BOOK REVIEW / Who's afraid of the big bad Bloomsberry?: 'Virginia Woolf' - James King: Hamish Hamilton, 20 pounds

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ONLY recently, there was an attack on Virginia Woolf in a respectable newspaper (by Fiona Pitt-Kethley, it is true, who would perhaps not like to be designated respectable). It was the same old stuff: 'I am profoundly out of sympathy with her snobbish Englishness and lack of passion. The Bloomsbury set were such a self-congratulatory, ego-massaging coterie that they ensured publication and praise for each other's works. I can't believe Virginia Woolf would have made it as an author out in the real world.' Miss Pitt- Kethley also hazards that she and Mrs Woolf 'would have loathed each other had we ever met. I would not have been able to resist the temptation to use some very down-to-earth language in her presence.'

Anyone who knows just a little of the work and life of Virginia Woolf will feel sorry for Miss Pitt-Kethley and for what she has missed; they may also wonder if the poet has read any of the works of the snobbish, passionless and, in the 'real world' authorially unsuccessful Mrs Woolf. A propos the 'down-to-earth language', has she somehow managed never to hear about the great, admittedly queasy, moment when Bloomsbury vocabulary was freed up by Strachey's enquiry about semen on a frock?

That there is abroad a strongly held misapprehension, or image, of Virginia Woolf cannot be denied. One effect of a new biography may be to help dispel it. To dislike her work for reasons of aesthetics is one thing, and legitimate; to hate it, untried, for reasons of the author's, largely imagined, personal attributes is another, and unhelpful to those numberless readers and potential readers for whom Woolf's idiosyncratic art can arrive like a long-cast beam of light.

James King has written a diligent, touching, charmless book of considerable length. He decided to write this biography - the first, claim its publishers, to 'explore fully the relationship between her troubled life and her writings' - to discover 'the starting points of all her major works, their relationship to her life, their composition and their critical reception'. As he worked on the book, he 'became more and more aware of just how much of a fight each day of Virginia Woolf's existence had been. Perhaps more than any of the other great writers, she was desperately aware of life's insubstantiality, of conflicts which could not be resolved. She wanted to live, but at the very same time she was entranced by death. As I confronted her magnificent battle against the powers of extinction, I constantly asked myself, doesn't her struggle to stay alive - and to be fully alive - constitute another kind of greatness, a heroism which exists apart from her considerable achievement as a writer?'

Perhaps it's just that I am profoundly out of sympathy with the solecistic/ empathetic school of biography that flourishes in our time, but it seems to me that Professor King's passionate personalised advocacy, set in the language of Star Wars, is almost as deleterious to a lucid appreciation of Virginia Woolf's writing as Miss Pitt-Kethley's over made-up mind. Not that Woolf did not exhibit courage in the face of tragic events and agonising mental peril, but that courage went in to her work. If he is, as he claims, going to strip back the writer's 'intimate' life - her 'marriage, friendships, mental instability, and sexuality' - more deeply than ever before, because the life is inseparable from the work, he cannot say that the courage that held Woolf alive for as long as it did may be separated from the work. Very possibly, it was the drive to work that was at the root of the courage. King cannot assert that Woolf is both a fertile neurotic and a soldier/ martyr. Somehow, in an almost-Hollywood vein that stands in nave apposition to the amount of research he has committed, Professor King seems to require of Virginia Woolf, whose work he loves and interprets intelligently, that she be an icon as well as herself. He is like a professorial version of those innumerable young women who have the beautiful George Beresford photograph of Virginia Woolf in 1902 stuck up in poster form on the wall. A devotee of a writer who asserts that writer's pre-eminence over 'any of the other great writers' runs the risk of exposing his hero on a high and frozen peak. The overstatement seems socially hectic, even frivolous. Professor King, who has devoted his writing career to the lives of Englishly eccentric artists (Cowper, Paul Nash, Herbert Read, William Blake), seems at times to miss the tenor of English English.

In spite of the book's handsomeness, and some diverting illustrations and sumptuous photographs, there has been a casual approach to proofreading that must cast down Professor King, who cannot, surely, believe that Carrington should be described as 'simpatico', or that one can in the general way 'diffuse a situation'. This last has a Woolfian suggestion that sheds an unintentionally beguiling light; part of Virginia Woolf's literary genius was precisely that she could diffuse a situation and in so doing intensify and illuminate it. Professor King sometimes says what he does not mean. Sometimes he says what he does mean, and one wishes he had not said it so: 'In sum, Vita may have been the aristocrat, but it was Virginia who took the upper hand that evening. Fascinated by the exotic concoction of persons dwelling within the same breast, she soon allowed Vita to begin a leisurely exploration of her vestal state.' Such things dispel the sense of trust the reader is anxious to repose in Professor King's evidently genuine response to Virginia Woolf's own verbal precision.

A repeated objection to Bloomsbury-related biographies is that they rake over the same old dirt. Since such biographies began to appear regularly and to much attention, manners have changed. Professor King's biography has a considerable amount of new dirt, not, it must be said, remotely so presented. The problem of sexual revelation in serious biography is a conundrum. It may be nugatory in proportion to the groundbreaking surrounding research; it will almost certainly have been disclosed by the author for the most sober reasons. However, it will swell in the - commercially necessary - exposure by publisher and press of the book, swell further in the chat of book gossips and remain swollen in the reputation of the biography's dead subject, in whose life many things that have gone unmentioned took up enormously more time than that spent on sex and related activities. In a time disproportionately interested in the personal, never mind the actually sexual, we risk distorting the admired dead's appetites to fit our own. Believing that we understand a dead man or woman's libido, we may grow too idle to try to understand that more elusive thing, the imagination.

'Poor Billy (Woolf's name for herself) isn't one thing or the other, not a man nor a woman, so what's he to do?', Virginia Woolf asked her sister Vanessa Bell (whose portrait of Virginia in 1912 is shown above). It was in her imagination that Woolf, feeling herself hermaphroditic, could enter most intensely the feelings of either sex. Professor King contends that her famous mischief, often malice, and itch for gossip were sexual: 'If gossip is voyeuristic and thus a modified form of sexual activity, Virginia had an active sex life.' What this makes of the consensual acts between the biographer floating such a theory and his reader, it is discomfiting to contemplate.

In addition to the chat-as-surrogate theory, Professor King offers a notion much more plausible attached to disclosures about the shy young Virginia's lesbian relationship with her more relaxed and abundantly feminine sister Vanessa. King believes, and it does not ring untrue, that the early death of her mother (when her youngest daughter was 13) gave rise to Virginia Woolf's 'real object of desire: a warm, possessing embrace from another woman'. The documents that suggest the sisters' physical closeness do seem like bits of warmth in their unhappy father's widowed house, scraps of privacy against their half-brothers' infamously gauche and cruel sexual fumblings. Virginia Woolf remained a flirt all her life, not in the juicy sense of promising, but in the feline sense of threatening to withdraw, favour. King describes the lifelong vacillations of love and several kinds of jealousy, including artistic, between the sisters; it is moving to read of Virginia's feelings for her sister's children, and of her own intermittent desire for a child: 'A little more self-control on my part and we might have had a boy of 12, a girl of 10. This always makes me wretched in the early hours.'

The roots of such regrets must lie in the bond that she had with the beloved husband to whom she denied her body. Undeniably, the least comprehensible and most unattractive recorded comments of Virginia Woolf are made about Jews. This brilliant woman could at times speak with the dimmest voice of her class. Yet her husband was a Jew. She wrote in her diary that after 19 years, 'how moving (it is) to find this warmth, curiosity, attachment in being alone with L'. His loving strength, sternness and physical forbearance made it possible for her to resist mental collapse until, when Hitler conspired with her own recurrent madness, she wrote her husband what was probably her second suicide note of March 1941 and filled her pockets with stones.

The merits of Professor King's book chiefly lie in his clear and memorable account of the extended Potter/Duck- worth/Stephen/Thackeray families and their milieu. He has a gift for making genealogy come alive. The lighter touch demanded by the Bloomsbury connections is not so confidently achieved. With the reception of Virginia Woolf's books and her rawness about her critical standing in the virile world of letters he deals fascinatingly. If he falls short of her own fleetness as a biographer, the discrepancy is as touching, often, as it is frustrating.

As Virginia Woolf herself wrote to Vita Sackville-West: 'I don't mean that one ought to strain, to write showily, expressively, or so on: only that one ought to stand outside with one's hands folded, until the thing has made itself visible.' Words came to her like the strange creatures she attracted (once a yellow-green ape came out of nowhere on the Sussex Downs and her imagination felt young and vigorous, revived); only a writer made more for writing than for any other part of life could write, as she did in her diary: 'The truth is that writing is the profound pleasure and being read the superficial.'