Sunday, January 24, 2010

Birthday Genius: The Big Bad Woolf

I'll be wishing many happy returns today, on her 128th, to the amazing woman seen above in a portrait by her almost equally remarkable sister. The picture is a 1912 portrait of Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell; once upon a time they were the daring Stephen sisters who took a house in Bloomsbury without a chaperone, and many, many things have been different ever since.

The work of Virginia Woolf too often these days is overshadowed by her life and career, by the people she knew and, most recently, by the often byzantine biographical and literary reinterpretations dreamed up by the people who study her and them. I can't recommend too strongly just going back to her books, which while they can be a challenge, reward it. If nothing else, she's a great deal more interesting than Nicole Kidman's wan, swanning impression, or even Michael Cunningham's rather sharper take.

Were I teaching Woolf 101, the introductory course to Bloomsbury for the Quizzical, I would start with Orlando, followed by The Voyage Out and some of the essays, only after which would students be permitted to read Quentin Bell's engrossing biography of his aunt and then embark on Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. After that, one would be ready for anything, even the novels of V. Sackville-West and the acid pen of Mr. Lytton Strachey.

It's one course, however, that one cannot slide by on by seeing the films. Vanessa Redgrave is lovely in Mrs. Dalloway, but it's not really very Woolfy; The Hours can't really count; Orlando ought to be burnt; and anyone who goes into Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seeking biographical insight is only going to come out very, very confused.

Today actually offers an authorial two-for-one - sharing the day is Mr. Somerset Maugham, in his day a far more commercial author and sometime acquaintance of the Woolfs. Neither he nor his work has aged as well, however, although one would still be better of being afraid of him than the languid lady painted by her sister...


  1. I love that movie Carrington, about the Bloomsbury circle.

  2. I dare to disagree on the syllabus of your 101.

    I find Orlando far too complex for the uninitiated, while starting with the eventful day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway would function as a more gentle approach

    If you find a copy in the attic by the Hogarth Press dated 1925, please refrain from writing your notes in the margin.

    For a daily read at your favourite café, I suggest the compact elegant binding of Everyman's Library - at just over 200 pages with an elegant hard cover it fits comfortably even in the most minimalist travel bag.

  3. Is any of this going to be on the test?