I've been reading this one alongside Hermione Lee's biography of Woolf, and they've made quite the pair. Lee's methodology seems almost to perform a s...moreI've been reading this one alongside Hermione Lee's biography of Woolf, and they've made quite the pair. Lee's methodology seems almost to perform a sort of representational fragmentation (inasmuch as she argues that the sort of 'knowing' we tend to assume in understanding a person is always fictive--a person can never be exhaustively represented by another), so reading these recollections--where people do try to capture VW in a half-dozen or fewer pages--offered a very different vision of Woolf.
At the same time, interestingly, many of the essayists in this collection articulate that sense of irreducibility with Woolf; they seem rather uneasy with the attempt to capture her in words. Nevertheless, a number of things cropped up over and again: Woolf was a paragon of gaiety; she has a malicious streak in her humor (though not as cruel a streak as Lytton Strachey, so they say); she had a "bone beauty," a beautiful but strange image that came up on several occasions. There were numerous hilarious anecdotes about Woolf here, such as Plomer's story of Woolf becoming so exasperated with a Charles Morgan novel that she simply threw it out the window, or Barbara Bagenal's remembrance of VW telling her not to put pins in her mouth ["Barbara, only professionals do that, it is very dangerous"], or VW managing to make everyone laugh during the air raid as she and her guest and her two servants are hiding underneath the kitchen table. Certainly there are several here who attempt to paint VW as a kind of nervous genius, a "mermaid," "the Lady of Shalott," the madwoman in an artistic trance. But just as many simply remember their experiences, limited, with fondness, affection, & great joy--in having known her.
There are some unsurprising ones--T.S. Eliot's is, shocker, ridiculously pretentious--and some that will stop you in your tracks. I think Isherwood & Forster both offer astonishing pieces of prose here; Louie Mayer's (the 'Woolves' cook for decades) is wonderfully to the point and heartfelt; Angelica Garnett's is revealingly conflicted. Perhaps the standout essay here, though, is the only one that's almost wholly negative w.r.t. VW--Rebecca West's; the entire thing is a quite brilliantly twisted exercise in making backhanded compliments. Vanessa and Virginia are untidy, they "always looked as if they had been drawn through a hedge backwards"; there is a beautiful Victorian phrase, according to West: a 'well-turned out woman.' Virginia, however, "was not well-turned out." For West, The Waves is pre-Raphaelite kitsch; A Room of One's Own shouldn't be taught in schools; "too much is made" of The Common Reader. West closes on 'affection' but leaves a sour taste in the mouth. It's a quite witty, fiendish, 'well-turned out' essay, even if I find the motivation misguided.
Another interesting thing is hearing VW's peers discuss her work--almost all agree that she's what you would call a 'genius,' but some critique her inability to fully pin down her characters (one of my favorite things of her style, actually), some love A Room, some despise her feminism, most adore The Waves & To the Lighthouse, but there's much disagreement on Orlando. The Common Reader and the diaries are almost universally praised; Three Guineas almost universally despised.
In the end, finally, Woolf's own words come to me, though no one in the book quotes this passage from Mrs. Dalloway: "For there she was." (less)