Blog #39: From Virginia Woolf to Thomas Carlyle to Edmund Gosse by Way of Juliette Atkinson

O frabjous day. Callooh! Callay! My proposal to present a paper to the 22nd International Virginia Woolf conference has been accepted, and I am researching and writing like mad. The writing, as always, is most painful, but the research is a blast. I’m learning so much, and I’m discovering all over again how much I love Virginia’s essays, letters, diaries, and novels. She lived so intensely and captured life with such immediacy. My paper looks at her relationship with Edmund Gosse, and I start with Fathers and the essays I included in it. After looking at how Virginia savages Gosse in several essays and in her diaries and letters, I point out his presence in Orlando (at least Vita Sackville-West saw him there, cloaked in Sir Nicholas Greene), and I also go on to see parts of him in Charles Tansley in To the Lighthouse. Lots of fun, and I think the Woolf scholars will enjoy my speculations. Certainly, they’ll enjoy Virginia’s colourful attacks on Sir Edmund. The material is highly quotable.

As so often, the research is full of serendipitous surprises. One such is a 2010 book by Juliette Atkinson, titled Victorian Biography Reconsidered: A Study of Nineteenth-Century “Hidden” Lives. A marvelous book, astonishing in breadth and depth of its scholarship and in the subtlety of its insights. It is also highly readable, not always the case with scholarly books, and it deserves a wide audience, not just an academic one. Anyone writing biography or memoir should have a copy of this on their desk. In looking at how Victorian biographies evolved and at what the “New Biographers” and Virginia then did with the genre, Atkinson does a marvelous job of pointing out the multitudinous uses of biographies and the various agendas they serve.

Part of the pleasure of the book is the skill with which she marshals her evidence. Her research is clearly exhaustive, yet her writing is never exhausting. It sparkles with salient gems. One of those gems has made me painfully aware of how superficial my own research has been. Considering Carlyle and at his impact on Victorian biography, she mentions a father essay which he wrote and which is included in his Reminiscences. If I publish another edition of Fathers, I will have to rewrite my speculations about Gosse and his role in originating the patremoir. Carlyle’s essay almost certainly was of major significance to him. Even if I don’t get a chance to rewrite the Father’s introduction, I will have to blog about the Carlyle connection, and about some of the other wonders found in Juliette Atkinson’s book.

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