In 1934, a "sickly pathetic marmoset” named Mitz came into the care of Leonard Woolf. After he nursed her back to health, she became a ubiquitous presence in Bloomsbury society. Moving with Leonard and Virginia Woolf between their homes in London and Sussex, she developed her own special relationship with each of them, as well as with their pet cocker spaniels and with various members of the Woolfs’ circle, among them T. S. Eliot and Vita Sackville-West. Mitz also helped the Woolfs escape a close call with Nazis during a trip through Germany just before the outbreak of World War II. Using letters, diaries, memoirs, and other archival documents, Nunez reconstructs Mitz’s life against the background of Bloomsbury’s twilight years. This tender and imaginative mock biography offers a striking look at the lives of writers and artists shadowed by war, death, and mental breakdown, and at the solace and amusement inspired by its tiny subjectand this new edition includes an afterword by Peter Cameron and a never-before-published letter about Mitz by Nigel Nicolson.
“In short, glistening sentences that refract the larger world, Ms. Nunez describes the appealingly eccentric, fiercely intelligent Woolfs during a darkening time.” —The Wall Street Journal
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About the Author
Peter Cameron’s novels include The Weekend, Andorra, The City of Your Final Destination, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, Coral Glynn, and What Happens at Night.
Read an Excerpt
It was a Thursday in July. That afternoon Leonard and Virginia Woolf drove from London to Cambridge to visit their young friends Barbara and Victor Rothschild. The Rothschilds had been married the December before. They lived in a grand old gray house called Merton Hall. When the Woolfs arrived, they found Barbara waiting outside for them. She sat on a chair on the lawn, a large straw hat shading her pretty face. They had known her since she was a baby. Now here she was expecting a baby herself.
They had teajust the three of them; Victor was napping. Fresh lemonadewith gin, if they likedand thin, freshly cut sandwiches. The room was filled with flowers set in large alabaster bowls. A bee had got indoors and kept drifting from bowl to bowl, from red rose to yellow rose, murmuring indecisively. Barbara was indecisive too. What to name the child if a boy? What to name the child if a girl? She and Victor were going abroad soonwhere should they stay? Then Victor joined them, ruddy and bright-eyed from his nap and all eager to show them the garden. Virginia, who was very particular about gardens, did not like this one ("stuck like a jam tart . . . a pretentious uncared for garden," she derided it two days later in her diary).
As they strolled the narrow pathsVirginia with Victor; Barbara and Leonard behind themthe afternoon shaded to evening. It had been a scorching day. Now came a breeze, pleasantly moist, and a nightingale sang. The sun, suspended between two dark elms, quivered like a struck gong. It would have been a shame to go in, and so they ate dinner on the lawn, with the shadows darkening and the sky turning ever different, deeper blues.When the first stars appeared, the nightingale fell silent, as if this were what it had been singing for.
It was a sumptuous dinner. Leonard ate with delight, praising the fish, the meat, and the wine. But though she admired the lavishness with which they were being regaled, Virginia ate slowly, without appetite. This was not unusual; Virginia often had to force herself to eat. But when Leonard praised the fish, Virginia praised it too. When he said his chop was perfectly done, she said that hers was too. And when he took a sip of his wine and pronounced it superb, she nodded agreement, though she had not yet taken a sip of her own. Much care had been taken to please them, and such care must be thanked.
Though she shared in the conversation and heard every word, Virginia never stopped taking in what was happening around them. A writer, said her father's old friend Henry James, must be someone who notices everything. (So avidly did Virginia observe this rule, Leonard sometimes had to chide her in public for staring.) The changing light, the changing colors of the sky, the flight of swallow and bat, when the nightingale sang and when it did notnone of this was missed by Virginia. They were eating dessertstrawberries and creamwhen she noticed something across the lawn. Some creature, small and gray. But what? Virginia narrowed her eyes and tried to discern it. A squirrel, she thought. But no: it was about the size of a squirrel, but it did not move like one. This thing crept, Virginia observed, as squirrels do not. No, that was not the brisk, skip-hopping scuttle of the squirrel. Was it a rat? she wondered, noticing now, with a slight shudder, the long thin tail. Again no. That was not the unmistakable hunched silhouette of the rat. Could it be a cat, then? A very small cata kitten? Virginia remembered that she had seen a cat earlier, when they were having tea, and she had counted four kittens tumbling about the garden. But none of them, as she recalled, had been gray.
It was not a kitten. It was
Victor said the words just as Virginia was about to say them herself. Among the many pets that had lived at one time or another at her childhood home in Kensington there had been a marmoset. But that had been very long ago, and Virginia had all but forgotten it.
Now Victor picked up his plate and laid it on the ground. He clicked his tongue. "Mitz!" he called. "Here, Mitz! Come, come!" And Mitz camenot bounding across the lawn as might have been expected, but slowly, haltingly, like a toy dragged by a string.
"I'm afraid she's not very healthy," Victor said. "I think she's got rickets."
How small she was! A mere scrap of monkey. You could have balanced her on your palm, like a fur apple. A head no bigger than a walnut, two black pips for eyes, and the tiniest nostrilsmere pinpricks. Her fur was mostly graysquirrel graybut tufts of lighter fur grew out from the sides and the back of her head (a rather clownish effect, it must be said). Seizing a strawberry in both paws, she crammed it into her mouth. She ate far too quickly to enjoy it, with quick glances left and right, as if she feared some other creature would appear out of the grass to snatch it from her. Now she had cream all over her face. Still chewing, she picked up another berry and began to cram it into her mouth. While the others laughed, Virginia looked away. Virginia was squeamish about gluttony. ("I dont like greed when it comes to champing & chawing & sweeping up gravy," she once told her diary, raging against a certain dinner guest.) But Virginia was too fascinated to avert her eyes for long. Something human, all too human, about that naked little faceVirginia had always imagined the faces of elves looking perhaps like this. Elfin face, body and tail of a rodent: it was this combination that made Mitz such a wonder. You looked at her and thought, How grotesque. And the very next instant, How adorable. And then, How grotesque, again.
What People are Saying About This
Delight! Nunez is the absolute best. She's the only writer I know with enough delicacy, subtlety, intelligence and wit to be a Marmoset's biographer. I adored this book, as small and as brilliant as that little star, Mitz, the Marmoset herself. All this, and with a splendid portrait of the two Woolfes, Leonard and Virginia, as well. I learned much that is important about Marmosets and about the Bloomsbury group from Mitz, and for both insights, I'm grateful.