "as timid as a mouse," "erratic, irregular," "a pale blue butterfly." Her diary is full of encounters with him, episodes that are always rather awkward and truncated--she bumps into him at the British Library, and "[w]e shook hands very cordially; and yet I always feel him shrinking sensitively from me, as a woman, a clever woman, an up to date woman." Lee states that "they had circled warily around each other all their lives." There has been a great deal of critical discussion about the fact that her break with the prevailing form of the novel was as much a break with Forster as with anyone else. While he was not in any direct sense her mentor--she never showed him manuscripts or asked for his advice, as she did with her brother-in-law Clive Bell while she was writing The Voyage Out (1915)--nevertheless his influence can be seen in her early work. The Voyage Out owes much, in its depiction of comic English people abroad, to the collection of characters in the Pensione Bertolini in Florence in A Room with a View; the social questions raised by Night and Day (1919) echo those of Howards End. But here the similarities end. E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf were as different from one another--as the British say--as chalk and cheese. And it is perhaps knowledge of these differences that is at the heart of Forster's curious little lecture on his friend.

Forster's most striking assertion, and the one with which I have the most trouble, is that "her problem" is that "she is a poet, who wants to write something as near to a novel as possible." There is a measure of truth to that. The thing that gives many readers (including some of my students) fits when they read Woolf is the loose, drifting nature of the material, the "poetic" flow of words. But I would argue that with the possible exception of The Waves (1931), which is more a prose poem than a novel, Woolf consciously wrote fiction rather than poetry, and was compelled by narrative--it just wasn't the kind of narrative that readers were used to. My problem with Forster's argument is that it is essentially a rehash of that made by Arnold Bennett in the 1920s, the one that inspired Woolf's famous retort in the form of the essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1924), which is that Woolf does not create characters who live and breathe, who linger in the reader's mind after the book is closed. For me, Clarissa Dalloway is as real a character as any ever written, as are Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, as is Orlando, for all of his/her improbability. Both Forster and Bennett object to Woolf's work largely because it doesn't resemble their own. And while I revere Forster deeply, he is unable--as are most of us--to see his own flaws. Forster was a gay man who understood little about male-female relations, and thus most of the love affairs in his work ring a bit false. I've always felt that the reason Charlotte Bartlett interrupts Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson in the field in A Room with a View and prevents things from getting hot and heavy is because Forster himself didn't know what the hell Lucy and George might physically do with each other should things be allowed to proceed. (It would take the 1986 Merchant-Ivory film version to inject some actual heat into this romance, embodied as it is by the gorgeous Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands.) I suppose I just find Forster's argument to be twenty years out of date by the time of his lecture, and might have hoped for something a bit more penetrating from the man who wrote Aspects of the Novel. Also, one could point out that Forster's last novel, A Passage to India, was published in 1924; he lived until 1970. Whatever Woolf's faults, I'm pleased by her productivity, by the fact that she did a remarkable amount of work despite various difficulties, and never allowed herself to be stymied.

Forster also misses the mark when he declares that Woolf had no concern for the threat to civilization posed by fascism and war. This is a gross misreading of her most misunderstood book, Three Guineas (1938), one of the most scathing indictments of war and fascism ever written. Forster reduces this book to its feminist elements, with which he has little sympathy; he says that he sees "spots" of feminism all over her work, as though these spots are symptoms of some embarrassing disease. In his defense, Forster could not have known how eloquently Woolf wrote about the horrors of war and fascism in her diary and letters just before her death, but I'm still bewildered that he could miss the ominous shadow of the war in a book that he otherwise praises, Between the Acts (1941). Is it that men--then and still--don't think that women can understand something as big and far-reaching as war, which Woolf herself once called "a preposterous masculine fiction"?

But here I am isolating out Forster's complaints about Woolf. The bulk of his lecture is about her gifts and strengths--her way with words, her delight in sensual details like food (he goes so far as to say that "when Virginia Woolf mentions nice things they get right into our mouths, so far as the edibility of print permits"), the fact that she liked writing and did it for the pure joy of doing it. And while he may have had issues with her work, his stance is ultimately generous. Theirs was a unique friendship, and a rather ambivalent one. Woolf was competitive by nature, and she was never wholly at her ease with other writers. (Her relationship was Katherine Mansfield was even more problematic than that with Forster.) With people in the visual arts, like her sister Vanessa Bell, she was more comfortable--they were not a threat. I get the sense that Forster may have thought of Woolf in the same way. Nevertheless, he is able to write, "Virginia Woolf got through an immense amount of work, she gave acute pleasure in new ways, she pushed the light of the English language a little further against darkness."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Leonard and Virginia in motion: A BOY AT THE HOGARTH PRESS, by Richard Kennedy

I would guess that any reader who has spent a significant period of time studying the life and work of Virginia Woolf must have his or her own "version" of her. In my mind, I have an idea of how she stood, how she walked, the way she moved her head, all culled from photographs and from the many anecdotes and reminiscences I've read about her over the last ten years. There is no film footage of her in motion, and only one surviving recording of her voice, reading an essay called "Craftsmanship" on the BBC in the 1930s: her voice sounds upper-crust, snooty, nineteenth-century, not a bit, in other words, like the fiercely modern voice in her books. While the photographic record is large, it is all those of us who are in love with Woolf (and there is no other phrase which comes close to describing how I feel about her) have in order to create a moving, living portrait in the brain. Thus, each of us must have a personal Woolf, and would probably willingly argue with others about her qualities: "She would never say that!" Or, "She wouldn't wear that kind of dress." This goes a long way towards explaining the problems so many Woolf scholars had with Nicole Kidman's portrayal of Woolf in The Hours--she was simply not their Woolf (nor was she mine, exactly), and so both the performance and the film were dismissed out of hand.

I've seen dozens of interviews with living writers like Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood, and thus I have some sense of them (however misguided) as people. I can read their books and hear their physical voices in my head; I can see the way they laugh and move. But with Woolf--and indeed with any writer who predates motion pictures--my sense of her exists, for the most part, solely on the page. Perhaps that's where writers should exist most--Lessing certainly thinks so, when she bemoans the interviews and publicity that contemporary publishing demands. The lack of a solid image of Woolf, a voice that can talk in your brain, makes the occasional firsthand account of her all the more valuable. Levenger, the Florida-based company that sells wildly expensive fountain pens, briefcases, stationery, and other "tools for serious readers," recently republished Richard Kennedy's slim 1972 memoir A Boy at the Hogarth Press. As I've been revisiting my dissertation on Woolf's diary in order to expand it into a book, I felt that rereading Kennedy's book was in order, so that I could regain that imaginative grasp of Woolf herself that had begun to elude me in these last months of a very hectic college term.

Kennedy arrived to work at the Hogarth Press, located in the basement of the Woolf's house at 52, Tavistock Square, in 1928, at the age of sixteen, through the auspices of his uncle George, a friend of Leonard Woolf's. At first, he was given odd jobs, but gradually moved up enough in Leonard's esteem (no mean feat!) to begin dealing directly with buyers, "shopping" the books to booksellers in the English hinterlands, etc. A Boy at the Hogarth Press presents itself as a sort of edited diary about his years there, until he leaves after infuriating Leonard by ordering the wrong size of paper for the Uniform Edition of Virginia's novels. In the face of Leonard's wrath, Kennedy quits and enrolls in journalism school, apparently on the sole basis of seeing three attractive young women at University College: "Three pairs of breasts and three laughing faces. They looked so happy and carefree. I thought of that basement prison, and acting on the spur of the moment, I sought out the authorities and learnt that there was a course in journalism starting in the autumn." Despite Kennedy's frequent depictions of Leonard's intolerance and miserliness (he complains about having to shell out money for toilet paper for the office), he maintains that Leonard was in fact a surrogate father for him, and that he learned a great deal in his tenure at the Press.

What is perhaps best about A Boy at the Hogarth Press, at least to my Virginia-obsessed eye, is the light it sheds on Virginia Woolf herself. I've read every biography of Woolf, and am therefore used to having her center-stage. It is always something of a shock to read a biography of one of her relatives or her acquaintances, and see her ambling in from--as Michael Cunningham would put it--her own story. One of things I like most about Frances Spalding's excellent biography of Virginia's sister Vanessa Bell is that Virginia herself is a peripheral figure, and being on the periphery somehow, oddly, makes her come into sharper focus for me. The same is true in Kennedy's memoir. Virginia is glimpsed writing in the back storage room at the Press, setting type, opening packages, and performing other mundane, Press-related activities. During a Bloomsbury evening she is observed in a the corner knitting, "a new occupation for her." One morning she is in a good mood because she spent the previous evening out at a nightclub, and describes "how marvellous it was inventing new foxtrot steps," to Leonard's apparent disapproval. She rolls foul-smelling shag cigarettes that very nearly choke an American lady. Virginia is always "Mrs W" in Kennedy's memoir; she usually calls him "Mr Kennedy." Kennedy appears to have regarded her with a certain degree of awe: by this point she had written Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and during Kennedy's tenure there she published Orlando, which was a huge success--Kennedy remarks frequently about their inability to keep the book in stock. We revere Virginia Woolf for her writing, for what she did alone in a room with pen and paper, and naturally many biographies (most notably Julia Briggs' recent Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life) focus on her intellectual and creative life, despite her immersion in the Bloomsbury Group, whose sexcapades have, on the flip side, received an enormous amount of attention. In Kennedy's memoir, it is precisely his record of her attention to the minutiae of the Press that brings her into sharper focus.

Adding to the appeal of Kennedy's book are his own incredible drawings of Leonard, Virginia, and the other characters who drifted in and out of the Press offices. Virginia never allowed herself to be photographed with her glasses on, and Kennedy's drawings of her, bespectacled, typing and smoking, convey the essence of the woman perhaps better than any photograph. Kennedy became quite well known as an illustrator in later years, and his skill at evoking character and personality through a few mere strokes of pen and ink is stunning. These images, converted in my mind into flesh and blood, add immeasurably to my understanding of how Virginia Woolf simply inhabited a room--an understanding that will undoubtedly help guide my continued work on her diary.

If you're interested in Kennedy's book, you needn't buy Levenger's fancy edition (though it is gorgeous)--Penguin published a mass-market paperback edition, including all of the illustrations, some years back. It is currently out of print, but is available used.

As I get more immersed in my own Woolf project, you can expect more postings on books related to her life and work. I am nothing if not single-minded.