A few weeks ago I found myself dreaming of a summer’s day in Britain, imagining myself lying on a cliff looking out over a choppy blue-black Atlantic and feeling a fresh breeze on my face.
That vision of white caps and fluffy clouds led me back to my favourite Virginia Woolf novel, To the Lighthouse, and from there to Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia.
It’s really the poetic quality of her writing that sets Virginia Woolf apart; her arresting imagery and intuitive understanding of the internal life. As I’ve grown ancient and world-weary I find that I rarely put a novel down and think “that’s exactly how I feel too” as I used to in my bookworm youth, yet there’s something about the way Virginia sees the world that hits me deep inside.
The famous dinner party in To the Lighthouse (mentioned by Madame Chiang just the other day) encapsulates all the things I love about her writing. Here is Charles Tansley, an awkward young man trying to contribute to the conversation:
He felt rigid and barren, like a pair of boots that has been soaked and gone dry so that you can hardly force your feet into them. Yet he must force his feet into them. He must make himself talk.
Ah, how many times have I felt that I too must force my feet into those dry boots!
Hermione Lee is quite a writer herself and her treatment of the “issues” in Virginia’s life that have aroused controversy (childhood abuse, madness, sexuality) is quite brilliant. Virginia Woolf richly deserved such a sympathetic biographer. I found Lee’s preference for a thematic over a strictly chronological approach (sample titles of chapters: Childhood, Siblings, The Press) a bit contrived though, especially at the beginning. At times I lost that that onrushing sense of a train running down the tracks that marks a truly compulsive biography. Still, it is her thematic approach that allows Lee to deal with the discrete elements of Virginia’s so judiciously, so I shouldn’t complain – there is no perfect way to approach a life.
There is so much more I could write about Virginia’s life and work but I’ll leave you with the last thing she ever wrote.
I feel certain that I am going
mad again. I feel we cant go
through another of these terrible times.
And I shant recover this time. I begin
to hear voices and cant concentrate.
So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have
the greatest possible happiness. You
have been in every way all that anyone
could be. I don’t think two
people could have been happier till
this terrible disease came. I cant
fight it any longer, I know that I am
spoiling your life, that without me you
could work. And you will, I know.
You see I can’t even write this properly. I
can’t read. What I want to say is that
I owe all the happiness of my life to you.
You have been entirely patient with me &
incredibly good. I want to say that –
everybody knows it. If anybody could
have saved me it would have been you.
Everything has gone from me but the
certainty of your goodness. I
cant go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two
people could have been happier than we have been.