Posts Tagged ‘Bloomsbury’

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

September 15, 2014

Virginia Woolf Art, Life and VisionAt last I made it to the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery! How has it taken me such an age? Why is it that although London is filled with fascinating things to see and do, it is so rare that one actually manages to find the time to see and do them?

The exhibition was the perfect end to my Sunday afternoon. First, I ventured to the Ladies’ Pond on the Heath, where it was only just not too cold to be bearable. My wimpishly slow descent down the ladder was forgiven by the more seasoned swimmers once they saw my enormous belly and instead began to inquire as to whether or not the baby enjoys it. Who knows, but I certainly do. Once I was finally paddling away in the freezing pond, there were so many endorphins going off that I felt as high as a kite for a good hour afterwards. Apparently, one’s body is especially good at producing endorphins when pregnant (our hypnobirthing teacher says it’s so that when the big day arrives, all the endorphins come flooding out and act as natural pain relief … ummm, here’s hoping), so add to that swimming, which also stimulates endorphin production, and you can see why it’s all too easy to feel completely out of it. So everything was still spinning somewhat when I arrived at the National Portrait Gallery a little later.

This preamble about swimming is to serve as something of a disclaimer – for a quirk of being pregnant is that emotions certainly run close to the surface, and so the fact that I found the Virginia Woolf exhibition not only very enjoyable, unusual and eye-opening, but also terribly moving, could be put down to this. I wonder, though, whether anyone can read the letters she wrote to her sister Vanessa and her husband Leonard in the days before her suicide without their eyes fogging up with tears. Both are displayed at the close of the exhibition. Here is the one to Leonard, which – by the way – is also included in the beautiful Letters of Note book:

Virginia Woolf suicide note

These letters come at the close of the exhibition, and yet they’re the first thing I mention because it seems impossible to think of Virginia Woolf without thinking of her terrible end. From the age of thirteen, she was afflicted by serious problems with her mental health, and there are references to her breakdowns throughout the exhibition – a dark thread winding throughout her brilliant, glittering life.

But really it is all the space given to Woolf’s glitter, glamour and gossip which struck me as so unexpected and enjoyable about the exhibition. There are photographs of Woolf posing for Vogue (below), and for Man Ray, snapshots of her staying with Lady Ottoline Morrell at Garsington in an outfit by the designer Nicole Groult commissioned for her by Madge Garland, fashion editor of Vogue. I’d never really thought of the glamour of Woolf’s life before. Yes, I’ve heard Woolf’s phrase ‘frock consciousness’ bandied about, but this was the first time I’d been made to pause and think something of it, of how she dressed herself and posed for the public eye.

 Virginia Woolf posing for Maurice Beck and Helen Macgregor at Vogue

Writers, of course, are observers, onlookers, and Woolf perhaps more so than most. You have only to read her ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ essay (which I wrote about a bit here) to see how preoccupied she was with the way authors fail to represent their characters by amassing details about their outward appearance as opposed to attempting to convey their interior life. Woolf was so keen an observer that she didn’t stop at the surface, she insisted on getting inside her characters’ consciousnesses. So it was surprising to see so much evidence of the way Woolf herself was seen, or indeed, how she chose to be seen.

In contrast to these beautiful posed photographs, there’s an intriguing one from 1893, when Woolf was only eleven. It shows her parents Julia and Leslie Stephen reading at Talland House, their Cornwall holiday home.

Julia and Leslie Stephen reading at Talland House in 1893

Her parents are in the foreground, side-by-side on the sofa, both focused on their reading. The background has all the furnishings you might expect – a patterned wallpaper on which hang some pictures, one slightly crooked; a decorative screen; plenty of books on the shelves – and there is also a young Virginia Stephen poking her head out, hands cupped around her chin, watching her parents, thinking.

I loved all the photographs of Woolf’s early life. There’s a wonderful one from 1886 of her playing cricket with her brother Adrian.

Virginia and Adrian Stephen playing cricket in 1886

Virginia is the wicket keeper in an enormous white hat, smock, stockings wrinkling around her ankles and a shoelace carelessly undone. She is leaning forwards, looking at the bowler, who is out of frame, palms open ready to catch, tense with the excitement of the oncoming moment when the ball will be thrown. I knew Woolf was a tomboy as a child, but even so, seeing her looking rather ragged and ramshackle, playing cricket with such glee, was an unexpected delight.

The exhibition is a treasure trove. Photographs abound, as do paintings, a great many letters and first editions. What makes it so special is how intimate many of these feel. There is a note from Leonard and Virginia to Lytton Strachey announcing their engagement just saying ‘Ha! Ha!’ The in-joke is explained: Lytton, who had himself once proposed to Virginia, went on to suggest to Leonard that he marry her instead. There is a gossipy letter from Woolf to Katherine Mansfield, not talking about their work, but instead saying how Rose Macaulay came round the other day and what a very ‘harum-scarum woman’ she is. There is a wonderful letter from Leonard when he was courting Virginia, in which he writes:

If I try to say what I feel, I become stupid & stammering: it’s like a wall of words rising up in front of me & there on the other side you’re sitting so clear & beautiful & your dear face that I’d give everything in the world to see now.

It’s terribly endearing to think of these two literary figures falling in love and Leonard for once struggling with the shortcomings of words, his vision of her making him ‘stupid & stammering’.

We all know that Woolf is one of the greatest novelists of all time, and it is something of a relief that the exhibition doesn’t bother to impress this upon us. Indeed there is very little about her fiction. It is as though we are deemed sensible enough to know we should read her books to see her genius. Here, instead, we see everything else. There are posed photographs, and also snaps of her with her friends, playing cricket, chatting easily. There are her private letters, and a feast of lines which she’s thrown out with casual ease rather than labouring over so meticulously. I loved, for instance, her comment on Garsington, where she frequently stayed with Lady Ottoline Morrell:

Is the sunlight ever normal at Garsington? No I think even the sky is done up in pale yellow silk, and certainly the cabbages are scented.

For all the dark notes that resound throughout Woolf’s life, lacing this exhibition with the shadow of her eventual suicide, there is also a wonderful amount of fun, of fashion, of friends, gossip and a sense of the great joy there is to be found in day-to-day life.

Virginia Woolf in her Nicole Groult dress at Garsington

Here’s Woolf in her Nicole Groult dress, among friends at Garsington.

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As Green as Grass

October 7, 2013

As Green As GrassI’ve been on something of an Emma Smith binge this week, in part because tomorrow I am going to meet her for tea. Tea with Emma Smith! It is too thrilling! I wonder, will there be ‘strawberry jam sandwiches and sultana scones’, as she wrote in her first volume of memoir, The Great Western Beach, or are these only for beach picnics?

I wrote here about Emma Smith’s superb novel The Far Cry – long-lost, then wonderfully recovered thanks to Susan Hill and Persephone Books. I hadn’t realised that Bloomsbury were just about to publish her second volume of memoir, As Green As Grass. What perfect timing. Having recently emerged from the colourful world of 1940s India captured within Persephone’s signature grey covers, I could swiftly immerse myself in more of Smith’s lush prose, but this time of the England of her youth – as she puts it, ‘before, during and after the Second World War’.

The Far CryIt is a real delight to read about the life of an author you greatly admire. The Far Cry is beautifully written, and offers one of the most startling and distressing characters in literature, but it is also about an intriguing subject – life on an Indian tea plantation in the 1940s. In her Preface to the novel, Smith writes tantalisingly about the basis for the novel – her trip to India after the Second World War, to make a documentary about the tea plantations. Who was with her on the trip? None other than Laurie Lee!

So I began As Green as Grass feeling rather impatient to get to the India bit. I wanted to read about her glamorous life with Laurie Lee in literary London, and then her escapades in India. But I soon became so engrossed in the memoir, that I’d as good as forgotten about the Indian antics that were to come.

The book is divided up into three sections – Before, During and After, all in relation to the Second World War. Before is growing up in Devon, with a father suffering from the legacy of the First World War. He is unable to reconcile his days as a war hero with his job as a humble bank clerk and is prone to violent eruptions of anger, which eventually get him sectioned. Her mother explains:

Poor Daddy is ill, she says to us children, but with care and the right sort of nursing he will soon get better. She doesn’t ever use the word which looms inside my own head so menacingly: mad!

It is so exactly what it’s like to be a child suddenly caught up in something adult. The grown-ups tell you soothing half-truths, when in your head you can’t escape the menacing melodramatic reality – words which you’ve only ever overheard or read, but now they apply to your family. I remember feeling exactly the same when various scary adult things happened when I was growing up – there was such menace in words like ‘divorce’ and ‘rehab’ when applied to your own family, and yet those words were so rarely said directly to you. You’d overhear them and vaguely know of them, and of course those words would be all you could think about, while the adults were busy coddling the truth in the softness of words like ‘gone away’ and ‘ill’.

The years during the War are particularly poignant. Smith describes going out for lunch with her sister Pam and a young fighter-pilot:

As soon as we’ve met and greeted each other, Ricky holds out Pam’s left hand in order to show me the ring on her engagement finger.

‘Goodness gracious,’ I say, amazed and delighted, ‘ – you’re engaged, you and Pam! You’re going to be – are you? – actually going to be married?’

‘We sure are,’ says Ricky, smiling broadly. ‘Isn’t that right, Pam?’

I’ve met Ricky before. He’s a fighter pilot on the same station as Pam’s young and handsome: a dear. How romantic!

But when I glance up and see the expression on my sister’s face, I’m startled. It’s the fond amused look of an adult indulging the passing whim of a small boy; as though, I think, the pearl-and-sapphire ring, and what it signifies – marriage – is merely part of a game she’s playing to please this nice young man.

Later, we learn:

Ricky, the Canadian boy I met in London, was one of those fighter-pilots who flew off and didn’t come back. I remember him showing me, proudly, the ring he had put on my sister’s engagement finger, and I remember being startled by the glimpse I caught of her unguarded expression: she knew!

Somehow the knowing – the complete destruction of any innocence, hope or optimism in favour of this necessary cynicism – is almost more terrible than the death.

There is tremendous energy in Emma Smith’s prose, you feel as though she is taking great pleasure in looking back at her youth and telling us all about it. It is written in the present tense, so you are right there, bang in the middle of things. We whizz through the pages and the years skip by, taking us to a smart typing school, then to the ‘innumerable flimsy huts that have sprung up, like a toy town’ in the grounds of Blenheim Palace to house the War Office, to gruelling cold work on wartime canals, to Bohemian Chelsea, to India, to France…

I was struck, of course, by the many differences between now and then – a time when women make friends with each other by leaving calling cards and Rupert Brooke is a heartthrob – but these differences never obstruct the great empathy Smith inspires. Beneath these surface differences, there is much that has stayed exactly the same. Her fizzing prose tells of problems and experiences that we all face – falling in love, having one’s heart broken, struggling to find what to do with one’s life, falling ill, feeling appallingly stupid for making mistakes in a new job, running out of money, and – particularly inspiring for me – having the courage, persistence and determination to keep on writing.

I can’t wait for tea!

 Emma Smith

Persephone, Elizabeth and Harriet

May 9, 2012

I love Persephone Books. I admit that they momentarily sank a little in my esteem when they were featured on Made in Chelsea, but I can’t get too high and mighty about that as I was the brainless fool guiltily watching Made in Chelsea and noticing.

To clear up any possible resulting confusion, Persephone Books is not in Chelsea. It is in Lambs Conduit Street, which is one of London’s best streets, full of other Bloomsburyish delights, such as Folk, The People’s Supermarket and (nearby) Ben Pentreath. Persephone Books sells, with a few exceptions, books written by women, usually ones that were written during the fertile-yet-overlooked years between the wars. Best of all, not only do they sell books, they publish them too. Their books are paperbacks, yet have sturdy jackets, which are plain grey, drawing attention to beautifully patterned endpapers, chronologically appropriate to the book. They are printed on good thick paper, with nice solid print. To date Persephone has published 98 books. (Incidentally, there is also a very beautiful collection of Persephone Classics which have lovely paintings on the covers. I wrote about Monica Dickens’ Mariana, one of these classics and also one my all time favourites, here.)

You can probably imagine my excitement when I discovered that Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books, writer and feminist extraordinaire, had discovered EmilyBooks. It made my month. In her fortnightly letter to keen Persephonites she noted my mention of Persephone in a Spectator article. It just so happens that Persephone have just published Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins, so when she found my blog and saw my piece on The Tortoise and the Hare, also by Elizbaeth Jenkins, she saw fit to link to it. Oh joy! When I wrote to thank Nicola for the mention, she very generously sent me a copy of the new Persephone book.

And what a book.

Harriet is terrifying. I was gripped by it in a truly horrific way, like the way people can’t help but turn to stare out of the window when they drive past an accident on the motorway. Here is the gist of it:

Harriet is a ‘natural’. (Yes, it’s an old-fashioned word but it sounds kinder and less clumsy than saying she’s not quite right in the head.) In spite of this, she has quite a happy life, having a substantial amount of money, a well-meaning mother and taking pleasure in pretty trinkets and fine clothes. Along comes Lewis Oman, a handsome auctioneer with not much money and very bad intentions. He carries on with young, pretty, terrifically vain Alice Hoppner, whose sister Elizabeth is married to Lewis’s brother Patrick.

Lewis decides to get Harriet’s money and to this end he woos her and persuades her to marry him. Harriet may be thirty-two, but she has never yet been romantically pursued and she falls at his feet. Her mother realises something is up but can do nothing to stop them. Harriet is too old to be under her legal protection, the circumstances are too suspiciously sudden for her to be able to get Harriet certified as a lunatic, and so powerful is Harriet’s love for Lewis that she pays no attention to her mother’s objections.

So Lewis marries Harriet and gains her fortune. It isn’t long before he’s manipulated the situation so that he has farmed her out to Patrick and Elizabeth for a pound a week, as they need the money. Lewis, meanwhile, sets up a very comfortable home nearby with Alice, who pretends to be his wife.

Harriet is gradually deprived of more and more. First her fine clothes, then her own place to wash, then food, then even the freedom to move. Eventually she is reduced to a filthy, lice-infested creature, regularly beaten, kept in a small dirty room with a boarded up window, starving to death.

Worst of all, this is the fleshing out of a true story, tightly based on court records of a notorious Victorian court case – the Penge Mystery.

Elizabeth Jenkins certainly had it in for marriage. You might remember how upsetting I found The Tortoise and the Hare. Well this makes the dying marriage in that look positively heavenly! I wonder what drew Jenkins to examine unhappy marriages to such an extent in her novels. If these fictional portrayals of married life are really how she imagined it to be, then it’s no wonder that she refrained from tying the matrimonial knot herself.

A little aside here to say that I read the majority of Harriet on Saturday night when I was feeling rather unwell. I had cancelled all my plans and had slept through most of the afternoon. The husband was out on a stag do. I awoke at elevenish, feeling ghastly and not sure what to do with myself. There was nothing much to eat, other than a dwindling supply of frozen hot cross buns from Easter, and I was feeling too shaky and fragile to go out and buy anything. So I ate a hot cross bun and felt sick and read Harriet on the sofa. I finished it at about two o’clock in the morning and was in a terrible state. There I was, confined to our flat, feeling dreadful, starving to death… not unlike Harriet herself!

When the husband arrived home a little later, reeling from the stag, he found my behaviour to be peculiar to say the least. ‘What is it, Ems?’ he asked. ‘Why are you so tearful and upset? What’s wrong?’

The dreadful thing was that because I’d reacted so miserably to The Tortoise and the Hare, sobbing uncontrollably in a way that he’d found completely puzzling, I felt I couldn’t admit to being in such a state thanks to another Elizabeth Jenkins novel. All I could say, quite feebly, was that I was all alone and wasn’t feeling well and he hadn’t left me any food. He was terribly unimpressed.

Yes, this is a very upsetting and shocking novel, but it is completely brilliant. It would be so easy to write it badly. Here’s a sensational court case, full of drama – greed, murder and evil. How easy it would be to overdo it! Jenkins takes an altogether different and masterful approach. Instead of revelling in the horror, she employs a magpie’s eye for finery.

The book is as much a fashion magazine as a chronicle of despair. When we first encounter Harriet, we learn not only of her ‘sallow countenance’ but of her ‘garnet earrings and a shield-like brooch of pinchbeck pinned to the front of her dress, which was a handsome blue silk’. Throughout the novel, everything is rendered in exquisite detail, be it the rose-red velvet looped on Harriet’s mother’s mantelpiece or the lilac crepe dress of Alice’s fantasies. Appearance is everything.

Perhaps paying so much attention to fabrics and surfaces is a kind of feminising of a horror story. Certainly a surprising amount of horror lies dormant in these luxuries. For instance, Harriet’s mother catches Alice wearing one of Harriet’s favourite brooches, which confirms her suspicions of something being wrong. One of the most chilling moments in the book is when Elizabeth sees Alice ironing:

Then she saw for the first time what Alice was doing. All around were spread pieces of a dress that had been unpicked and was being pressed before it was made up again; pieces of stiff silk, a beautiful, deep blue like a jay’s wing. Elizabeth looked away without saying anything.

The same comparison to a jay’s wing was used earlier in the book to describe one of Harriet’s dresses. Alice wanted the dress and now Alice has got it. What a metaphor! Alice is taking Harriet to pieces. She is taking her finery and refitting it to her own design. She is stepping into her shoes – or into her dress – as Lewis’s wife. It is a brilliantly revealing scene.

This keenly focused attention to appearance also calls up its opposite – disappearance. Harriet’s mother eventually realises something terrible is happening to her daughter and tries to find and rescue her. She looks and looks, but to no avail. Harriet has been made to disappear. Alice has ostensibly become Mrs Lewis Oman in her place. Harriet is confined to an upstairs room, seen by scarcely anyone. On Harriet’s mother’s suspicions, a policeman is stationed at the end of the road to keep an eye out for anything untoward, but Harriet doesn’t leave the house – she never appears – so he has nothing to report.

It is with tragic irony that when Harriet does actually disappear – when she dies – it is her physical appearance that gives the others away. In the words of the doctor at the subsequent trial:

The body was fearfully emaciated and filthily dirty all over, particularly the feet. The skin of the feet was quite horny, as if from walking without shoes for some time. There were lice all over the body. On the head I found real hair and false hair very much matted. We pulled the false hair off with forceps to get to the scalp.

It’s too terrible for words. Except, of course, against the foil of so many words throughout the novel describing beautiful tactile things, here Elizabeth Jenkins has found the perfect words to convey the terror and the horror of it.