Blog #196: Meredith’s “Modern Love” As Macbeth Source For To the Lighthouse

“And that, perhaps, is not the least merit of such a book as this. It shows us the wrong side of the carpet and, fascinating though the wrong side of things always is, it is also a little crude, and ultimately breeds a keener desire than we were conscious of before to look upon the right side. All these half-heard words and disconnected fragments, with their suggestion of Meredith talking somewhere behind a curtain, drive us to the true source of Meredith, which is his writing; for. like all great imaginative writers, he reveals himself there with a completeness and subtlety, for good and for bad, which transcend all the facts that we may be told about him.

“Small Talk About Meredith” (1919)

In two earlier blogs, I explored Virginia Woolf’s extensive use of Macbeth in To the Lighthouse. To my earlier findings on the subject, I now add the probability that Meredith is at least partly responsible for the To the Lighthouse Macbeth presence. Mr and Mrs. Ramsay looking “at each other down the long table sending these questions and answers across, each knowing exactly what the other felt,” are close kin to “Modern Love”‘s married couple whose warm-lighted looks “[s]hoot gaily o’er the dishes and the wine.”

There can be little doubt that Virginia was very familiar with “Modern Love,” and it is also likely that she associated some of the poem’s darker ironies with her parents. Leslie Stephen loved to recite poetry aloud, and in “Impressions of Leslie Stephen,” published in Maitland’s The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen, Virginia wrote that “many of the great English poems now seem to me inseparable from my father; I hear in them not only his voice, but in some sort his teaching and belief.”

Among the poets Leslie Stephen recited was George Meredith. Virginia remembered that her father “loved, too, and knew by heart since he had first read it, George Meredith’s ” Love in the Valley,” and he made us remark and this was a rare instance of its kind the beauty of Mr. Meredith’s metres and his mastery over them.” “Modern Love” would also be among the poems recited by Leslie Stephen, and Virginia certainly revisited that poem later in life. Even if, not surprisingly, she does not refer to it in “The Novels of George Meredith” (1928), she does reference the poem in “On Re-reading Meredith” (1918), and again in “Small Talk About Meredith” (1919).

If reading Meredith and “Modern Love” did contribute to Virginia’s use of Macbeth in To the Lighthouse, then by the quantum laws of literary entanglement “Modern Love” is also a presence in To the Lighthouse, even if only “on the wrong side of the carpet.” To see Macbeth filtered through Meredith expands and reshapes Macbeth implications in To the Lighthouse. Beyond its tragic Shakespearean aspect, Macbeth now acquires an ironic charge and invites deeper thought about conceptions and perceptions of marriage. Far more attention must be paid to the skeletons a marriage hides, and to the ways in which a marriage knot can bind. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay thoughts and actions, and the ways in which Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay form and deform each other as a couple, need to be scrutinized against the ironies of “Modern Love.” Those ironies must also be brought to bear on the marriage of Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley, all the more so because Minta’s name, by way of Lord Ormont and His Aminta, indirectly invokes Meredith.


At dinner, she is hostess, I am host.
Went the feast ever cheerfuller? She keeps
The Topic over intellectual deeps
In buoyancy afloat. They see no ghost.
With sparkling surface-eyes we ply the ball:
It is in truth a most contagious game:
Hiding the Skeleton, shall be its name.
Such play as this the devils might appal!
But here’s the greater wonder; in that we,
Enamoured of an acting nought can tire,
Each other, like true hypocrites, admire;
Warm-lighted looks, Love’s ephemerioe,
Shoot gaily o’er the dishes and the wine.
We waken envy of our happy lot.
Fast, sweet, and golden, shows the marriage-knot.
Dear guests, you now have seen Love’s corpse-light shine.

“Modern Love” (1862)

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Blog #195: More Meredith Anchor Points in To the Lighthouse

Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in midair by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to the grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.

A Room of One’s Own

The beauty, strength and intricacy of Virginia’s web continues to surprise and astound me. Meredith connects to To the Lighthouse not just because Mr. Carmichael’s relationship with Andrew parallels his with Thoby Stephen. Mr. Carmichael’s marital situation also echoes Meredith’s unhappy first marriage. Moreover Mr. Carmichael has for first name the name of Meredith’s father (as well as the first name of Diana’s husband in Diana of the Crossways), and Minta Doyle’s first name is a shortened version of Meredith’s heroine in Lord Ormont and his Aminta. Further, Mr. Carmichael’s knowledge of Persian may be a nod to the Meredith’s The Shaving of Shagpat, a story with strong Arabic and Persian elements.

But these are relatively slight connection points. Much stronger is the way in which Mr. Carmichael’s dislike of Mrs. Ramsay relates to Meredith’s relationship with Mrs. Leslie Stephen. Not that Meredith disliked Julia Stephen. On the contrary, according to Maitland, he once told Leslie Stephen that he never “reverenced a woman more,” and in a letter to Vanessa he said Leslie Stephen was the “one man in my knowledge worthy of being mated with your mother.” His letters to her are warm and caring. All the same, he sometimes voices disagreement or disapproval. For instance, in a letter dated August 23, 1884, he gently but directly criticizes her educational methods. He imagines the family at St. Ives, and he disapproves of the way in which Julia is bringing up the young Vanessa and Virginia to be subservient to Thoby.

Dear Mrs. Leslie,

Your letter of inquiry gave the invalid great pleasure, as it is a woman, that leaps to be thought of. Nor has divine Philosophy yet raised even me to the Arctic stage of indifference, a point to which I steadily climb in spirit, dragged down now and again by some one remembering my name, who revives a personal throb or two. Eastbourne air was very serviceable. To-day we drove to Leith Hill. Generally my wife is regaining her strength, though slowly. She lives on fruit, and there is plenty in the present season. I live on hope; a condition resembling a midway station across the abyss, and depending on the winds as well as power of heart ; for now that she has failed, my sense of stability takes wing. However, in footing the tight-rope, one must not look ahead — nor under — nor up ; but steadily at the present support. Your philosopher will expound the state, and one that we started from, and are brought back to by the course of life, with just a little more knowledge of ourselves and half a yard around us. Tell him, I shall be glad when the tramps are gathered hither out of Europe and America. How much I should like to be with him, you and the children on your dazzling blue borders of sea, and observe Thoby’s first recreancy ! — before his father has taught him that he must act the superior, and you have schooled the little maids to accept the fact supposed : for it is largely (I expect you to dissent) a matter of training. Courage is proper to women, if it is trained, as with the infant man. My ‘Diana’ still holds me ; only by the last chapter ; but the coupling of such a woman and her man is a delicate business. She has no puppet-pliancy. The truth being, that she is a mother of Experience, and gives that dreadful baby suck to brains. I have therefore a feeble hold of her ; none of the novelist’s winding-up arts avail ; it is she who leads me. But my delay of the conclusion is owing to my inability to write of late. — I see that the Biographical Dictionary is advertised. I trust that the Master of the Cemetery for this Necrology is content with the Epitaphs on the tombstones ; meekly forethoughtful that his 19th century estimates will have no readers but the moons of the 20th, and the moonstruck. What was thought of their lights by contemporaries, should be good literary burlesque. I regret as much as he that he is bound to such work, and wish he would vary it with some Cornish sketches and the colouring he excels in “touches upon stuff that lives.” We were promised Lowell here at Burford. Morison I have not seen for long, but his girls are at Fellday, and we purpose to drive there. Adieu, dear Mrs. Leslie ; with my love to your lord and all the young ones.

George Meredith.

Meredith was even more plainspoken when, in 1889, Julia Stephen publicly supported Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s “An Appeal Against Female Sufferage.” He was clearly outraged by Julia’s decision to be one of the 104 eminent Victorian women who signed the Nineteenth Century‘s petition in support of Mrs. Ward’s appeal. His conceit of imagining a second Mrs. Leslie is meant to take some of the sting out of his words, but words such as “fatuousness” and “irrational opposition” show how strongly he disagreed with her action.

Even if the novel suggests other reasons for Mr. Carmichael’s dislike of Mrs. Ramsay, this letter provides a strong biographical attachment point for Virginia’s To the Lighthouse web. Pull on this corner of the web, and so much of the Stephen life comes into view. Behind Mrs. Ramsay’s pandering to her husband, for instance, is the tenderness which causes Mrs. Stephen to withhold “the stimulant of opposition” from Leslie Stephen.

To Mrs. Leslie Stephen.

Box Hill, June 13, 1889.

Dear Mrs. Leslie, — I hope I have done right — I can scarcely doubt it. Leslie has a double, and I have had it proclaimed that the Mrs. L. Stephen in agitation against the suffrage for women, is the wife of the False Leslie. For it would be to accuse you of the fatuousness of a Liberal Unionist, to charge the true Mrs. Leslie with this irrational obstructiveness.

The case with women resembles that of the Irish. We have played fast and loose with them, until now they are encouraged to demand what they know not how to use, but have a just right to claim. If the avenues of our professions had been thrown open to them, they might have learnt the business of the world, to be competent to help in governing. But these were closed, women were commanded to continue their reliance upon their poor attractions. Consequently, as with the Irish, they push to grasp the baguette which gives authority. And they will get it ; and it will be a horrible time. But better that than present sights.

Let me add, that if you are the true Mrs. Leslie of the signature, it is a compliment to your husband more touching than credibly sincere, after his behaviour in the bog of Irish politics. This I have likewise caused to be reported, ‘ Enough for me that my Leslie should vote, should think/ Beautiful pasture of the Britannic wife!’ But the world is a moving one that will pass her by.

I send this chiefly with the hope that you will be induced to forward Leslie (the true) to me for a rest of three of four days. Here he could lie on our lawn, stroll over the woods, and always have the stimulant of opposition so good for the Stephen race, — which your tenderness (if one has to trust what is rumoured) withholds from him. Put it to him seriously to come to me and hear political and social wisdom.

Your devoted,

George Meredith

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Blog #194: A Letter from George Meredith to Virginia Woolf

In addition to those contained in The Letters of George Meredith (1912), Virginia had one further letter at her disposal, one sent to her by Meredith on November 22, 1906, two days after the death of Thoby, but not made available to W. M. Meredith when he compiled The Letters. Published by Mohammad Shaheen in the Selected Letters of George Meredith (1997), it reads as follows:

Dearest Virginia,

You will know that among your friends I am one, with my whole heart close to you in your present great affliction. The loss of this bright young life is felt by me as if it had been a part of mine. I cannot pretend to offer consolation, for much sad experience tells me that it deals in this world to sufferer incapable of understanding it. Fortitude you will have inherited from father and mother. The sense that the hearts of your friends are about you may help: it will be warm with you later. Vanessa’s recovery is a flying gleam in our darkness. I cannot be near you personally in the last offices. My mind you will have then and always. Speak of me to Vanessa and Adrian.

George Meredith.

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Blog #193: Glimpses of the Stephen family in the Letters of George Meredith

The following excerpts provide vivid glimpses of Virginia’s early life. The full letters must have summoned up powerful feelings when she read them in April of 1913. She would have enjoyed catching sight of her parents in the early days of their marriage, and she would have appreciated the interest and support Meredith showed in the activities and education of the young Stephen children. She would also have relived the deaths of Thoby and her father.

George Meredith to Mrs. Leslie Stephen, August 23, 1884

How much I should like to be with him, you and the children on your dazzling blue borders of sea,’ and observe Thoby’s first recreancy ! — before his father has taught him that he must act the superior, and you have schooled the little maids to accept the fact supposed: — for it is largely (I expect you to dissent) a matter of training. Courage is proper to women, if it is trained, as with the infant man. — My ‘Diana’ still holds me; only by the last chapter; but the coupling of such a woman and her man is a delicate business. She has no puppet-truancy. The truth being, that she is a mother of Experience, and gives that dreadful baby suck to brains, I have therefore a feeble hold of her ; none of the novelist’s winding-up arts avail ; it is she who leads me. But my delay of the conclusion is owing to my inability to write of late.

George Meredith to Mrs. Leslie Stephen, Sept. 3rd, 1885

To-day is a procession in heaven of the whole army of clouds, from your quarter, and I have a vision of tyrant Thoby and protesting Nessa on the sands, with the remoter philosopher’s expression of his profoundest thoughts in pipe-smoke. Would I were near and unburdened!

George Meredith to Mrs. Leslie Stephen, Dec. 25th. 1892

My dear Mrs. Leslie, — You would rejoice us by coming. But I am concerned to think of the dulness here, and would propose February for you, when also poor Cole is prouder of his garden, and the journey by rail is not a probation. There must be no thought of subjecting Thoby to it. Let him send me a compliment now and come when we can amuse him a little. I have to confess that my heart is fast going to Virginia.

George Meredith to Mrs. Sturgis (Meredith’s newly married daughter), July 24, 1894

My own Dearie, — I write, with little to say, that you may have a word from your old home, after a week of marriage.’ — I forgot to tell you, Mrs. Leslie with Vanessa, Virginia and Stella called last week. They have been feasting ancient women on the hill. Stella had lost one, though the whole party wandered waking the echoes for her from 4 to 5 p.m. She passed into the wood, and there she remains. The Leslies have fled to St. Ives. Good news of Thoby — he has won a Scholarship, and with about as much effort as for a dive off a plank.

George Meredith to Leslie Stephen, August 18th, 1902

Give my love to the children. What is Thoby’s taste in reading?

George Meredith to Leslie Stephen, Feb 4th, 1898

If you can spare time one day to bring Thoby here, I shall be glad to converse with him, and get at his present tastes and objects. It would be a great pleasure to see the girls, who are often in my thoughts, and any having relationship with the beloved mother.

Leslie Stephen to George Meredith, likely early February 1904

22 Hyde Park Gate
My very dear Friend, — I must make the effort to write to you once more with my own hand. I cannot trust to anybody else to say how much I value your friendship, and I must send you a message, perhaps it may be my last, of my satisfaction and pride in thinking of your affection for me. Your last bunch of violets is deliciously scenting my prisonhouse. — Always your
L. Stephen.

George Meredith to Leslie Stephen, Feb 14th, 1904.

My dearest Leslie,
Your letter gave me one of the few remaining pleasures that I can have. I rejoice in your courage and energy. Of the latter I have nothing left. Since last September I have not held a pen, except perforce to sign my name. It seems that I was near the end — ‘within view,’ my London doctor said. A meddlesome fellow thought himself professionally bound to practise an injection on my arm, and the heart was roused to resume its labours. So here I am, of no use to any one — even unable to take the chance of seeing you. I have been at Givons with Mariette for four months and more, and return to Box Hill in March. Vanessa’s reports of you have kept me in touch with the house. We who have loved the motion of 1egs and the sweep of the winds, we come to this. But for myself, I will own that it is the Natural order. There is no irony in Nature. God bless and sustain you, my friend. George Meredith.

George Meredith to Vanessa Stephen, Feb. 24, 1904

My Dearest Vanessa, — Heaven has blest us by making the end painless. It was inevitable, I knew, and I had the shock of my grief when I was told of the malady. One of the most beloved of my friends has gone from sight, and though I feel that he remains with me and has his lasting place in our literature, this day’s news darkens my mind. Last Autumn I was near to going. The loss of my friend spurs the wish that I had preceded him. He was the one man in my knowledge worthy of being mated with your mother. I could not say more of any man’s nobility. If it were possible for me to move I would be among you to-morrow. May you be sustained. My prayers are with you all.

George Meredith to W. M. Meredith, Nov. 23, 1906

The death of Thoby Stephen has much clouded me. —

George Meredith to Edward Clodd, November 27th, 1906

I am distressed by the death of Thoby Stephen, Leslie’s eldest son, a bright young fellow — poisoned by something in Greece, hence enteric, then peritonitis.

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Blog #192: A Preliminary Report on a George Meredith Presence in To the Lighthouse

I’ve never met a writer who didn’t nurse an enormous vanity, which at last made him unapproachable like Meredith whose letters I am reading–who seems to me as hard as an old crab at the bottom of the sea.

April 11, 1913 letter to Violet Dickinson

This is a teaser post, a trailer for a meatier one which has yet to be fully researched and written. Because of Minta Doyle, and also Leslie Stephen’s role as the model for Vernon Whitfield in The Egoist, I’ve been speculatively poking around George Meredith and yesterday that led me to a 1913 Virginia letter in which she talks about reading George Meredith’s letters. Because of her comment, this morning I looked up an online copy of Meredith’s letters and I then skimmed them using control f “Stephen.” In the letters I found several letters to Leslie Stephen or to Mrs. Leslie Stephen, mention of visits and interactions with the Stephen family (including a month long visit to be with the Stephen family at Talland House in St, Ives), and two 1906 letters to other friends in which he mourns the death of Thoby Stephen. I have a vivid image of Virginia reading those letters and then, some thirteen years later, transmuting them into Augustus Carmichael’s grief after learning of Andrew’s sudden death. Exhilarating to tease out yet another strand of reality behind the fiction, especially as today happens to be Virginia’s birthday. The romantic in me is thrilled.

The death of Thoby Stephen has much clouded me.

George Meredith letter dated Nov. 23, 1906

I am distressed by the death of Thoby Stephen, Leslie’s eldest son, a bright young fellow — poisoned by something in Greece, hence enteric, then peritonitis.

George Meredith letter dated Nov. 27. 1906

There was a famous man now called Carmichael, she smiled, thinking how many shapes one person might wear, how he was that in the newspapers, but here the same as he had always been. He looked the same — greyer, rather. Yes, he looked the same, but somebody had said, she recalled, that when he had heard of Andrew Ramsay’s death (he was killed in a second by a shell; he should have been a great mathematician) Mr. Carmichael had “lost all interest in life.” What did it mean — that? she wondered. Had he marched through Trafalgar Square grasping a big stick?Had he turned pages over and over, without reading them, sitting in his room in St. John’s Wood alone? She did not know what he had done, when he heard that Andrew was killed, but she felt it in him all the same.

To the Lighthouse

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Blog #191: A Violet Lily: Virginia Woolf and Vernon Lee

“Fresca was baptised in a soapy sea / Of Symonds – Walter Pater – Vernon Lee”

T. S. Eliot,
from a cancelled draft version of ‘The Fire Sermon’ from “The Waste Land”

In a letter of warning to his brother, the philosopher William James, Henry James wrote the following about Vernon Lee: “…she is as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent—which is saying a great deal. Her vigour and sweep of intellect are most rare and her talk superior altogether, but I don’t agree with you at all about her ‘style,’ which I find insupportable, and I also find that she breaks down in her books. There is a great second-rate element in her first-rateness. At any rate draw it mild with her on the question of friendship. She’s a tiger-cat” When writing this letter James was likely smarting at the way Vernon Lee had skewered him in her short story “Lady Tal,”—skewered him, Vinetta Colby and Geraldine Murphy suggest, for the uses and misuses James himself had made of Lee’s life in both Princess Casamassima and The Aspern Papers. Justified or not, James’ assessment and warning was most astute and accurate. The woman William James met in February of 1892 was formidable indeed.

Vernon Lee, born Violet Paget in 1856, was a major literary figure and intellectual who, before her death in 1935, published numerous essay collections on such subjects as music, art appreciation, aesthetics, and travel writing, as well as several collections of short stories, and the 1884 novel Miss Brown, a roman a clef which satirized many of the aesthetic pretensions of the time. Born in France and raised in Germany, Italy, England, Switzerland and France, Lee was completely fluent in four languages but wrote primarily in English. Her first book, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), earned high praise in various cultural and literary journals such as the Athenaeum, The Spectator, The Westminster Review, and the St James Gazette. Lee was only twenty-four when the book was published, but several of the essays which it contained had already appeared previously in Fraser’s Magazine.

Though never a popular writer, Vernon Lee was a singularly influential one, partly because of the erudition of her first book, partly because of her ability in creating astute intellectual and social connections, and partly because her home in Florence, Villa Il Palmerino, became a kind of expatriate salon. Despite a sometimes unsettling frankness, at one time or another her friends, correspondents, and close social connections included Robert Browning, John Singer Sargent, Walter and Clara Pater, Leslie Stephen, Edmund Gosse, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Elizabeth von Arnim, H G Wells, Aldous Huxley, Bernard Berenson, Mario Praz, Maurice Baring, Desmond MacCarthy, and Lady Brooke, the Ranee of Sarawak.

Pater, with whom Lee would stay on her visits to England, considered her a disciple, and when Edith Wharton published Italian Villas and their Gardens , she dedicated it: “To Vernon Lee, who better than anyone else, has understood and interpreted the Garden-Magic of Italy.” Lee, in turn, wrote “The Economic Parasitism of Women” as an introduction to the Italian edition of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics. Later, when Lee published her unusual hybrid work Satan the Waster, George Bernard Shaw strongly endorsed its vehement pacifist views. Though he used his Nation review primarily as a platform for his own ideas, he did say that‘Vernon Lee is English of the English, and yet her intellectual own all through. I take off my hat to the old guard of Victorian cosmopolitan intellectualism and salute her as the noblest Briton of them all.”

Subsequently rejected and mocked by the modernists, for much of the 20th century Lee was neglected or forgotten. More recently, her reputation has undergone a major re-evaluation. Interest in Lee and her work has come from several directions. Modernist scholars trying to gain a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the modernist enterprise and Victorianism are interested in the way she straddles and bridges both modernist and Victorian ideas and ideals. Her cross-gendered identity, her passionate female friendships, and the gender fluidity and sublimated sexual desire found in some of her short stories, as well as her defence of Oscar Wilde and what she called “the queer comradeship of outlawed thought,” have attracted the attention of queer theorists and scholars primarily interested in sexuality and sexual boundaries. As well, feminist scholars are interested in her ideas on women’s rights and her friendships with activist women such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Ethyl Smyth.

Further, as one of the first people to use and to popularize the word empathy in the English language, a word in use only since 1908, Lee’s ideas are attracting increasing interest in the field of cognitive cultural studies. In particular, scholars exploring ideas of literary empathy are strongly interested in her work. Finally, an increased understanding of her position and role as a public intellectual is revealing her to be a much more central historical figure than has been previously appreciated. Her courageous pacifism and the consequent vilification which she experienced also merits more attention, and with the recent publication of Selected Letters of Vernon Lee, 1856 – 1935: Volume I, 1865-1884, edited by Amanda Gagel (2016), and with several subsequent volumes to come, Lee’s reputation will only continue to grow.

Part of Lee’s correspondence with H. G. Wells, viewable at this site, gives a sense of the power and perspicacity of Lee’s reach and range. Of particular interest to this blog entry is a June 16, 1908, letter in which Vernon Lee, without ever knowing about Henry James’ letter to his brother, laments the lasting consequences of that letter written so many years before.

Vernon Lee was virtually unknown to me prior to starting this blog, and without the good luck of browsing through Angela Leighton’s stimulating On Form (2007), I would never have noticed or suspected a Vernon Lee tunnel in To the Lighthouse. Biographical details excepted, most of the Vernon Lee mapping in this blog is Angela’s work, and if it weren’t for copyright restrictions, I would simply post her Vernon Lee and Virginia Woolf chapters here. Mindful of copyright, I’ll limit myself to posting only two paragraphs. They give a taste of Leighton’s style and the quality of her mapping. These two paragraphs, it is helpful to know, are preceded by one in which Leighton considers the penultimate fragment in Virginia’s short story “Portraits,” putting particular weight on the lines: “I never spoke to her. But in a sense, the true sense, I who love beauty always feel, I knew Vernon Lee.”

During her life Woolf reviewed several of Lee’s books, though they caused her some bother. “I am sobbing with misery over Vernon Lee, who really turns all good writing to vapour, with her fluency and insipidity”, she laments in 1907. Although enraged by Lee, she nonetheless uses her as a yardstick for comparison: “My writing makes me tremble; it seems so likely that it will be d—d bad…after the manner of Vernon Lee.” She is infuriated by Strachey’s praise of Lee: he “jumps up and seizes withered virgins like Vernon Lee”. But her attitude in later life softened. She was intrigued, for instance, by Roger Fry’s praise for Lee’s book on Music and Its Lovers, and when Ethel Smyth condemned Lee’s pacifist views in 1933, Woolf rallied to her defence: “Why do you think Vernon Lees views on the war detestable? What would you say to mine?” Then, hearing of Lee’s death in 1935, she admitted a sense of missed opportunity: “I’m sorry old Vernon is dead. I had hoped rather to see her.” Woolf’s vehemence, antipathy, puzzlement, and then simple regret hint, somehow, at an unfinished story. “I who love beauty always feel, I knew Vernon Lee”, her inconclusive portrait concludes.

There is one comment, from a letter of 1922, which makes the possibility of knowing Vernon Lee resonant beyond mere biographical facts. “Oh yes,” Woolf writes, “I remember Vernon Lee, in the dining room at Talland House, in coat and skirt, much as she is now—but that was 30 years ago. She was a dashing authoress. She gave my father her books, which were in the dining room too.” The specifics of that location go beyond personal anecdote, suggesting, as they do, the novel which takes its main inspiration from them. “It was all dry: all withered”, Lily Briscoe laments of her art. In one place she describes herself as “a peevish, ill-tempered, dried-up old maid presumably”. At another, looking at her own painting, “She could have wept. It was bad, it was bad, it was infinitely bad!” Being “d—d bad…after the manner of Vernon Lee” hints at an anxiety of influence which is also, covertly, an anxiety of self-identification. “I who love beauty” is an I who might have learned more from Lee’s books about beauty than she cared to admit. The intoning repetition of the word throughout To the Lighthouse draws, by association, on the memory of a presence at Talland House which is not only Julia Stephen, the original for Mrs Ramsay, but also the writer who wrote numerous books about beauty, about the difficulty of defining it or assessing its relation to ethics and history. Both Lee herself and her books figure at some level, however subconsciously, in that novel’s “dining-room”.

In Form, pp. 131-2

Though Leighton does not mention it, several of Vernon Lee’s letters show her to also have been an occasional guest of the Stephens while in London. On June 24, 1887, for instance, she wrote to her mother that she had dined “more or less en famille with the Leslie Stephens.” Leighton does go on to suggest that Virginia, Vanessa and Clive Bell may have visited and even stayed with Vernon Lee during a 1908 trip to Italy. As evidence, Leighton again mentions the letter of 1922 ( the letter was written to Katherine Arnold-Foster) and a passage in which Virginia mentions visiting Vernon Lee in Italy: “I saw her ten years later, at Florence, when she fell in love with Nessa.” Leighton also quotes a comment made by Virginia in a 1926 letter to Violet Dickinson: “Do you remember taking us to see her at Florence?” While Leighton implies that both these letters refer to the 1908 Italian trip, and while Virginia, Vanessa and Clive may indeed have visited Lee on that trip, or during a stay in Florence the following year, Virginia’s remarks almost certainly refer to an earlier 1904 Italian journey, a journey which the Stephen family made shortly after the death of Leslie Stephen. Writing to Margery Snowden from Florence on April 25th of 1904, Vanessa had this to say about a visit she, Virginia and Violet Dickinson made to Vernon Lee:

We went one day to see Miss Paget who writes under the name of Vernon Lee—I expect you have heard of her. She’s very clever, but what interested me is that she has got a portrait of herself by Sargent, and several other sketches by him. The portrait is extraordinarily like, and it was interesting to see her beside it, as I hardly know any of the people he has painted. Certainly this was very like, though done when she was much younger, and she’s rather ugly but very clever looking.

There is no mention of this visit in Virginia’s letters or journals of the time. This is not surprising. Shortly after returning to England she experience a major and lengthy breakdown which led to her being put into nursing care for several months.

In her mapping of Vernon Lee’s connections to Virginia, and of possible Vernon traces in Lily, Leighton notes that the Hogarth Press published The Poet’s Eye, a short pamphlet by Lee, in 1926. Lee, though now seventy years old, was still writing and publishing regularly, and the previous year she had published two books, at least one of which, The Golden Keys And Other Essays on the Genius Loci, was acquired by Leonard and Virginia, and now forms part of the Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf in Pullman, Washington. Consisting primarily of travel essays, The Golden Keys is strongly pacifist and elegiac in tone. Its dedication and concluding essay frame the volume as a plea for peace and good will. Significantly, the book is both a record of what has been lost, and a tentative step towards recovery from the devastation of war and towards rebuilding the moral and spiritual landscape. It may even be that The Golden Keys informs To the Lighthouse in a small way.

Although Virginia did not review The Golden Keys, she did, as Leighton points out, review two earlier works by Lee. Both of those reviews damn with a mixture of sharp criticism and faint praise. Reviewing the Sentimental Traveller for the TLS in January of 1908, she wrote, “Vernon Lee, with much of the curiosity, the candour, and the sensitiveness to trifles of the true essayist, lacks the exquisite taste and penetrating clearness of sight which make some essays concentrated epitomes of precious things.” In her 1909 TLS review of Laurus Nobilis: Chapters on Art and Life, she was, if anything, even more scathing: “But if Vernon Lee lacks the temper of the great aesthetic critic, she has many of the gifts of a first-rate disciple.” However, despite the reservations voiced in these reviews, and also in numerous letters and diary entries, Woolf admired Lee enough to eventually make her part of an illustrious female pantheon in A Room of One’s Own. “There are,” she writes, “Jane Harrison’s books on Greek archaeology; Vernon Lee’s books on aesthetics; Gertrude Bell’s books on Persia. There are books on all sorts of subjects which a generation ago no woman could have touched.”

Leighton does not mention The Golden Keys, but she does provide extensive and insightful comment on Woolf’s review of Laurus Nobilis. She convincingly argues that Woolf was strongly influenced by Lee’s ideas on beauty and supports her argument with quotations from Lee’s book, as well as from Virginia’s review. She then goes on to demonstrate how To the Lighthouse focuses on “the problem of beauty, both human physical beauty, and the beauty of artistic form which might be won from it.” As she says’ The tolling of that one word in Woolf’s work suggests the extent to which her experimental modernism is linked to an aesthetic creed. She cannot let go of ‘beauty.’” By carefully probing and examining some of the many ways which Woolf uses ‘beauty’ in To the Lighthouse (the word, or variants of it, is used 83 times), Leighton makes a strong and stimulating case that Virginia’s “idea of beauty, as rhythm, pattern, design, form,” owes much to the ingenuity of Vernon Lee

All I can add to Leighton’s insights is one small piece of speculation regarding Lily’s Chinese eyes. Although my evidence is rather anachronistic, it may be that Vernon Lee is, in part at least, responsible for those eyes. In her 1937 introduction to Vernon Lee’s Selected Letters Home, Irene Cooper Willis, Lee’s literary executor, made two references to the shape and appearance of Vernon Lee’s eyes. She first describes “‘Her unique personality, those intensely inquisitive (though not penetrating) eyes, almond-shaped and set slightly aslant in the small but long Hapsburg type of face,” and she later makes the comment that “She had a Chinese Eye and a Chinese power of drawing sustenance from what is beautiful.” Willis’s observations were, of course, recorded long after To the Lighthouse was written, yet it may be that the shape of Lee’s eyes was distinctive enough to readily draw the “Chinese eye” comparison. Lee’s eyes, indeed, do have an Oriental aspect in a pencil sketch by John Singer Sargent, even if they look considerably rounder and less almond shaped in an earlier oil painting of his. It is even possible that Lee, herself, sometimes used the term to describe her eyes, and that she may have used the expression when she showed the Singer portrait and sketches to Virginia and Vanessa in 1904.


Note: Enterprising graduate students looking for a thesis topic might consider doing research on Irene Cooper Willis. Organized published information about her is sketchy, but she shows up frequently on the fringes of Bloomsbury. Beyond being a good friend of Vernon Lee’s (and, like Lee, a determined pacifist), she was also a close friend of Edith Bagnold’s, and during World War 1 she was a research assistant to Bertrand Russell. She is known to have had a brief affair with Russell and also with Desmond MacCarthy. She published several books, chief among them The Brontes (1933), in Duckworth’s Great Lives series, and Britain’s Holy War; A Study of English Liberal Idealism During the Great War (1928). The latter book combined three earlier National Labour Press publications: How We Went Into the War (1919), How We Got On With the War (1920), and How We Came Out of the War (1921).

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Blog #190: The Phoenix in the Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence

Only for a moment; but it was enough. It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores! Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over–the moment.

Mrs. Dalloway

I’ve uncovered a new, entirely unexpected Lighthouse tunnel. Think about occasional passages of eroticized prose and the deep, dark unknowability of self and other. Think about James standing stiff between Mrs. Ramsay’s knees, Lily scorched by the heat, horror, cruelty and unscrupulosity of Paul and Minta’s love, and think about the silent struggle between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, with his mind shadowing her mind. Though dark and difficult to follow, such elements suggest the presence of a Lawrence tunnel, a tunnel which, when fully explored, might yield all manner of rich, suggestive material. Earl Ingersoll and Suzanne Henig have already worked a couple of Lawrencian seams, yet new drifts are possible. This blog is my attempt to open up a new Lawrence tunnel starting with excerpts from Virginia’s letters, diaries and essays. If nothing else, the excerpts show how aware and interested Virginia was in Lawrence.

While there is no record of Virginia Woolf and D H Lawrence ever meeting, on two occasions Virginia did glimpse Lawrence. The first time she saw him, he was “swinging a spirit lamp in a shop” atSt. Ives (L IV 166-67). The second glimpse came in a moment worthy of Thomas Hardy or Henry James, or, for that matter, of D. H. Lawrence or Virginia Woolf. In a letter to Vanessa from Palermo, on April 9th, 1927, less than a month before the publication of To the Lighthouse, and at a time when Lawrence was working on the final drafts of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Virginia wrote:

Looking out of the carriage window at Civita Vecchia, whom should we see, sitting side by side on a bench, but D.H. Lawrence and Norman Douglas—unmistakable: Lawrence pierced and penetrated; Douglas hog-like and brindled—They were swept off by train one way and we went on to Rome. [L III 361]

The glimpse was fleeting, yet Virginia was positive in her identification.

If Woolf recognized Lawrence, it was because she had a strong interest in him, an interest both literary and personal. On the personal side Virginia had several friends in common with Lawrence Most important among these were Katherine Mansfield, Ottoline Morrell and Samuel Koteliansky. Given the closeness of the friendships, it is indeed more than a little surprising that Lawrence and Woolf never met. Koteliansky, for one, brought them into close proximity on several occasions. He and Lawrence co-translated Bunin’s “Gentleman from San Francisco,” which Hogarth Press published in a volume titled The Gentleman From San Francisco and Other Stories (1922). Lawrence, however, did not meet the Woolfs in the process of publication, and owing to some confusion his name did not appear on the original title page; whereas Leonard, who had helped translate the other three stories, was credited.

Already in 1918, Koteliansky had tried to get the Woolf’s to meet Lawrence. In a letter to Vanessa, Virginia wrote: “We met Koteliansky in London, who wanted us to come and meet Lawrence. I’m in two minds–tempted, but alarmed. I sometimes wonder why the intelligent people are so made that one can’t see them without quarrelling—but it seems to be a law. I’m thinking of the Murry’s and Lawrence, not of you and me!” [L II 264]. The following year, again through Koteliansky, the Woolfs were briefly tempted to take Lawrence’s cottages in Zennor, and Leonard and Lawrence corresponded on the subject [L II 340n].

Whether Virginia ever came close to meeting Lawrence through Mansfield and Murry–close friends who even lived with Lawrence in Cornwall for a couple of months in 1918–is not known. Similarly, no evidence exists to suggest that Lawrence and Virginia ever came close to meeting through Ottoline Morrell, even if, on November 27, 1917, Virginia wrote to Vanessa to describe a visit to Garsington where Ottoline “quoted long passages from L.’s novel [The Rainbow], and was very discreet about Katherine” [L II 198].

On the literary side, Virginia started reading Lawrence at least as far back as September 1912. While honeymooning with Leonard in Spain, Virginia wrote to Ka Cox: “I have thrown aside Crime and Punishment to write to you, having already read the Antiquary, Trespassers, Yonder, the heir of Redcliffe, not all this afternoon, but since I lost my virginity” [L II 6]. Hard not to marvel at the breadth of Virginia’s reading, hard not to smile at the appropriate irony of her reading the as yet unknown Lawrence on her honeymoon, and hard not to laugh at the playful, if perhaps defensive, boldness of her virginity comment.

Though years later, in “Notes on D. H. Lawrence,” Virginia would refer to The Trespasser (1912) as “a hot, scented, overwrought piece of work” it is likely that even at this relatively early stage in their respective careers she learned something from Lawrence. For instance, a major stylistic feature of The Trespasser is Lawrence’s antiphonal use of Wagner and The Ring Cycle. In Night and Day (1919), Woolf, as Jane Marcus has pointed out, does something similar with Mozart and the Magic Flute, using Mozart’s comic opera as a template against which to write her own feminist celebration of love and marriage. Night and Day can even be read as an early rebuttal to Lawrence’s ideas. Where Lawrence embraces the romantic 19th century tragic view of love and marriage, Woolf’s vision, even if critical of much in society, is life affirming. Her novel is day to the night of Lawrence’s. Where The Trespasser is a dark and troubled Wagnerian response to the crumbling structures of the patriarchy and the emergence of the “new woman,” Night and Day uses Mozart to joyfully help celebrate emerging possibilities for women.

Elements of The Trespasser also shimmer behind scenes in Mrs. Dalloway. Writing about London in 1928, Lawrence commented that “Twenty years ago, London was to me thrilling, thrilling, thrilling, the vast and throbbing heart of all adventure,” and certainly his 1912 Trespasser description of London crackles with a thrilling, lyric intensity. The electricity and excitement of his description is vivid and memorable, and there is no doubt in my mind that it influenced and aided Virginia in her presentation of Dalloway London . The kinetic exhilaration which Siegmund experiences on his return to London throbs repeatedly through Virginia’s descriptions of the bustling thoroughfares of Westminster and its environs. Where Lawrence has “The taxi-cabs, the wild cats of the town, ” Virginia has the omnibus “reckless, unscrupulous, bearing down ruthlessly, circumventing dangerously”; where Lawrence has the motor-buses with “their hearts, as it seemed, beating with trepidation,” Woolf has the throb of the motor engines “like a pulse irregularly drumming through an entire body”; and where Lawrence has “the scampering of the traffic” and “the fluttering flame-warmth of soldiers and the quick brightness of women, Woolf has “the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging.” In Woolf, Lawrence’s soldiers morph into Peter’s “boys in uniform, carrying guns,” and Peter stalking the young woman with the red carnation is close kin to Siegfried walking the busy streets and feeling the women glance at him with approval. The erotic charge of Mrs. Dalloway’s London likely owes part of its pulse to the London of The Trespasser, to the “soft swaying and lapping of a poised candle-flame,” along with “the fluttering flame-warmth of soldiers and the quick brightness of women, like lights that clip sharply in a draught.” More soberly, Septimus, feeling the wonder of the world on his slow slide towards sudden suicide, reincarnates Siegmund and relives the London induced euphoria which the latter feels on the way to his own, more measured suicide.

A grave thort strike me: time to abandon scholarly caution and to trade on my amateur status; but, as a pre-emptive defence against a possible act of apophenia (how I love that word), I want to stress that even mistakes can be enlightening. So here I go…whether or not The Trespasser helped Virginia shape Night and Day, there may be glints of Lawrence’s novel in To the Lighthouse. The Isle of Wight setting of The Trespasser may have played a part, even if unconscious, in Virginia’s situating her novel on the Isle of Skye. Wight was an island well known to Virginia, an island to which, through Dimbola and Freshwater Bay, she had strong biographical connections, and so Lawrence’s use of it may have subtly influenced her to move other biographical material to a similar island setting, a setting which, even if more remote, would still quite naturally feature tidal pools and dangerous cliffs—as would The Antiquary, which Woolf definitely worked into To the Lighthouse and which, it should be remembered, she was also reading when she read The Trespasser. Anyhow, whatever the literary or literal source of the pools and cliffs, The Isle of Wight, so closely associated with Tennyson, may have provided another reason for Virginia to make use of Tennyson on Skye. Certainly, her treatment of Tennyson is every bit as ironic as Lawrence’s use of “Tennyson’s white marble.”

Lily’s relationship with Mrs. Ramsay might be another Trespasser trace. Lily with “her arms round Mrs. Ramsay’s knees, Lily “leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay’s knees,” may owe something to a memory of Louisa and Helena, with Louisa, at the feet of Helena, laying “her arm and her head languishingly on the knee of her friend.” Wondering whether Desmond MacCarthy saw Lawrence behind Mr. A in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia wrote that “He was not in my upper mind; but no doubt was in the lower” [L IV 130]. If Lawrence and The Trespasser was in Virginia’s lower mind while writing the Lily and Mrs. Ramsay passage, then it makes sense that that passage also includes vivid bee and hive imagery and that Mrs. Ramsay is seen as “a purple shape,” “a purple shadow.” Whether a product of the upper or the lower mind, Virginia’s language here echoes that of The Trespasser. Late in Lawrence’s novel, a novel full of bee imagery, the evening sky is described as an empty hive, “a hollow dome of purple,” and the hive image is then sustained and expanded by Siegmund thinking of himself as a dying bee. The description is fevered and self-indulgent, expressive of Siegmund’s morbid solipsism as the train brings Helena and him, together yet apart, closer to London and to death. In To the Lighthouse, the language is simpler and the bee and hive imagery is more concise. The emphasis is on trying to connect with others, trying to access their knowledge and wisdom. Where Siegmund can be seen as a blighted, sterile drone, Mrs. Ramsay as seen by Lily, purple and dome shaped, is a nurturing, inspiring object of veneration.

There is also Siegmund’s violin to consider. In a footnote to her 1988 PhD. thesis, “The Influence of Congregationalism on the First Four Novels of D. H. Lawrence,” Jane Margaret Jane Masson observed that the “marvelous ‘Time Passes’ section in To the Lighthouse is strikingly similar—though much more developed—to Lawrence’s idea and technique” of using the slowly decaying violin to evoke Siegmund’s ghostly presence after his death. Masson’s observation is warranted by the similarity in the descriptions. Both writers mark the passage of time by the slow decay of personal objects. Both writers evoke the gradual fading of ghostly presences. In both descriptions, too, the passage of slow time is marked by two, small dramatic events: in The Trespasser you have the snapping of the violin strings—the first heard, the second unheard—and in To the Lighthouse there is first the board springing on the landing, and then there is the fold of the shawl loosening and swinging.

Juxtaposing Lawrence’s violin passage with Woolf’s “Time Passes” chapter also leads me to thoughts about structure. Even if Lawrence’s does not use section demarcations, both novels have a three part structure. In The Trespasser, the lengthy island portion is framed between two brief London segments, segments haunted by Siegmund’s ghost. In To the Lighthouse, as many critics have noted and commented upon, a three part structure is also used, though here you have a short section bracketed by two longer ones. In the one novel, two brief suffocating passages surround a lengthy, passionate interlude; in the other, a brief interlude of death and decay bridges two lengthy sections filled with life and vitality. While both Lawrence and Woolf use poetic language to render deep emotional states and to blur the boundaries between subjective and objective reality, To the Lighthouse opposes a transforming, celebratory vision to Lawrence’s dark study of death and social paralysis. In The Trespasser, changing gender relationships lead to suffocation and tragedy; in To the Lighthouse, changing gender relationships offer the possibility of a new way of being. In Lawrence, there is no escaping the shadow cast on Helena by Siegmund’s ghost, no escaping Siegmund’s life-denying grip. In To the Lighthouse, Lily overcomes Mrs. Ramsay’s ghost and through her painting makes Mrs. Ramsay part of a life-affirming vision.

One further passage may have left traces. After Louisa leaves, Byrne cries out to Helena, “You stretch your hands blindly to the dead; you look backwards. No, you never touch the living.” Byrne’s cry could be reverberating in “[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]” Helena and Siegmund may stand behind Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, with Helena shadowing Mr. Ramsay, Siegmund Mrs Ramsay If so, my Mrs. Ramsay suicide speculations deepen [Blog #182]. After all, the dead man Helena stretches toward is Siegmund, the suicide. Extend possible parallels between the two novels and Mr. Ramsay, too, may be stretching his arms out to a suicide.

More suicide speculations are possible. This time revisit Mrs. Ramsay not as a shadow of Siegmund but as a shadow of Helena. Justification for this may be found in the book inscription which refers to Mrs. Ramsay as “the happier Helen of our days.” Beyond introducing strong Helen of Troy elements into her novel, for Virginia the allusion may also have connected to Lawrence’s Helena. Such a connection, whether in the upper or the lower mind, might partially explain why, in this most biographical of novels, Virginia deviates so oddly from her mother’s life. Where Julia Stephen grieved for Herbert Duckworth, dead of a ruptured brain abscess, Mrs. Ramsay, her fictional avatar, seemingly grieves for a suicide:

Never did anybody look so sad.

But was it nothing but looks, people said? What was there behind it—her beauty and splendour? Had he blown his brains out, they asked, had he died the week before they were married–some other, earlier lover, of whom rumours reached one?

Like Lawrence’s Helena, Mrs. Ramsay is haunted by the suicide of a man she loved, a man whose suicide she may even have provoked. Like Helena, she is dangerous to men. Like Helena, too, and this is where she and Helena differ from Helen of Troy, by persisting in her grief and by not letting go of the past she threatens and damages the future.

But enough. Continue like this and conspiracy theorists will be seeking to recruit me. They might well be justified. If I keep seeing and using supposed Trespasser traces to make sense of To the Lighthouse details, then I might well become a good proponent of Bacon or de Vere as Shakespeare, Roswell alien theories or 9/11 government conspiracies. Already, I’m in danger of seriously entertaining the possibility that the To the Lighthouse phrase “For she had triumphed again” is an extension of The Rainbow‘s “She had triumphed: he was not anymore.” Time to leave the bogs of speculation for the more solid, even if still treacherous, meadow of facts.

After The Trespasser, the next reference to Lawrence in Woolf’s writings comes—again mingled with humour—in a December 1915, Asheham letter to Roger Fry: “Leonard has just read aloud a passionate poem by Lawrence, which perhaps made Max sick, but I expect you would have enlightened it somehow” [L II 73]. Earlier in the letter, Virginia had mentioned how Max, their dog, had just been sick, “having voided a large worm earlier in the day.” The criticism is meant for the eyes of a friend, and it is embroidered for effect, yet it probably contains some truth. Writing about Lawrence’s poetry years later, again in “Notes on D. H. Lawrence,” Woolf says of it that his poems “read like the sayings that small boys scribble upon stiles to make housemaids jump and titter.”

Virginia’s The Lost Girl review of 1920 is evidence of her continued interest in Lawrence. In it she talks about him as possibly an original and as a writer “with an extraordinary sense of the physical world, of the colour and texture and shape of things, for whom the body was alive and the problem of the body insistent and important.” She regrets that The Lost Girl does not achieve the high standards she envisioned for his work. Damning with tainted praise, she credits him with “something of Mr Bennett’s power of displaying by means of immense industry and great ability a section of the hive beneath glass.” Lawrence “occasionally and momentarily achieves that concentration which Tolstoy preserves sometimes for a chapter or more,” but in The Lost Girl his heroine cannot come fully to life and “disappears beneath the heap of facts recorded about her.” The novel, even if probably better than any that will appear for the next six months, is a disappointment to Woolf, but she ends her review with the hope that “the proper way to look at The Lost Girl is as a stepping stone in a writer’s progress. It is either a postscript or a prelude.”

Women in Love was even more interesting to Woolf than The Lost Girl, partly because of its roman a clef elements. Virginia enjoyed spotting aspects of Ottoline Morrell in Hermione Roddice, and she may well have identified traces of Mansfield and Murry in Gudrun and Gerald Crich. Though she did not write a review of this novel, in a letter to Molly MacCarthy she wrote,

“I am reading the Bride of Lammermoor—by that great man Scott: and Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence, lured on by the portrait of Ottoline which appears from time to time. She has just smashed Lawrence’s head open with a ball of lapis lazuli—but then balls are smashed on every other page—cats—cattle—even the fish and the water lilies are at it all day long. There is no suspense or mystery: water is all semen: I get a little bored and make out the riddles too easily. Only this puzzles me what does it mean when a woman does eurythmics in front of a herd of Highland cattle? But I must stop.” [L II 474]

Once again she was reading Lawrence and Scott together. Four days later, writing to Koteliansky, Woolf was much less snarky and much more positive about Lawrence’s novel:

I am reading Women in Love. It is much better than The Lost Girl I think, and I wish I had reviewed it in the Times instead of the man who did—for I thought him stupid and unfair. I can’t help thinking that there’s something wrong with Lawrence, which makes him brood over sex, but he is trying to say something, and he is honest, and therefore he is 100 times better than most of us. [L II 476]

The more positive views expressed in the Koteliansky letter may reflect a change in Virginia’s mood at the time of writing or they may owe something to Virginia’s sense of the state of the respective relationships between Lawrence and her family and friends. While Vanessa knew Ottoline well, she almost certainly did not know Lawrence, and therefore in writing to her Virginia was free to exaggerate and to allow her mischievous side free reign. Koteliansky, on the other hand, as Virginia Woolf well knew, was a passionate admirer and supporter of Lawrence, having first got to know him on a Lake District walking tour in late July of 1914, just as WW1 was breaking out.

Woolf’s most considered assessment of Lawrence is her 1931 essay, “Notes on D. H. Lawrence.” Professing to be less familiar with Lawrence than she actually was, making no reference, for instance, to The Rainbow or to having read Women in Love, she sets out to read and to evaluate Sons and Lovers “in order to see whether, as so often happens, the master is not altogether different from the travesty presented by his disciples.” Acknowledging the hardness, clarity, economy and sharpness of Lawrence’s writing, Virginia reserves her real praise for Lawrence’s “penetration and force,” for the way that his writing seems “more exciting, more moving, in some ways fuller of life than one had thought real life could be.” She draws attention to Lawrence’s physicality, to the immanence of the physical world, the way in which “bodies become incandescent, glowing, significant.” Lawrence is not, like her beloved Proust, “a member of a settled and satisfied society,” but he has a remarkable strength of his own, one proved by the ways in which Sons and Lovers “excites, irritates, moves, changes, seems full of stir and unrest and desire for something withheld.”

The review, even if heavily qualified, is strongly favourable. More than that, in praising Sons and Lovers Virginia vividly invokes To the Lighthouse. Sons and Lovers becomes the lighthouse as seen by James. Compare this passage from To the Lighthouse,

The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now —
James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?

No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too

to this one from the essay,

This then was the angle of approach, and it will be seen that it is an angle that shuts off many views and distorts others. But read from this angle, Sons and Lovers emerged with astonishing vividness, like an island from off which the mist has suddenly lifted. Here it lay, clean cut, decisive, masterly, hard as rock, shaped, proportioned by a man who, whatever else he might be—prophet or villain, was undoubtedly the son of a miner who had been born and bred in Nottingham.

Whether or not Lawrence was shimmering in the recesses of Virginia’s mind when writing To the Lighthouse, To the Lighthouse was most certainly casting a bright beam when she wrote her review of Sons and Lovers.

Postscript. Virginia began her first published essay (“Haworth, November, 1904,”) with the words “I do not know whether pilgrimages to the shrines of famous men ought not to be condemned as sentimental journeys.” It is a mark of Virginia’s interest in and respect for Lawrence that three years after his death she made just such a sentimental journey. Returning from a holiday in Italy, she and Leonard made a detour to Vence where Lawrence had died and was buried. In her diary she noted: “We saw Lawrence’s Phoenix picked out in coloured pebbles at Vence today, among all the fretted lace tombs” [D IV 159]. “Lawrence’s Phoenix” referred to the decoration on the grave’s headstone, a pebble mosaic commissioned by Frieda Lawrence, and designed by Dominique Matteucci. In a letter to Dorothy Brett, Woolf acidly, if accurately, described the mosaic as follows, “We saw his grave at Vence—what a fate for a man who loved beauty—a kind of plum pudding it seemed to me, raised by the local mason” [L V 202].

Less than two years after Virginia and Leonard visited the grave, Lawrence was disinterred and cremated. His ashes were either scattered in Marseille, left on a train in New Mexico, or mixed into the cement of the altar of his Taos mausoleum. The headstone with the pebble phoenix eventually found its way to the D H Lawrence Heritage Centre on Mansfield Road in Eastwood. The modern day pilgrim who now makes a sentimental journey to look for a Lawrence shrine in the Vence cemetery has to be content with a small marble plaque which reads: “Ici reposa David Herbert Lawrence De Mars 1930 A Mars 1935.”

To Bee or Not to Bee

How, then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people. Mrs. Ramsay rose. Lily rose. Mrs. Ramsay went. For days there hung about her, as after a dream some subtle change is felt in the person one has dreamt of, more vividly than anything she said, the sound of murmuring and, as she sat in the wicker arm-chair in the drawing-room window she wore, to Lily’s eyes, an august shape; the shape of a dome.

To the Lighthouse

The sun had gone down. Over the west was a gush of brightness as the fountain of light bubbled lower. The stars, like specks of froth from the foaming of the day, clung to the blue ceiling. Like spiders they hung overhead, while the hosts of the gold atmosphere poured out of the hive by the western low door. Soon the hive was empty, a hollow dome of purple, with here and there on the floor a bright brushing of wings—a village; then, overhead, the luminous star-spider began to run.

‘Ah, well!’ thought Siegmund—he was tired—’if one bee dies in a swarm, what is it, so long as the hive is all right? Apart from the gold light, and the hum and the colour of day, what was I? Nothing! Apart from these rushings out of the hive, along with swarm, into the dark meadows of night, gathering God knows what, I was a pebble. Well, the day will swarm in golden again, with colour on the wings of every bee, and humming in each activity. The gold and the colour and sweet smell and the sound of life, they exist, even if there is no bee; it only happens we see the iridescence on the wings of a bee. It exists whether or not, bee or no bee. Since the iridescence and the humming of life are always, and since it was they who made me, then I am not lost. At least, I do not care. If the spark goes out, the essence of the fire is there in the darkness. What does it matter? Besides, I have burned bright; I have laid up a fine cell of honey somewhere—I wonder where? We can never point to it; but it is so—what does it matter, then!’

The Trespasser

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Blog #189: Anna Karenina and To the Lighthouse (Blog 7 of 7)

They went to Hampton Court and he always left her, like the perfect gentleman he was, plenty of time to wash her hands, while he strolled by the river.

To the Lighthouse

Enough of Edward Hilton Young. Virginia’s interest in frustrated courtship had deep literary roots, as well as personal ones. I’ve already looked at many of the ways in which Virginia used Anna Karenina to deepen and enrich To the Lighthouse themes. Now, finally, here is the long promised comparison of the Varenka Sergey courtship with the Lily William one.

The parallels are numerous. Both courtships involve older men and younger women. Sergey is forty to Varenka’s twenty or so, and William Bankes is sixty to Lily’s thirty-three. Both courtships are non-verbal, with no articulated proposal or rejection between Sergey and Varenka or between William and Lily. Both courtships are subject to considerable pressure from women in the surrounding circle of family and friends. In Anna Karenina, Kitty does everything she can to push the surmised courtship to a crisis, and in To the Lighthouse, Lily, remembering her narrow escape from marriage to William, thinks “Mrs. Ramsay had planned it. Perhaps, had she lived, she would have compelled it.” Interestingly, too, both courtships are enriched and enlivened by vividly sketched interactions between the male suitors and boisterous, little girls aged six or seven. Where Tolstoy has Tanya boldly run up to Sergey to hand him his hat, Woolf has Cam fiercely rebuff William by refusing to “give a flower to the gentleman.” Finally, both suitors catalogue the qualities of the woman they are cautiously considering, and along with taste in shoes, neatness, good sense, maturity, social grace, religious principles, poverty is seen as an attraction. Both men, presumably want a servant wife, one who “would owe everything to her husband.”

While it would be easy to read too much into the similarity between the courtships, in having her lukewarm lovers shadow Tolstoy’s Virginia was doing more than just playfully reworking yet another Anna Karenina element or hinting at might-have-beens along paths not taken. She was, I think, building on Tolstoy’s suggestion that marriage no longer need be seen as a woman’s only way to self-realization, that a woman did not have to marry in order to fulfill herself. Tolstoy gives us the crisis of the courtship, gives us, as Amy Mandelker describes it In Framing Anna Karenina, a vision of Varenka’s “exalted status as a single woman resisting a loveless marriage.” Virginia is not so much interested in the crisis as in the consequences.

In To the Lighthouse there is no crystalline moment of potential proposal or rejection. We see the courtship indirectly, diffusely and, even, retrospectively. With the exception of Cam slighting Mr. Bankes, there is no drama or emotional tension in the brief, immediate glimpses we get of the William and Lily courtship. Even non-verbal communication, so central to Tolstoy’s non-proposal scene, and so vitally important to Virginia elsewhere in her novel, is skirted and scanted in the Lily William sketch. Non-verbal communication is explored intensely through Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, through Lily and Mr. Carmichael, but hardly at all through Lily and William.

What matters to Virginia is the aftermath. Whereas Tolstoy drops Varenka completely after the non-proposal, Virginia makes Lily the new center of her novel. Indeed, much of the courtship and its consequences is presented retrospectively and through her eyes. She looks back on her “escape” with calm satisfaction. For her, the results of resisting marriage are, indeed, much more positive than those which Tolstoy shows for Sergey. Measured against Sergey’s involvement in local politics and the failure of intellectual pursuits such as his “Sketch of a Survey of the Principles and Forms of Government in Europe and Russia,” her life is quiet, yet seemingly rich and rewarding. Not only does she still have her art and her relationship with the Ramsay’s, but she has also managed to retain her friendship with William.

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Blog #188: Further Kennet Kennings

Four more Kennet related findings. The first is that in her diary for July 30th, 1933, Virginia mentions that she’s been writing memoirs and is “telling the story of W. H. and H. Y.” The notes to the Diaries identify W. H. and H. Y. as Walter Headlam and Hilton Young, and add that “no information concerning this chapter of her past has come to light.” Too bad. All the same there is value in knowing that Virginia was still revisiting and writing about her courting past in 1933. I suspect she continued to be intrigued by the consequences of choice, the what-might-have-beens, the lives not chosen, the ways in which we are shaped by our interactions with others. Likely she was still exploring alternate worlds such as those suggested by Mrs. Dalloway’s thoughts about Richard and Peter, and Peter’s about Clarissa. What would Virginia have become had she not refused Hilton? Virginia Young would certainly have been a very different writer, if writer at all, from Virginia Woolf.

The second is that I did locate a microfiche version of the 1912 Grafton Galleries catalogue. Regrettably, my romantic, Indiana Jones dream of finding a painting or water colour of a river lined with cherry trees has quietly evaporated. Nowhere in the painting titles for the 1912 Post-Impressionist Exhibition is there mention of cherry blossoms or even ‘cerisiers.’ Not one of the 39 half-tone plates shows anything that could be construed or misconstrued as cherry blossoms.

The catalogue does contain treasures, though, among which are brief essays by Clive Bell and Boris Anrep. It also brings home the size and the quality of the exhibition, and the way in which Roger Fry used it to call attention to British painters, many of whom were friends and acquaintances. Among the over 230 paintings, watercolours and sketches listed are ones by Vanessa Bell, Paul Cezanne, Natalia Goncharova, Duncan Grant, Henry Lamb, Wyndham Lewis, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Boris Van Anrep, and Vincent Van Gogh. There is even one, lent by fellow Slade student Jacques Raverat, painted by the 19 year old Stanley Spencer.

One of my most exciting discoveries in the catalogue is a short note which reads: “Prices of pictures may be obtained on application to Mr. Leonard Woolf, who will attend the Galleries in the afternoons; at other times inquiries can be made at the Secretary’s office.” Here is a glimpse of Leonard Woolf in unsettled times. No longer in the civil service, recently married, casting about for a new career, with the help of friends he has found this temporary part-time job to add a little money to the precarious Cliffords Inn household income. In his diaries Leonard describes the experience as follows:

The first job which I took was a curious one. The second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, organized by Roger Fry, opened in the Grafton galleries in the autumn of 1912. In Spain on our honeymoon I got an urgent message from Roger asking me whether I would act as secretary of the show on our return. I agreed to do so until, I think, the end of the year. It was a strange and for me new experience. The first room was filled with Cezanne water-colours. The highlights in the second room were two enormous pictures of more than life-size pictures by Matisse and three or four Picassos. There was also a Bonnard and good picture by Marchand. Large numbers of people came to the exhibition, and nine out of ten of them either roared with laughter at the pictures or were enraged by them. The British middle-class—and, as far as that goes, the aristocracy and working class—are incorrigibly philistine, and their taste is impeccably bad. Anything new in the arts, particularly if it is good, infuriates them and they condemn it as either immoral or ridiculous or both. As secretary I sat at my table in the large second room of the galleries prepared to deal with enquiries from possible purchasers or answer any questions about the pictures. I was kept busy all the time. The whole business gave me a lamentable view of human nature, its rank stupidity and uncharitableness. I used to think, as I sat there, how much nicer were the Tamil or Sinhalese villagers who crowded into the veranda of my Ceylon kachcheri than these smug, well dressed, ill-mannered, well-to-do Londoners. Hardly any of them made the slightest attempt to look at, let alone understand, the pictures, and the same inane questions or remarks were repeated to me all day long. And every now and then some well groomed, red faced gentleman, oozing the undercut of the best beef and the most succulent of chops, carrying his top hat and grey suede gloves, would come up to my table and abuse the pictures and me with the greatest rudeness.

There were, of course, consolations. Dealing with possible purchasers was always amusing and sometimes exciting. Occasionally one had an interesting conversation with a stranger. Sometimes it was amusing to go round the rooms with Roger [Fry] and a distinguished visitor. I have described in Sowing Henry James’s visit.

Beginning Again, Leonard Woolf

Regrettably Leonard does not mention meeting Edward Hilton Young or record any purchases made by Hilton Young. If evidence for such purchases is ever to be found, it must be looked for in archives of the Grafton Galleries or, possibly, somewhere in Roger Fry’s personal papers. All the same, the catalogue note and Leonard’s memoir passage help me imagine a meeting between Virginia’s husband and her former suitor. Did they, on meeting, recognize themselves in their roles of successful and rejected suitor? Unlikely. Quite plausibly, though, Hilton had heard about Virginia’s marriage, and one of his reasons for visiting the exhibition was to catch a glimpse of Virginia’s new husband. Very likely Leonard would not have known Hilton, nor about his relationship to Virginia, but the unusual story behind Hilton’s exhibition purchases, his cashing in on one painting to buy others, might well have become a topic of conversation between Leonard and Virginia. Entertaining speculations.

The third finding, made possible by Susan Dick’s transcription of the original holograph draft of To the Lighthouse (U Of T, 1982), shows that even in the early notebook Woolf connected William Bankes to the Kennet. The notebook reference reads: “At his house in Knightsbridge the picture he remembers best was a very careful water colour of a [the letters 'hou' crossed out] village in the Kennet where he had spent his honeymoon.” There is no reference to cherry trees, painters’ praise or higher valuation. These elements emerged later in the revision process. They serve to bring out the sentimentality and the banality of William Bankse’s taste, along with his smugness. Even so, the added reference to the appreciation of other artists and the value of the painting may be a sly private reference to Hilton’s flipping of his first Exhibition purchase, a further way of attaching the web of Virginia’s fiction ever so lightly to life.

My fourth and final finding is one which gives a literal glimpse of the past. Rooting about on the internet, I discovered a painting of the 1912 Exhibition. Originally thought to be by Clive Bell, but now attributed to Vanessa Bell, it shows a solitary figure seated in the Second Room of the Post-Impressionist Exhibit, the room in which Leonard says he had his desk. Vanessa’s vibrant painting helps to register the impact of the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition. The figure in the painting, that of a slight, dark haired young man, might easily be that of Leonard Woolf, seated not at a desk but on one end of a pair of back to back, long, high backed, leather upholstered, lounge style benches.

Remarkably, the benches are cherry trees of a sort. In my hunt to tunnel back to traces of reality behind art, I found two 1917 photographs showing the Second Room and the benches. Taken at the Grafton Galleries Second Exhibition of Canadian Battle Pictures, in 2014 those pictures were used by Ann Thomas to recreate the Grafton Galleries room for a National Gallery of Canada Exhibition titled “The Great War, the Persuasive Power of Photography.” Tunnels intersect in unexpected ways. Unimaginable, WW1 already inheres in Vanessa’s painting. Buying his paintings, Edward Hilton Young feels no twinge in his right arm. Virginia’s subtle hindsight and loving caress is yet to cast lights on the interpenetration of past, present and future.

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Blog #187: The Kennet Legacy–Virginia Woolf and Kathleen Bruce Scott

The largest picture in his drawing-room, which painters had praised, and valued at a higher price than he had given for it, was of the cherry trees in blossom on the banks of the Kennet.

It turns out that this week’s tunnel was already thoroughly explored and mapped some 15 years ago by Sarah Hall. No matter. Her work not only confirms my insights and methods, but she also provides me with material I would otherwise not have known about.

The tunnel in question is, as the quotation at the head of this blog suggests, one I think about as “the Kennet tunnel.” I’ve long wondered, in a mild sort of way, about what the Kennet meant to Virginia. Why send William there for his honeymoon, and why make him owner of that painting?

The answer to my questions came to me in a very indirect, yet very exciting way. In Cambridge this summer to attend Trudi Tate’s Literature Cambridge Summer Course, I made use of a free afternoon to go visit the Scott Polar Research Institute. I wanted to learn more about Scott and to think some more about how his exploits and the publicity surrounding his death informed Mr. Ramsay’s heroic fantasies.

Scattered around the Polar Institute are an eclectic collection of polar objects, objects which include an Inukshuk, a try pot, and a harpoon gun. Unusual in the collection is a slightly larger than life size sculpture of a naked young man, standing arms outspread and head arched back to look up at the sky. The statue was sculpted by Scott’s widow, Kathleen Bruce Scott, and the model was A. W. Lawrence, younger brother of Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence eventually became professor of archeology at Cambridge, and I wonder what emotions he later felt when walking by the image of his naked, younger self.

The statue, so oddly located, intrigued me. Later that day, I started research on Kathleen Bruce Scott, and almost immediately I had located the origins of “the Kennet tunnel.” Never mind that Kathleen Bruce, youngest of 11 children, was born in 1888, four years before Virginia. Never mind that she lived a daring and adventurous life and counted Isadora Duncan, J. M. Barrie and George Bernard Shaw among her friends. Never mind her fascination with heroes. Never mind her marriage to Scott and her part in creating and shaping his legend. Never mind her successful career as a sculptor, which included sculpting a statue of Edward Smith, captain of the Titanic, 1 as well as several of her dead husband. Never mind the accomplishments of her children and grandchildren. For me, all those facts, fascinating as they were, paled beside the fact that in 1922 she married Edward Hilton Young, the man who in 1909 proposed to Virginia and was rejected by her–Edward Hilton Young, the man who in 1935 became Baron Kennet.

The Kennet valley, paintings, and perhaps science connect William Bankes to Edward Hilton Young. Consider that in 1900 Young took a first in “natural sciences” at Cambridge. Consider, too, that in 1908 Hilton Young bought the “Lacket”, a cottage in the Kennet valley, and that during 1914-1915 he rented that cottage to Lytton Strachey who used part of his time there to write the first two chapters of Emminent Victorians. Over time “The Lacket” became increasingly important to Young, and he and Kathleen made it their country home, after briefly honeymooning there in 1922..

As for painting, in Before Leonard: The Early Suitors of Virginia Woolf Sarah Hall notes that Hilton Young bought several paintings at the Grafton Galleries Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1912-13. So far I have not been able to determine if any of the paintings were of cherry trees, but Hall does say that Young initially bought only one painting, only to resell it immediately for ten times what he paid for it and then use the money to buy several more. Virginia would likely have known about this transaction, as Leonard was secretary of the Exhibition, and this knowledge may well lie behind the comment that William Bankes’ painting was “valued at a higher price than he had given for it.”

In her diary entry for March 18th, 1918, Virginia records the following:

Much to my surprise the first person to come in afterwards was Hilton Young. I dont think Ive said 6 words to him since 1908–when we had that interview. I’ve always guessed that dark dealings on the part of O.H. intervened; at anyrate we broke completely. This knowledge made me at least uncomfortable. But we are elderly now. He a perfect type of naval officer, cleanshaven, shorn, red faced, all blue cloth & gold braid with a ribbon on his breast. His dark enigmatic ways (the Sphinx without a Secret) are swept away; & yet I liked him–thought him kind & trusty & a little romantic–I’m afraid no longer romantic about me. But how even begin to guess another’s feelings? I found myself pitying him for the very first time. I suppose he’s more than 40, & after all, he wished for something which he’s done without. We talked hard indeed. He find[s} no romance in the navy after four years. We wondered about our vision of England. Not knowing his degree of pugnacity, talk was difficult save on general subjects.

Virginia is almost certainly wrong about the year, since 1909 is when Hilton took her punting on the Cam and proposed, but her diary entry, written four years before he married Kathleen Bruce Scott, shows considerable insight and empathy. Incidentally, five weeks after Virginia wrote her diary entry, Young, a gunnery officer on the HMS Vindictive, lost his right arm while manning a gun during the Zeebrugge raid. In 1920 he published By Sea and Land, an account of some of his war time experiences, and his status as a wartime hero would almost certainly have helped him in his courtship with the hero minded Kathleen.

Virginia thought deeply about courtship, marriage, rejection, and the alternate worlds inherent in their consequences , and Sarah Hall is, I think, right in seeing elements of Hilton Young in Peter Walsh, Richard Dalloway and William Bankes. By having William Bankes own a painting of the Kennet, Woolf discretely, playfully and sympathetically touched on her courtship experience with Young. For me, connecting the Kennet reference to Edward Hilton Young greatly enriches the To the Lighthouse reading experience.

1 That Kathleen would have chosen to sculpt Captain Smith is not surprising. The Titanic sank less than three weeks after Scott’s death and Smith, like Scott, became a hero because of the way in which he faced failure and death.

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