Tuesday, 28 July 2015


 Lydia Leonard as Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf as Virginia Woolf

The best thing I’ve read on ‘Bloomsbury’ is the little volume with that title by Quentin Bell, who was both Virginia Woolf’s nephew and her biographer. He represents this privileged faction – the Woolfs, the Bells, the Stracheys, the Keyneses – as engaged in a short-lived social and intellectual experiment. In their effort to “live a life of rational and pacific freedom, to sacrifice the heroic virtues in order to avoid the heroic vices, Bloomsbury was attempting something which, to the next generation, seemed unthinkable.” During the First World War, “it was still possible for an intelligent man or woman to be neutral”. With the advent of Fascism, he argues, Bloomsbury was confronted with a quarrel in which “neutrality was impossible”. The surviving Bloomsberries had no answers.

Whether Life in Squares, the BBC’s racy new dramatisation of the Bloomsbury set, will put such subtleties on screen or confine itself to the sexual shenanigans among these free spirits remains to be seen. By chance, the first episode, which aired last night, reminded me of one of my own early attempts to break into the literary world. This would be about 1983. Christopher Howse, a college contemporary, even then sporting a Shavian beard, half-hunter watch in his waistcoat, had landed a job at the Catholic Herald – Books Editor, I think, or Literary Editor – and offered me reviewing work on the paper. I was not and am not of the Pope’s party, but my agnosticism seemed to be no barrier. As far as I remember, only two books ever came my way. One was Andrina, a volume of short stories by the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown. The other was a volume of Virginia Woolf’s Letters, newly available in paperback. The first review was published, but only after the newspaper’s editor stumbled across it when he was clearing out Christopher’s desk following the latter’s career-enhancing departure to the Daily Telegraph. The second languished in his bottom drawer unused. I’ve just rescued it from my bottom drawer. It doesn’t seem bad… 

The Flight of the Mind: The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Volume I: 1888-1912 (Chatto & Windus)

“Do you think all the lower classes are naturally idiotic?” writes the 26-year-old Virginia Stephen to Saxon Sydney-Turner, betraying the prejudices of her age and class. The appearance in paperback of the Virginia Woolf Letters is a major publishing event, but I suspect that this first volume of Nigel Nicolson’s edition will provide more nourishment for the biographer than the littérateur. Indeed, it takes us only as far as the publication of her first novel, The Voyage Out. Virginia was a tireless correspondent, above all to her sister Vanessa, and the 638 letters printed here, while they show the informal shaping of that familiar prose style, so hectic yet thoughtful, make better evidence for the breathless vitality of a young woman coming of age – not yet a novelist. “Nessa and I have been arguing the ethics of suicide all the morning, as we are alone, and what is an immoral act,” she writes prophetically in April 1905. But these young ladies were not often alone. Their lives were fashionably filled with dinner parties and romancing; by letter 600 Virginia is equivocating over Leonard’s marriage proposal, asking only “that you should leave me free, and that I should be honest.” The complete Letters, with their authoritative editor’s introductions and excellent footnoting of personalities and events, are more than the sum of their parts, but this first part makes an adequate hors d’oeuvre.