Georgie came, Harry went

Frank Kermode

  • A Passionate Apprentice. The Early Journals of Virginia Woolf, 1897-1909 edited by Mitchell Leaska
    Hogarth, 444 pp, £25.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 7012 0845 7
  • A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf by Jane Dunn
    Cape, 338 pp, £16.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 224 02234 2

Seven journal-notebooks from Virginia Woolf’s early years, six in the Berg Collection of New York Public Library and one in the British Library, are here reprinted without omissions. The editor has done his job with almost extravagant care, providing quantities of information it is just conceivable somebody might want most of. His attention to detail is exemplified by the way in which, as he transcribes, he puts in a lot of sic’s, some after apparently innocent words like ‘omelette’; more puzzlingly, he awards one to ‘Bosphorus’, himself spelling it ‘Bosporus’, though when the versatile Miss Stephen spells it that way a few pages on, she gets another sic. And with so many of them flying about one can’t help noticing places where they are needed but are absent. Mr Leaska has written a long, informative and devout introduction, filling in much necessary biographical detail – if much really is still necessary – and drawing attention to any hint or prefiguration, in the work of the apprentice, of greater things, and more agonising events, to come. Here and there he seems to overdo it, suggesting, for instance, that from entries in which the youthful diarist confesses to feeling cross (‘To bed very furious and tantrumical,’ ‘I was extremely gruff – unpleasant’) we may conjecture that it is her illness that is causing the page ‘to crackle with rage and frustration’. People who write about Virginia Woolf appear to be especially prone to sentimental over-interpretation of this kind, and one suspects that their heroine would have loathed them for it.

Editors are always open to charges of doing too much and too little, of being pedantically scrupulous and respectful or of being disrespectfully negligent. This one certainly has a great respect for his author. There she is, at 15, conscientiously writing in her journal such posterity-gripping observations as the following: ‘This is written just before father calls me to go out, and I can think of no sentence to fill the blank.’ The editor explains that this confession illustrates ‘the compulsive nature of the entries’. No doubt one is forced to over-read these journals, or at any rate the earliest of them, to justify the trouble of copying and commenting on them.

There are naturally a few moments when something out of the way, and usually disagreeable, is happening – for example, when members of the family die, as in these early years they did all too frequently. But more characteristic materials are the Lords and Commons and the Eton and Winchester cricket matches, the Boat Race, the Diamond Jubilee. Admittedly it is mildly amazing to find Leslie Stephen playing billiards in a pub, and there are quite interesting glimpses of turn-of-the-century London, the buses, the twopenny-ticket Underground, the four-wheelers, and so on. But most of these diaries are in truth very tedious. It is a relief to learn that everything Woolf wrote seems now to be in print, and that we shall probably have no more volumes of this sort. Testimony that we have reached the end of the line is here provided in an Appendix setting forth exercises performed by the youthful Virginia, when trying to improve her hand-writing:

As for the book – still
the glory grows and we
[upside down]
The church is within two yards of our gate
The church is within two
The church
The church is within two yards of our gate, –
I am not sure that
Passing away saith the Lord
This was not what she, etc.

If this had been found among the juvenilia of T.S. Eliot one might have thought it really something, but its value in the present context seems dubious.

Not surprisingly, the earliest diaries are the worst. ‘Very foggy all morning, and we did not go out. Stella went to Laura, and was away for luncheon and tea. We lunched at 1, and afterwards went to the Zoo, bussing to Park Lane, and then to Baker St.’ ‘Father and I went for a walk after breakfast’; ‘I did not go out with father in the morning because he had a cold’; or, even more simply, ‘In the morning we did nothing’; ‘We went out somewhere I think, but I quite forget’; ‘Forget what happened. Very rainy as usual’; ‘We lounged about. Georgie came. Harry went.’

For the female Stephen children life at this period is mostly confined to south of the Park, though, as we have seen, there are excursions, including a notably adventurous one when the sisters, Virginia expertly navigating, find their way to Wimpole Street, where they visit a dressmaker. However, the editor suspects it was really Great Marylebone Street, now New Cavendish Street. Wherever it was, the enterprise required four visits, and also some auxiliary though less daring raids on Kensington High Street to buy trimmings.

There are holiday trips, of course – for instance, to ‘misty flat utterly stupid Bognor’, where the sea was ‘black and rather inferior’, the weather windy and cold, the fields deep in clay. But mostly there is tea, shopping, concerts, an extraordinary number of street accidents involving bicycles and horses (‘I had the pleasure of seeing a car horse fall down’; ‘one horse on the ground and second prancing madly above it’); and reading, as prescribed by father. Moments of domestic excitement, unusual days, occur: the wedding of a half-sister, or a brother being not well enough to go to school at Westminster. Early on there is considerable consumption of ices, later supplanted by champagne.

Between 1897 and 1899 there is a merciful hiatus, after which things begin to look up. Now we can see that there is some point in speaking of these journals as recording an apprenticeship. They have certain ’prentice-writerisms, as might be expected in a 17-year-old (‘methinks’), but the entries are longer, things happen and get conscientiously described: as, for instance, in a deft, accurate account of a moth-hunt, or another of the carpet factory at Wilton. The diarist broods at length over a newspaper report of the suicide note left by a woman drowned in the Serpentine (‘No father, no mother, no work’: ‘Then slipping off the weight that had been too much for her, she sank in the waters’). There are also serious exercises in the description of character. In fact, the first really interesting entry in these journals occurs on page 179 and is a study of Janet Case, who taught Virginia Greek.

Yet at 21, which was her age when she wrote that passage, she was still thinking of success, for which she longed, in domestic and social terms: ‘no success seems so rounded and complete as that which is won in the drawing room.’ All the more unfortunate that ‘no sight in the whole world is so ugly – depressing as a room full of people none of whom you know.’ Given her father’s eminence, and the persistent gaddings-about of her half-brothers, the youthful author was not wholly unfamiliar with Society, but early discloses what she often admitted later, a certain envy of aristocrats, regarding them perhaps as a class tantalisingly close to her own, though separated by a barrier of hedonism impenetrable by members of such a family as the Stephens: aristocrats ‘believe enormously in leading a happy luxurous life... They shut their eyes and suck down their sugar plums.’ The other side of this consciousness of class difference is a perfectly normal incomprehension of the lower orders (‘the worst of the Kensington Gardens is the people’), though there are moments of astonished respect: ‘if you want to feel a fool try to do for yourself what you have always paid a servant to do for you ... Everybody ought to know how to unharness a horse – lead him to his stable – fasten him there – provide him with corn without a moment’s doubt. Otherwise not only the whole race of grooms but of horses likewise is for the time your superior.’ (But only until you hire another groom.)

Rather characteristically she complains that the inhabitants of Athens did not understand her when she spoke Classical Greek: ‘Nor are their features more classic than their speech.’ However, the class she most disliked was the aspiring lower-middle, with wrong ideas about houses and culture, Leonard Basts who had somehow come by enough money to give expression to their deplorably acquired tastes. Still, they were easily enough distinguished from the real thing. She found and copied this eptiaph in a Suffolk churchyard, perhaps thinking it quaint, but also feeling that it might apply to almost any friend of hers, though to few others. It is described as ‘an eddy of the 18th-century formalism; when the superior few were not ashamed to call themselves so’:

His superior intellectual attainments
Could only be appreciated by
the Superior Few,
        This they did:
But his moral worth
&c &c

He could probably unharness his horse, too.

To her own class, and specifically to her father, notorious for his superfluous agonies over it, money was very important. In her early twenties Virginia was justifiably proud of earning some as a conscientious book reviewer.

Clive Bell is said to have discovered in 1908 that Virginia had a future as a writer, but anybody who had seen the journals might have known it two or three years earlier. There is certainly plenty of evidence that ‘the instinct’ to write ‘wells like sap in a tree’, and a peculiar, conceited vision is developing, as when Florence, seen from San Miniato, is said to look like ‘a great basket of white & brown eggs’. Already, then, in spite of bereavements, breakdowns, and, if you compare it with what was available to contemporary men of her class, a relative constriction of life, she had educated herself as a writer; prepared to become a great one: which is why everything she wrote is now treated with such veneration. The danger is that the cult may stifle its object, unmitigated devotion make the saint a bore.

This, I’m afraid, is what happens in Jane Dunn’s book. Ms Dunn has had access to much unpublished material (some now made available by Leaska), and she uses it to fill out a general outline of the sisters’ lives that is already rather well-known – there are good biographies of both. Ms Dunn sets herself the task of documenting their mutual love and rivalry, and commenting on it with daunting fluency, in the belief that a minute study of their relationship must illuminate their individual characters. She naturally makes a good deal of the sexual interference of the Duckworth half-brothers, which Mr Leaska cautiously plays down. It has lately been the subject of a full-length American book, derided with cheerful authority by Quentin Bell in a recent review. Each sister had to deal with her mother’s view of ‘the incompatibility of intellectuality and femininity’, and naturally each did so in different ways, Vanessa the painter by abjuring ‘intellectuality’ and Virginia by being cleverer than the clever men. Each respected, and even envied, the way the other had chosen. What the sisters throughout their lives have to say about each other, and about lovers, husbands and children, is of some interest, but it is smothered in a commentary that despite its candour about sex is almost unbearably saccharine. No doubt the mixture of domestic detail and generalisations about Virginia’s dread of sexual love, is true enough to life, since most lives contain both sexual problems and domesticity, but over three hundred pages of it is too much.

Vanessa’s great love, Duncan Grant, didn’t really like women, which made her unhappy, though about this and other disappointments she was usually pretty stoical, perhaps even, as Jane Dunn calls her, ‘lapidary’ – she uses this strange epithet twice, once of Vanessa, once of Virginia, though I suspect from the context that in the second case Vanessa is again meant. It is impossible to apply the term to Virginia: in fact, it is difficult to attach it to anyone who is not a jeweller or possibly the Commendatore in Don Giovanni. But such small snags in the prose are easily lost in the gush.