26 March 2015 was the centenary of the publication of Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. That’s an extraordinary and disconcerting fact for me. In so many ways she still feels so in touch with modernity, and not just an abstract ‘modernity’ that you might read about in a textbook on modernism, but our observable, lived modernity. But at the same time, there are things in her novels that feels as if they come from another world. Her works are not unique in this: modernist writing and culture can seem simultaneously contemporary and antiquated. Daring adventures in fragmentation and self-consciousness: contemporary. Hierarchical ideas about race, class, and gender: antiquated. A conception of modernity and the modern city as an endless flux of bodies, vehicles, and information: contemporary. Actual pictures of London in 1922: horse-drawn carriages and men loafing in straw boaters.
Two recent novels take Virginia Woolf as a central character, and this, along with other novels that adapt her work — Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Robin Lippincott’s Mr Dalloway, and Gail Jones’s Five Bells — suggests that there might be a continuing relevance in her works, or a continuing viability in the tradition that she represents, or something about the woman herself that is interesting. What might it be? The two recent novels are Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhattan and Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and her Sister.
The scenarios of both are relatively simple to describe; the interest lies in their tone and in other aspects of their handling. In Maggie Gee’s novel, Virginia Woolf reappears in the present day, in the Berg Collection of New York Public Library (where many of Woolf’s diaries, letters, and manuscripts are held), and latches on to Angela Lamb, an English critic and novelist who has gone to New York to research Woolf’s papers. Angela has to help Virginia through her sometimes shaky transition into a new life into our modern world; Woolf comes across like a much-loved but eccentric elderly relative who can provoke delight and anxiety in rapid succession in those charged with looking after her; Woolf’s enthusiasm and curiosity come across. Eventually Virginia and Angela travel to Turkey, where Angela is due to speak on Woolf at a scholarly conference. Meanwhile, Angela’s feisty and hard-to-impress teenage daughter Gerda has run away from boarding school and followed Angela to New York, only to find that her mother has already left for Turkey.
Priya Parmar’s novel fictionalises the period of Vanessa and Virginia’s life from 1906 to 1912: the core of the narrative is the disruption to the sisters’ relationship caused by the death of her brother Thoby Stephen and by Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell soon afterwards; and then the further disruption caused to Vanessa’s marriage by Clive’s infidelities, particularly the close relationship he struck up with Virginia; and then the happiness that came through Vanessa’s relationship with Roger Fry. As the title suggests, the story is told primarily from Vanessa’s perspective, in what is ostensibly a diary form, though interleaved with Vanessa’s diary are letters between other members of her circle.
There are all sorts of great and admirable things happening in both novels. Gee’s is the easier read: its narrative form is simpler, both in the sense of the straightforward rhythm of passages alternating between Virginia’s and Angela’s perspectives (as well as Gerda’s), and in the sense that the plot has a clearer outline. Parmar’s diary and letter form is more fragmented, and keeps us on our toes. Gee’s command of tone is brilliant: essentially the novel is light, and yet it raises serious questions about our relation to the great cultural figures of the past, and the ethics of reading them. Her Virginia can be a two-dimensional cartoonish figure at times, and yet at other times she’s a figure of great pathos; in saying she’s two-dimensional I don’t mean that those passages are weaker; Gee keeps the tone light so that the deeper moments can resonate.
Parmar’s crafting of a diary-voice for Vanessa is an impressive achievement. Although there are a few moments where Vanessa’s reflections echo those of Virginia in her diaries, essentially Vanessa speaks differently, with more sustained concentration on a subject, and less of Virginia’s rapid flitting about; Virginia’s diary voice would be hard to turn to the requirements of narrative. (At the Oxford Literary Festival, Parmar said that her main source for Vanessa’s voice was the published and unpublished letters by Vanessa.) As someone who has intensively researched Woolf and her circle in the period 1908 to 1919 for the purposes of my edition of Night and Day, and as someone who can’t quite shut down the scholarly urge to annotate and investigate, I’m not the best reader for this novel. With my historicist hat on I felt there were some phrases and grammatical constructions in Vanessa’s and Leonard’s voices that were later twentieth-century, and that someone from her background wouldn’t have used at that date. The phrases in question aren’t on the same scale as the errors of idiom in Lippincott’s Mr Dalloway, where British characters are found speaking (or thinking) American English; they’re much subtler and harder-to-call; indeed, one might argue that a degree of cross-period intermingling of idioms is valuable, as it allows Vanessa to speak to us now. But a detailed account of that question may have to wait for another blog. What’s impressive about the voices in Parmar’s novel is that she’s clearly steeped herself in the writings of the originals and then allowed herself to cut loose. When, in The Hours, Cunningham has Virginia worry about Mrs Dalloway being “too tinselly”, it felt at best like a piece of undigested research (Woolf writes exactly that in her diary), and at worst like a deliberately paraded piece of research. When Parmar has characters assess someone or something by how “civilised” it is, it sets the right Bloomsbury flavour, but it’s not conspicuous in the sentence or the paragraph.
In The Hours, the representation of “Virginia Woolf” allowed Cunningham to ask questions about the posthumous presence of authors in later lives; the connection between the Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf sections is a demystified version of the relation between Nicholas Hawksmoor and Nicholas Dyer in Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor. But while the relationship of past to present (Laura Brown’s present) doesn’t have the uncanny quality found in Ackroyd’s novel, there’s still a celebration of the greatness of the “great” author and her power to reach across generations that amounts to a kind of mystification; Cunningham’s novel draws its power from the fact of Woolf’s suicide, and while it can’t be said actively to glorify it, it makes it a significant fact in her life, the end which gives meaning to every act and sign.
If Gee’s novel were to be read as a response to Cunningham’s novel — and it’s richer and more interesting than that reading would allow it to be — then it’s asking us to realize what a terrible loss her suicide was; not so much to us as readers, as to Virginia Woolf as a living, lively, inquisitive human being. It’s getting us to think about how much she missed by her untimely death. At some level I think Gee’s novel still needs Woolf to have died by suicide, but it wants to undo the romanticisation attached to it. When Virginia first reappears, she smells dankly of pondweed, as while there’s a degree of emotion attached to the fact, Gee mostly plays up the comic incongruity of it, and the awkwardness for Angela. As Virginia establishes herself in the modern world, her curiosity becomes her most prominent quality. At times she is comically unable to grasp present-day technologies — she can’t understand paperless typing on a laptop, for example — but she generally grows accustomed to them. Much more than correcting the emphasis of Cunningham’s novel, the presence of “Virginia Woolf” allows Gee to investigate our modernity, to render it strange to us, and in particular to investigate the place of America in the modern world. For those purposes, perhaps any revenant from the early twentieth century would have sufficed, but Woolf in particular allows Gee to think about the awkward ethics of reading a dead writer’s diaries: there’s a section where Angela realises that Woolf’s doesn’t know that Leonard did not destroy the diaries and that they have been published; and that Virginia doesn’t know how many personal secrets are now public knowledge. And having a revenant of Woolf’s gender and class allows Gee to raise questions about the material advantages that enabled Woolf to succeed as a writer.
Virginia isn’t central to Priya Parmar’s novel, but she’s essential to the narrative. The title captures this peculiar centre of gravity quite neatly: you know, it implies, who the sister is; she’s the famous one; but this novel is about Vanessa. However, at the Oxford Literary Festival, Parmar said that at her first public reading from the novel, the first audience question was “Who was Virginia Woolf?” and she had to rapidly recalibrate. It’s interesting to contemplate how the novel reads to someone who knows nothing of Virginia, and presumably therefore nothing of the other personages; but I’ll have to skip those speculations. For the reader with some knowledge of Woolf, there’s an odd sensation throughout of seeing a familiar person and familiar events from an unexpected angle. It’s not a comic change of perspective like Woolf’s Flush sometimes is, or Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is, because Vanessa is fully realised as a presence and there’s too much emotionally at stake in what unfolds. Notoriously, the Bloomsbury Group “lived in squares and loved in triangles”, and the main love-triangle in this novel is that involving Vanessa, Clive, and Virginia; and later another involving, in a subtler sense, Vanessa, Clive, and Roger. And in a novel full of triangles, the reader who begins it more knowledgeable about Virginia than Vanessa find him- or herself in a sort of triangle, registering Virginia through the medium of Vanessa. The nature of the passions reminded me of René Girard’s ideas about “imitative” or “mimetic” desire: we desire a person or thing not because of any inherently desirable qualities in the thing, but because we want to be like another person who also desires the object of desire. (Sure, this raises the problem of whether there was ever an original “pure” or “real” desire, but I’ve leave that for now.) In this novel, Virginia “desires” Clive because she wants to be Vanessa; and at the close, Clive’s feelings for Vanessa are rekindled because he wants to be Roger. And one wonders whether the desirability of the Stephen sisters to their various Cambridge suitors was because the suitors wanted to be Thoby Stephen. As a theory, it seems to work best when discussing affections that seem creepily empty; it’s less successful in explaining Vanessa’s love for Roger, for example. And Virginia’s responding to Clive’s advances can be explained more simply as her attempt to regain her sister’s attention. She emerges as not entirely likeable: exasperating to her sister; emotionally insecure and thoughtless in her means of securing affection, but not consciously calculating. The final letter of the novel indicates that the sisters’ bond has been irreparably weakened by Virginia’s involvement with Clive.
I’ve suggested that the reader gets drawn into these triangles too, but it’s also the case that the narrative form of the novel places a certain distance between readers and characters. I think this would be the case if the story were told solely through Vanessa’s diary, just because diaries are necessarily fragmentary and immersed in the day of their writing; but by interspersing the diary with others’ letters, Parmar distances us in another way. The contents of the letters don’t ever place Vanessa as the unknowing one in a situation of cold dramatic irony, but they make us aware that her tone and attitude isn’t the only one available: most conspicuously, Lytton Strachey’s brilliantly done letters, witty, detached, epigrammatic (all somewhat Wildean, in fact), offer a sharp contrast to Vanessa’s more deeply felt diary.
If Gee’s novel refocuses our attention away from Woolf the tragic suicide onto Woolf the lively and inquisitive mind, Parmar’s refocuses it away from the mature Virginia Woolf altogether and on to the as-yet-unmarried Virginia Stephen, a young writer who is publishing her first book reviews and essays, and working on her first novel, but who is far from an established figure. Moreover, Parmar’s Virginia is presented to the reader only through the medium of other characters. If the two novels have something in common, it could be that they both start from the point of view that we know — or we think we know — a great deal about Woolf, and while that’s mostly to the good, sometimes the various strands of knowledge tighten into a mythology, and we need to unknot them, and try to reshape our knowledge in a different way.