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The Wise Virgins (1914), Leonard Woolf’s second novel, was published two years after the author’s marriage to Virginia Stephen—and begun during their honeymoon. The autobiographical elements of the book are well documented. Its publication caused acute distress to Woolf’s family. Leonard’s sister, Bella, urged him to bury the novel, while his mother was shocked and mortified by unflattering portraits of herself and her neighbors. Two weeks after reading the novel, Virginia Woolf...
The Wise Virgins (1914), Leonard Woolf’s second novel, was published two years after the author’s marriage to Virginia Stephen—and begun during their honeymoon. The autobiographical elements of the book are well documented. Its publication caused acute distress to Woolf’s family. Leonard’s sister, Bella, urged him to bury the novel, while his mother was shocked and mortified by unflattering portraits of herself and her neighbors. Two weeks after reading the novel, Virginia Woolf suffered the worst of her many breakdowns.
As a roman à clef the novel holds considerable interest for its picture of Leonard and Virginia’s courtship, as well as its sketches of Vanessa Stephen and Clive Bell. (Virginia would later retell the story, from a much different perspective, in Night and Day.) But the novel offers the contemporary reader other rewards. It remains a witty, engaging satire about English society just before World War I and its conventions and prejudices. In Harry Davis, Woolf created a memorable Jewish antihero who rails against society’s conventions but tragically finds himself unable to escape them. Award-winning biographer Victoria Glendinning contributes a foreword to this new paperback edition.
* * * Man is not naturally a gregarious animal, though he has become so under the compulsion of circumstances and civilisation. You can see this in the history of his dwellings. In the beginning he and she lived in a cave, like leopards and other flesh-eating animals, savagely remote from their fellows; or they burrowed holes in the earth, or high up in trees made huts of branches and creepers. The caves and the holes and huts were still individual. Then they came together into villages, and there too each man made a hut for himself. So are houses still built in the country, in villages, and in the East even in towns; they are unlike one another, individual, the dwelling-places of individuals.
But in our towns we build houses in rows and in avenues, in roads and in streets; the walls have joined up, the blocks stretch out into a long uniformity of red brick and doors and windows. The builder builds streets, not houses, for classes and incomes he thinks, not for individuals. But the builder is wrong: the thin brick walls and the manners of civilisation divide thestockbrokers, the lawyers, the merchants, the rich and the poor into families, as effectually as the jungle and ferocity divided their savage forefathers. It was their naked and feeble bodies and their cunning brains that herded them into the blocks of great houses, into the avenues of snug villas, into the rows of mean streets; but behind the long lines of brick and window and gable and front door, and under the thin uniform of class or profession, each is still a monogamous and solitary animal, mysteriously himself in his thoughts and his feelings, jealous for the woman who has come to him, despite the clergyman and the gold ring, as she came to the cave, to be possessed by him and to possess him and to bear him children in the large brass bed.
Intellectual people who really do live in London, sometimes when they go for a walk in the suburbs do not see all this; the builder deceives them with his bricks and his gables and his stucco. They shudder at the rows of red mushrooms springing up in the old market-gardens and orchards, all with the same florid cheerfulness and prettiness of wood and plaster, and later of blind half-drawn and white curtain, and they exclaim: 'Oh, these red-brick villas! All exactly the same, like the people who live in them!'
But they are wrong, just as the builder was wrong. It is only on the outside that these solicitors and 'people who are something in the city' are the same, only in the thin crust which civilisation has formed over the fires of their primeval feelings. They wear the same straw hats and muslin dresses in summer, and in winter bowlers and dark dresses; they think the same things and in the same way, because the ways of this strange world in which they find themselves wandering are so difficult to understand, and they humbly and gratefully take what is given to them. That is why they go into the builder's stuccoed villas; for them the stucco and the red brick and the wooden gables and the delicate pink of the almond blossom, that brings spring for a brief week into the front garden of every third house, stand for comfort and cosiness. They have been told these things and therefore they believe them; in that, it is true, they are all the same. But in themselves, in the feelings that no one has taught them, under the painted plaster crust of straw hats and opinions, they burn each of them with a fiery individuality.
They are rather frightened of this individuality, which goes back so far to the creepers and huts and jungle; they cover it up as much as possible under their straw hats and coats and Christianity, but it comes out every now and then and here and there when they are not thinking of it. It comes out in their gardens. Those people who think of Nature with a big N, and talk of Pan and Mother Earth, will say that it is the smell of the earth that brings it out.
In Richstead, when the builder builds his rows of red villas, he makes, by building three brick walls seven feet high, behind each a parallelogram of bare earth, and calls it a garden. It is bare earth with sometimes an old apple-tree or pear-tree in it, saved from the devastated orchards. In the beginning every parallelogram is the same, as uniform as the villas to which they are attached. While the builder is running up his villas, the first sprouting of the weeds upon the earth like the first growth of beard upon a man's face, makes them sordid and unkempt and dreary. But when the houses are let, the parallelograms become the gardens of stockbrokers and merchants. The owners stand upon bare earth there, and some even dig in it. Every garden becomes different: grass lawns are made and flower-beds and pergolas and arches. In some the weeds are allowed to spread in strange luxuriance, in others there are ordered rose gardens. There are fashions in hats and jackets in Richstead, in promenade concerts and bridge drives; there are no fashions in gardens, for in each even the weeds are different.
One day in the suburb of Richstead it was June in the Garlands' garden, a hot June afternoon. Mrs Garland was not strictly a virgin, but she was a widow with four virgin daughters, and a widow of so many years' standing that she might almost have been said to have reached a second virginity. And the garden had nothing masculine in it. No bare patches marked or marred the square of close-cropped grass, upon which stood two laburnum trees like graceful maidens who every year in spring let down the golden glory of their hair. Jasmine and a sterile peach broke the bare monotony of the three brick walls; tall hollyhocks and sunflowers, little clumps of pinks and pansies filled not too full the narrow flower-beds that ran between the walls and the yellow gravelled paths. But the pride of Mrs Garland and of Ethel and May and Gwen was the show of white arum lilies and roses in the circles and half-moons, which after serious consideration they had decided to cut out of the grass 'lawn'. There the lilies stood like virgins and the roses bloomed; it was a real garden and the scent of its roses and lilies reached even to the dining-room, when the windows were open. They tended it very carefully, cutting off the brown and shrivelled blooms with a pair of scissors - which hung on a nail in the hall especially for that purpose - every morning before breakfast. The girls took it in turns to perform this duty. The garden was the envy of St Catherine's Avenue; innumerable ladies had remarked that it was wonderful that such flowers could be grown so near London. It is true that Mrs Garland's roses really did open with leaves intact like real roses, instead of remaining obstinately half-closed, with frayed magenta petals covered with hundreds of little green bugs lying lethargically one upon the other, as was the rule with roses in other gardens in St Catherine's Avenue.
It was still hot in the garden, though it was half-past five. The buzz of bees among the roses and the heaviness of the still air made it feel like an August rather than a June day. Ethel and May and Gwen had had their tea under the solitary old plum-tree, that stood on the margin of the lawn and path. They had not spoken for some time. Gwen was lying back in the canvas deck-chair, a novel in her lap. She was watching her two elder sisters in that vague way in which one often looks at and scarcely sees the things and persons, the house and furniture and relations with whom one has lived one's lifetime. There was Ethel sitting up so straight on the straight-backed garden seat, intent upon the fine white insertion which she was working at, and May bending forward, her legs wide apart, her feet firmly planted, elbows on knees, reading the other library novel.
There was a vague feeling of discontent in Gwen's mind, a feeling which lately had become more and more frequent to her. It was, she knew, wrong for her to have it, and so of course she would not for the world have told anyone about it. But it was there; she could not attend to her book. Suddenly the intentness of Ethel's pale blue eyes, then the sweet expression of her pursed lips, then the sturdiness of May's legs and the rolls of cheek pressed up by her hands, as she bent over the novel, annoyed Gwen a little. She yawned loudly and sprawled back in her chair. Neither of her sisters moved. She watched the swifts tearing in a straggling line round the roofs; their screams, as they appeared for a moment over her head and then disappeared between the houses, to appear again and disappear again in the same place time after time, irritated her. She stuck her legs out before her and yawned again still more loudly.
Ethel looked up from the insertion. 'You're showing a good deal of leg, dear,' she said in her mild voice.
'Not as much as May, at any rate.'
May lifted her eyes from the book, and without moving examined Gwen. She then slowly removed one hand from her face, and felt for the bottom of her skirt with it. She was satisfied: the skirt was only an inch or two from the ground.
'I don't know what you mean,' she said stolidly. 'It simply isn't true, is it, Ethel?'
'Well, Gwen,' said Ethel indistinctly, drawing a white thread slowly through her lips, and looking from May's substantial brown shoes to Gwen's offending leg, 'I really don't see quite what you mean. I can only see May's feet, but I can see your leg almost - well, almost to the knee.'
'Ha, ha! Gwen,' said May, and returned to her book.
'O Lord!' said Gwen. 'What does it matter? But one can always see May's legs.'
May looked up again, frowning. 'What do you mean now?'
'One always does seem to see your legs, May dear, however thick your skirt is. They're so substantial.'
Ethel interposed gently: 'Don't you think we've discussed legs enough? You don't seem to get on very fast with that book, Gwen. Isn't it good?'
'Just like Gwen!' grumbled May. 'Anyone says anything to her and she turns on somebody else.' But she tucked her feet in under her chair and pulled her skirt out over her knees.
'It's called Youth and the Prow. It annoys me. It's so- so-'
'Oh, I read it,' said Ethel. 'I liked it, I remember; it's so clever, I thought. Why does it annoy you?'
Gwen frowned, sat up in her chair, and looked at May. 'I say, May,' she said, 'I'm sorry I said that about your legs. It was untrue, and beastly of me. I'm sorry.'
'All right,' May mumbled without looking up from her book.
'Oh, Ethel, don't these novels annoy you sometimes? They are so clever. The people in them - they make me envious, like reading about people who are rich and have everything they want. Don't you often think you're just like the heroine?'
Ethel's thirty-seven years were written in her face, in the lines round her pale blue eyes and in the network of little veins that were too sharply red. An almost imperceptible blush came into her cheeks.
'I used to, Gwen, but I don't think I do now - very much.' 'I do. I suppose everybody does. But then sometimes I don't. I see how absurd it is. We're not a bit like the people in books - they're so superior. Look at Clare in this book.'
'She lived in Richstead, didn't she?'
'Yes, that's just it. And she was twenty-one. I'm twenty-four.'
'Well, look at what she did and what happened to her. You can't imagine anything like that happening to Hilda Lynton, can you? Imagine Hilda going off with an artist for a week to Cornwall! Or speaking to him as Clare does to Stephen all about the sea and rocks and earth? Can you imagine even anyone telling Hilda she's like the sea, her "cool purity touched into luminous warmth by the moon"?'
'I don't see quite what you mean.'
'I expect Hilda would think she was rather like Clare, if she read this. And it's just as absurd for me. I don't believe things ever do happen like that in Richstead - not to people like us. It's absurd.'
'But, Gwen, dear, it's a book. I don't think I want things to happen to me like that.'
Gwen looked at Ethel; she saw something of the patient sweetness of her face. She smiled.
'But, Ethel, don't you ever wish that something had would happen, I mean?'
'Well,' said Ethel brightly, 'it does. No. 21 is taken, and mother's calling there.'
'She's been an awful long time too,' said May, shutting up her book.
'I wonder what they're like,' said Gwen. 'Byron didn't look a gentleman, I thought.'
'Who's that?' Ethel asked.
'The son with the turned-down collar. May and I saw him pass the house this morning; we call him Byron.'
'I don't know why mother always will call on new people,' said May. 'Nobody else does now: after all, Richstead's London. It's much better not to know one's next-door neighbour. I don't expect they're gentlemen - they certainly don't dress like it.'
'It might be more fun if they aren't,' said Gwen.
'I thought the young man I saw looked rather nice,' said Ethel. 'Rather foreign-looking and artistic. I don't know why you should say they aren't gentlemen. The father is a solicitor; it's absurd to say that solicitors aren't gentlemen.'
'How d'you know the father is a solicitor?'
'Mrs Lynton told mother - and here is mother.'
Mrs Garland came through the small iron gate that led into the garden from the drive and little half-moon of lawn which, with lilac trees and bushes and a stunted monkey-puzzle, formed the front garden. She was dressed in black, and had a black bonnet with dark violet flowers in it upon her head. One could imagine Ethel, having borne four children and outlived a husband for many years, looking exactly at fifty-nine what Mrs Garland looked, as she slowly walked across the lawn. There was clearly far more of Mr Garland in May, and still more in Gwen. Mrs Garland looked what she was, a large, patient woman whom the years bringing a husband and family had passed over and had left a widow, with a round red face, very much what they found her as a sweet-tempered girl of eighteen. She had reached the age when one wears black clothes, and walking is something of a burden, and one's thoughts and conversation turn about what has happened rather than what will happen.
'Well, dears,' she said, smiling slightly, as Ethel came quickly to meet her, and May and Gwen got up.
Gwen ran up to her, took her by the arm, and made her sit down. 'Now, mother,' she said, 'out with it quickly -you know we're dying to hear what they're like.'
Mrs Garland smiled at Gwen. It was Ethel's smile, a smile which was often on the lips of mother and elder daughter, very sweet, very patient, but a smile which very often seemed to the person to whom they were talking to be curiously unintelligent, curiously unconnected with the smiler's actual thoughts. When you first saw it it made you happy to think that it was you who had called it forth, that it was directed to you - and then came the disappointment at finding that you had nothing more to do with it than the chair on which you were sitting.
'I only saw Mrs Davis and the daughter. They both seemed very nice - rather foreign, I think.'
'I expect they're Jews,' said May.
'Do you know,' Mrs Garland said in her low, serious voice,
'I believe, May, you're right; I think they may be. They don't seem to go to church.'
There was a silence. A feeling of disappointment came over Gwen. 'But what are they like, mother?' she said. 'Were you in the drawing-room?'
'What is it like?'
'It's very nice; they've got some very beautiful things in it, I think - china and vases and that kind of thing, and a piano and a table with books on it. I'm not sure that it isn't a good idea to have a table like that - it makes the room look less stiff. But it's much fuller than our room, more small tables with china and silver on them, but very few flowers.'
'Well,' Mrs Garland went on quietly, 'Mrs Davis is quite a lady, I thought; she must have been a very good-looking woman, very well preserved. She doesn't know anyone in Richstead. The son is an artist -'
'Byron,' May nodded to Gwen.
'And Mr Davis a solicitor. Mrs Davis talks a great deal. They must have been better off at one time; she talked of having kept a carriage. They lived in Bayswater.'
Excerpted from THE WISE VIRGINS by Leonard Woolf Copyright © 2007 by Victoria Glendinning. Excerpted by permission.
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