Flush: a Biography by Virginia Woolf

6693“What a lark! What a plunge!” Mrs. Dalloway famously declares as she decides to buy the flowers herself. I could say the same about Flush: a Biography – a joyful account of the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog as he moves from the fertile fields of Reading to the silent, upholstered rooms of London society to the lush, lively terraces of Italy.

Despite being a Woolfian of some 25 years, I stupidly had never read Flush. While I love The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, as well as the letters and diaries, there’s much of Woolf I’m not so fond of: I actively dislike Orlando, am cool to the short stories and earlier works and, while I appreciate the essays in purely intellectual terms, they don’t carry the weight and meaning to me that her three great works do. (I need to reread The Years and Between the Acts to deliver a final verdict there, but wasn’t in love with them when I read them the first time.) Flush, I assumed, would fall into this category.

Thank goodness for Ali Hope, host of this year’s #WoolfAlong, for the kick in the keister I needed to finally read this lovely novel. For the July/August #Woolfalong, she suggested Orlando, Flush or a biography of Virginia Woolf; so, I thought, it’s now or never.

Below is the paragraph that won me over early in the book:

“There was a likeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here am I – and then each felt: But how different! Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm, ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been – all that; and he – But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other.”

There’s so much more I could quote – so much more warmth and charm and love – but it’s such a slight book that I don’t want to diffuse its effects. I will add, though, that it’s more than just a diversion: Woolf uses the book to address all manner of sociological issues, from the living conditions of the poor to the unnatural restraints on single women in Victorian society. These elements, combined with the way Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s own biography is portrayed through this canine lens, lend the book weight and dimension and its own peculiar kind of insight.

So now there only remains one more book of Woolf’s I haven’t read: the Roger Fry biography. I haven’t been much interested, and perhaps am even less so after reading Vanessa and Fry endlessly discussing painting in her Selected Letters, which I read last month. But my joyful, ecstatic experience reading Flush thinks I really have to give it a go.

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Vanessa Bell and Jennifer Lash

s-l225Well, this wasn’t what I was expecting. After reading volumes of Virginia Woolf’s letters, including scores of loving letters to sister Vanessa Bell, I was looking forward to seeing the other half of the conversation in the Selected Letters of Virginia Bell and enjoying the warmth between them. But such was not the case.

Up until Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell, most of the letters in this collection are to her friend and fellow painter Margery Snowden, and they are mostly about painting. After her marriage, you do see the flow of love and affection to Virginia, but it cools … most likely around the time when Julian is born and Virginia and Clive begin their flirtation. After that period, her correspondence focuses on Roger Fry and goes on seemingly endlessly about painting (which is to be expected, of course, but coming from a Woolfian angle, not quite so interesting). Although we get a few personal letters after she dumps Roger for Duncan Grant, and clearly feels terrible for the heartbreak she’s caused, she still goes on and on about painting.

After Roger begins receding from her life, she channels all her attention to son Julian as he moves to China and, later, Spain to work as an ambulance driver in the war that will kill him. Virginia again becomes the focus after Julian’s death, but after she dies just four years later, Vanessa finds daughter Angelica as the outlet for her epistolary affection. And so it continues until the end of her life.

There’s very little illumination about Vanessa’s character in these letters. Of her ‘scandalous’ bohemian lifestyle, you hear very little. You see her consoling Roger for their breakup for a few letters; for another letter or two, you hear her frustrations with Duncan as he considers leaving her for another man; you see her accepting sympathy for the deaths of Julian and Virginia. But there’s nothing dramatic – no declarations of freedom and love, no descriptions of her finally telling Angelica about her parentage, no ruminating on her past or her decisions. It’s just mostly about painting, a bit on war-time life, a lot on her thoughts of France and Italy.

650265I had similar feelings reading Jennifer Lash‘s book On Pilgrimage, about her journey to key religious sites in France (although culminating in Compostela) after recovering from breast cancer treatment. I’ve long wondered about her books because I knew how the Fiennes children revived her backlist in the 90s, but I chose to try On Pilgrimage because I too am a breast cancer survivor.

However, rather than writing about her thoughts and feelings as she confronts her diagnosis, she writes about the most superficial aspects of her journey.  I learned the quality of her bedding at each stay on her journey, and I know what color napkins she had at most meals, and I know what the inside of many train stations looked like, but I still don’t really know who she was. I’m not even sure she knew, to be honest … it was almost like the pilgrimage was a way to distract herself from thinking any of the actual, deep questions of life that she was facing after her diagnosis. (Anytime she got close to facing some of those serious questions in the book, she seemed to instantly glance off them.) In fact, even after finishing the book, I’m still not even sure why she was on the pilgrimage, because she wasn’t religious at all. So I come away feeling like all the trivial issues were addressed, while life’s most pressing topics were studiously avoided.

Perhaps I’ve just been spoiled by the letters and diaries of the caliber of Virginia Woolf, which illuminate and expand on so much of Virginia’s character, but I still craved so much more depth and context to both Bell’s and Lash’s compelling real-life stories. Time, I think, to switch to biographies.

Bell Towers

I’ve just begun reading the Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell, edited by Regina Marler. In a 1903 letter (Vanessa would’ve been 24), she refers to Sargent teaching a class of hers at the Royal Academy; Marler highlights the names of those of her classmates who went on to professional careers. Sadly, most of their work isn’t represented on the internet (at least, not that I could find on a quick search), but some of the examples below provide great context for Vanessa’s own oeuvre, highlighting Vanessa’s independence, skill and vision.

Daisy Radcliffe Beresford

Beresford, Daisy Radcliffe, 1879-1939; Interior of the Great Hall, Guildhall, London
Beresford, Daisy Radcliffe; Interior of the Great Hall, Guildhall, London; City of London Corporation; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/interior-of-the-great-hall-guildhall-london-51324

Catherine Ouless

Ouless, Catherine, 1879-1961; Esther Burrows, Principal (1893-1910)
Ouless, Catherine; Esther Burrows, Principal (1893-1910); St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/esther-burrows-principal-18931910-223274

Ethel F. Everett

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Vanessa Bell

 

The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume Two: 1912-1922

Unknown“Between 1912 and 1922 Virginia Woolf married, published her first three novels, twice went mad, and co-founded the Hogarth Press,” writes Nigel Nicolson in his introduction to The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume Two: 1912-1922. “The same years contained the First World War.”

If you found the first volume of VW’s letters slow-going, as I did (they were almost exclusively written to Violet Dickinson and the Vaughn cousins, which didn’t provide fodder for great literary wit and insight), the second volume picks up nicely. In addition to covering the events above, the tone and craft of the letters are more impressive and expansive because many of them are written to other Bloomsbury members – and she sharpens the knife accordingly.

Surprisingly, there is relatively little about the war other than the most basic domestic hardships, but it was interesting reading about the end-of-war celebrations in this 1918 letter to Vanessa:

“The dazed discontented aimless feeling was so queer; starting with such emotions and high passions, and getting gradually more and more sodden and depressed, and wanting to do something very exciting and not knowing what. [Middleton] Murry was at the War Office. He said he tried to feel but couldn’t feel anything except horror and misery … Harrison, the dentist, said that peace was much worse than war; nobody kept their appointments.”

Woolf’s attitude towards the war is well summed up by E.M. Forster in his Rede Lecture at Cambridge University in 1942, which is quoted in the book: “She was convinced that society is man-made, that the chief occupations of men are the shedding of blood, the making of money, the giving of orders and the wearing of uniforms, and that none of these occupations is admirable.”

Speaking of Forster, here’s an interesting bit about his stay with Thomas Hardy, recollected as he stayed with Leonard and Virginia at Monk’s House.

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She’s particularly amusing when referring to James Joyce: “What I suspect is that Joyce is one of these undelivered geniuses, whom one can’t neglect, or silence their groans, but must help them out, at considerable pains to oneself.”

In the below, she starts by sharing her love of Proust, but her comments on Ulysses are hilarious:

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There’s a great deal about Katherine Mansfield in this book, too, who Virginia is clearly very cagey about: “I have had a slight rapprochement with Katherine Mansfield; who seems to me an unpleasant but forcible and utterly unscrupulous character,” she says in a  1917 letter. But later that year, “… She has a much better idea of writing than most. She’s an odd character …”

She seems to feel nothing but warmth and appreciation, though, towards T.S. Eliot – both the man and the poet. I liked this comment from her after “Tom” read her and Leonard The Waste Land for the first time: “I have only the sound of it in my ears, when he read it aloud; and have not yet tackled the sense. But I liked the sound.” (As an Eliot fan, I can’t tell you how much this resonates with me.)

Not only is there no sign of jealousy of Virginia regarding T. S. Eliot, but she goes out of her way to help Ezra Pound in his appeal to begin a subscription service among their friends to help support Eliot in his writing career. The whole affair, while well-intended, is deeply uncomfortable to almost everyone involved, including Eliot and Woolf. (no one wants to lend the money to Pound, who’s collecting it, because they’re afraid he’ll drink it away). It also strangely echoes Howard’s End, in that the more the literary types intervene to help out the bank clerk’s situation, the more they end up ruining his life. (There’s much else to remind one of Howard’s End in this volume, with umbrellas that go missing, the frequent house-hunting and the poor health of almost everyone in the book.)

The below was sent to Hogarth Press subscribers:

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There’s a lot of joy to be had by the beginnings of the Hogarth Press, which began as a subscription for their friends. It’s so easy to think of the Hogarth’s prestige and legendary status, but these letters remind you that it was an unglamorous enterprise as any other. Below are some of my favorite quotes about the press:

  • “We are thinking of starting a printing press, for all our friends’ stories,” she tells Lady Robert Cecil in 1916. “Don’t you think its a good idea?”
  • “After two hours work at the press, Leonard heaved a terrific sigh and said ‘I wish to God we’d never bought the cursed thing!”
  • “Not one of our intimates has yet bought a copy.”

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Vanessa Bell emerges as a particularly enigmatic figure. While Leonard keeps Virginia grounded, Vanessa is her north star, someone who she’s constantly drawn to but frequently seems just out of reach. While I don’t need to read a single other word about Vanessa’s domestic servant crises (if this volume is ever published as an abridgment that has edited out all of these episodes, I highly suggest you buy it), Vanessa grows more and more fascinating as the letters accumulate.

  • “.. One of the concealed worms of my life has been a sisters jealousy – of a sister I mean; and to feed this I have invented such a myth about her that I scarcely know one from tother.” (1917)
  • “Nessa seems to have slipped civilization off her back, and splashes about entirely nude, without shame, and enormous spirit. Indeed, Clive now takes up the line that she has ceased to be a presentable lady.” (1917)
  • “Nessa [lives] like an old hen wife among ducks, chickens and children. She never wants to put on proper clothes again – even a bath seems to distress her.” (1917)

She also gleefully quotes to Vanessa an old friend of the family, who was heard to have said of the Stephens’ girls: “Strange what’s come to those two girls. Such a nice home they had. But of course they weren’t baptized!”

But it is Leonard Woolf who is the unacknowledged star of this book. It’s Leonard who nurses her through her illnesses; who grounds her imagination in real life (while, it seems encouraging it in her writing); and provides her with the stable, loving, domestic life that she cherishes – and that allows her to focus her energies on her work:

To Lytton Strachey (1919): “What I like is first going for a walk; then having tea; then sitting and imagining all the pleasant things that might happen to one.”

To Vanessa Bell (1922): “I write-read-write-read- from morning to night. For an hour I wet myself on the high road – back to tea – Shakespeare, Joyce – and so on. It is a very exciting life, entirely devoid of human beings.”

To Molly McCarthy (1913): “I believe our half in half existence is ideal. A taste of people, and then a drench of sleep and forgetfulness, and then another look at the world, and back again.”

There’s much more of interest in this volume. For example, despite the fact that she ‘goes mad’ a couple of times during these years, you see no trace of it in her letters. (The only cue is that the amount of letters dwindles to a trickle.) And although she publishes three novels during this time, she doesn’t seem to be a writer of magnitude, even by the end, when she’s almost 41 (giving hope to all late-bloomers).

The whole book is a whopping 602 pages, but I’m already excited to read volume three. That is, after I read the selected letters of Vanessa Bell … who now intrigues me almost as much as her sister.

Vol. 2 of Michael Palin’s Diaries

MTV began broadcasting Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1987, a life-changing event for the 16-year-old me. The first episode I watched involved Eric Idle going to buy a pet ant, with shop manager Michael Palin trying to convince him to buy toys and accessories for the ant (an ant wheel, an ant swing, “here’s a two-way radio he can play with”, etc.) From then on, I was smitten with Michael Palin.

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This infatuation could’ve dead-ended quite quickly; after all, in the pre-internet days, in a small American town, you had few options to learn about or see more of foreign actors from TV shows that were already 15 years old. But I’d started enjoying MP’s particular brand of silliness at exactly the right time. Within a couple of years, he’d have an American hit with A Fish Called Wanda, travel documentaries that would become a global sensation, a very personal film released called American Friends, with at least Brazil and A Private Function (in addition to the Python movies, of course) available to rent at local video stores, old Saturday Night Live appearances popping up on Comedy Central and numerous guest spots on Letterman.

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Volume 2 of his diaries (Halfway to Hollywood: 1980-1988) covers the beginning of this bonanza, and is full of much of the wit, charm and warmth that endeared me to Palin to begin with … with fun celebrity anecdotes peppered throughout, such as:

  • As he joined friend Lorne Michaels to watch Simon & Garfunkel record: “Paul greets me effusively (or as effusively as Paul ever could be), then goes back to careful concentration on the track. Art Garfunkel sits behind him and nods his great beaky head every now and then – ‘That’s good’ – but Simon is really in control. Art passes some coke on the end of a penknife. I decline, much to Lorne’s comic disapproval.
  • Peter Cook is not drinking and very funny, but still one of those people who like to take the floor when they talk. HIs eyes have a way of moving fractionally slower than his head.”
  • At a strange charity/celebrity competition organized by Prince Edward: “Prince Andrew and Fergie are throwing bread rolls about and as we leave we all have to crunch over a layer of sugar crystals which Andrew emptied over Michael Brandon’s head.”

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I particularly enjoyed his entries about George Harrison. He and George were close friends, and yet it’s clear that despite Palin’s own fame and the number of years he worked with Harrison (whose Handmade Films produced several of Palin’s films), Harrison was still … a Beatle. There’s still a sense of Palin being starry-eyed, of a feeling of good fortune to being this close to someone he so admires and reveres.

  • “George opts to drive with me from Soho Square to Knightsbridge, but when I can’t find where I’ve left my car, I feel he wishes he hadn’t. A bit like an animal caught in a searchlight is our George when out on the streets and I can see him getting a little twitchy as he and I – a Beatle and a Python – parade up and down before the diners on the pavements of Charlotte Street, looking for my car.”
  • “[George] Tells me that at the ‘Beatle Summit’ last week affairs and problems that had been dragging on unresolved were sorted in a day. Yoko had been (pause) ‘very nice’ (this followed by a chuckle) and the only problem had been Paul’s defensiveness for the first hour until he realized that the others weren’t ganging on him after all.”

But as fun as these are to read, they don’t hold near the charm and appeal of the stories that Michael Palin tells of his Monty Python colleagues in Volume 1 of the diaries. And that’s the weak point of Volume 2. While Volume 1 is a riotous joy of Python work, camaraderie and conversation, Volume 2 covers a middle period of Palin’s work that is a lot less interesting to me.

I don’t have much affection for A Private Function and I’ve never seen The Missionary. There is an endless parade of producers, editors and industry types for projects that sometimes work out, but sometimes don’t. And while Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam in particular are still very much a part of Palin’s regular life (they seem to drop in and out of each other’s houses daily or weekly, offering immense emotional and creative support), we see comparatively few Python get-togethers. But when they do happen, the warmth and silliness (“Graham asks if he can vote by proxy and if so can he be his own proxy”) of the team jumps off the page.

But that said, the diaries are still not only a joy, but a comfort – reminding us that the troubled times we live in have been ever thus. Below are some paragraphs I underlined because of how they resonate with the times we live in now:

  • “A Sony Walkman II – an amazing miniaturized stereo set with thin, light headphones and a cassette-sized playing machine. If they can make such sound reproduction quality so small now, what of the next ten years? A button perhaps?  A pill you swallow which recreates the 8-track wonders of Beethoven’s Ninth from inside your body?”
  • Re an IRA bomb that killed nine people at Harrod’s before Christmas: “The awful thing about such attacks is the increasing deadening, demoralizing fact that there are people who take pride an pleasure in killing indiscriminately and there is nothing that can totally be done to prevent them achieving their ends.”
  • “For the first time I feel that sense of helplessness before the weight of the Thatcher machine. It’s changing everything that I’ve believed in … and there seems to be no way of stopping it.”

[And, as an ardent Woolfian, I have to point out this exciting entry: “Have been dipping into V Woolf’s extraordinary diaries over the last few days and found a neat phrase – to ‘rout the drowse’. Sounds like street talk, in fact it describes what a good walk does for her create energy.”]

On May 5, 1983, his 40th birthday, Palin wrote, “I have the feeling that, as far as the public is concerned, I am now their Michael Palin and they are quite happy for me to remain their Michael Palin for the rest of my (and their) life.”

And he was right.

Making up for lost time

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About 6 weeks ago, I dove headfirst into a work project that allowed me little personal time. Even if I didn’t have to work all night, I felt so burned out from 70-hour weeks that it was easier to just watch TV than do much reading.

But the project is over now, so I’m finally free to read again. In fact, I feel like I’m finally able to be my true self after a long absence. To read is to recharge and reconnect and remember that which is most important to me.

Now my problem is that I’m overcompensating, biting off way more than I can chew with nine books to peruse every night. But it’s a luxurious problem to have. Here’s what I’m making my way through now:

Michael Palin: Diaries 1980-1988 (Halfway to Hollywood)

I started this in January and read about a month’s worth of entries every night. It’s hugely enjoyable, but reminds me that I’m much more a fan of Palin’s early work (Monty Python) and late work (travel shows), and maybe not so fond of this middle period.

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume Two (1912-1922)

I also started this in January and also read about a month’s worth of letters every night. It’s witty, observant and, as always for this Woolfian, deeply rewarding. However, if there were a truncated volume two, which keeps everything the same but omits the multitude of letters to Vanessa about her servant situation, I advise you snap it up.

Beatrix Potter: The Complete Tales

I may have read this as a child, but since I wasn’t from a reading kind of family, I suspect not. As a big fan of @herdyshepherd1, though, and after a spectacular visit to Yorkshire last summer, it seemed as good a time as any to give them a try.

Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmland (translated by Adriana X. Jacobs and Yosefa Raz)

Translator Adriana Jacobs is a good friend so I bought this as an effort to support her work. However, knowing little of Hebrew poetry, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m only 40 pages into Kleiman’s portion, but love her bold, powerful, raging voice.

Lyric Poems by John Keats

After watching the ridiculous but deeply moving London Spy, I’ve been on a huge Ben Whishaw kick. This led me to Bright Star, a Jane Campion film in which he plays John Keats to great effect. His sensitive, impassioned performance made me dig out the only Keats book I have.

Chocolate and Cuckoo Click: the Essential Alan Coren

As a David Mitchell fan, I’ve been curious about the Coren family, but I don’t get to see much of Victoria on American shores – just a couple of episodes of QI, mostly. But I caught some of Alan Coren’s Cricklewood radio shows on BBC Radio 4 Xtra a few months ago and loved its gentle, warm, funny tone. This is the perfect book for my commute to and from work.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I’ve never read Plath before, which is remarkable considering the Anne Sexton phase I went through about 20 years ago. I didn’t know what to expect, but I love its first 30 pages – like a feminine version of Catcher in the Rye.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Well, I mean. Hamlet is my favorite work, but I haven’t actually read it in over 20 years. (I have, however, seen Benedict Cumberbatch’s, Ralph Fiennes’ and Kevin Kline’s versions live; watched Olivier’s and David Tennant’s version; and listened to Kenneth Branagh’s reading of it multiple times. David Tennant’s is emphatically my favorite.)

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

Having never read Proust before, I was eager to follow #ProustAlong. Unfortunately, it started exactly when my heavy workload kicked in. One night, after I read the same paragraph 6 times and could not only not remember what I’d read, but could no longer remember what came before it, I put it to the side. I may resume again soon.

 

 

#ProustAlong begins this week

#ProustAlong seemed like a great idea a few weeks ago, but now that my work schedule overfloweth now through March 2, I don’t think I’ll be able to keep up. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a shot.

We’re starting with Swann’s Way and aiming to read the first 100-120pp by Saturday. For more info watch the below. To comment on the book, go to Neil Griffiths’ youtube page.

“I work on two inches of ivory, Austen said”

I’m not the biggest Hilary Mantel fan, but there’s a lot of truth in this:

“But the real reason the books are underestimated – let’s be blunt – is that they are by a woman. Until very recently there was a category of books “by women, for women”. This category was unofficial, because indefensible. Alongside genre products with little chance of survival, it included works written with great skill but in a minor key, novels that dealt with private, not public, life. Such novels seldom try to startle or provoke the reader; on the contrary, though the narrative may unfold ingeniously, every art is employed to make the reader at ease within it. Understated, neat, they do not employ what Walter Scott called “the Big Bow-wow strain”. Reviewing Austen, and admiring her, Scott saw the problem: how can such work be evaluated, by criteria meant for noisier productions? From the 18th century onward, these novels have been a guilty pleasure for many readers and critics – enjoyed, but disparaged. There is a hierarchy of subject matter. Warfare should get more space than childbirth, though both are bloody. Burning the bodies rates higher than burning the cakes. If a woman engages with “masculine” subjects, it has not saved her from being trivialised; if a man descends to the domestic, writes fluently of love, marriage, children, he is praised for his empathy, his restraint; he is commended as intrepid, as if he had ventured among the savages to get secret knowledge. Sometimes, perfection itself invites contempt. She gets that polish because she takes no risks. Her work shines because it’s so small. I work on two inches of ivory, Austen said, ironically: much labour, and small effect.”
— Hilary Mantel on Elizabeth Jane Howard and other undervalued women writers in today’s Guardian

(Thanks to the London Review of Books tumblr page for this quote.)