BOOK REVIEW / Scents and sensibility of an imperfect companion: 'Travels with Virginia Woolf' - Ed Jan Morris: The Hogarth Press, 17.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
WE CAN imagine doing many things with Virginia Woolf; having dinner, going to a party, shopping, taking a turn on the terrace, but travelling? Not really. Even Jan Morris admits Woolf might not have been the ideal companion. She mixes up names, visits Assisi without mentioning Giotto, and Corinth without noticing the canal; she passes through Delphi in two paragraphs. Altogether Woolf spends about five months in France, goes seven times to Italy and twice to Spain and Greece; so most of these so-called travel pieces are simply immersions in the spirit of the place in London, Cornwall, Wales, Sussex - haunts of the well-bred and physically unadventurous Englishwoman that she was. There is perhaps no more ridiculous sentence in all her writing than that which Morris quotes in the introduction: 'I had an idea for a book last night . . . a voyage around the world, hunting, climbing, adventurous people, shooting tigers, flying and so on. Fantastic.' Fantastic indeed.

And yet, read in the sullen greyness of a January sitting room, this book is an unexpected plunge into the most delicate and the grandest pleasures. It seems superbly generous of Jan Morris, adventurous traveller that she is, to sift through such a seemingly dead vein and bring to life such jewels.

The plangent, poignant note that is Woolf's most striking characteristic is sounded pretty often here. Nostalgia - things passing or about to pass - adds a poetic urgency: 'One night,' she wrote in Sussex in 1929, 'I had that feeling of being very young, travelling abroad, and seeing the leaves from a train window, in Italy - I can get the feeling right now. All was adventure and excitement.' The 'was' is perhaps the most striking word in the passage.

Still, all is not softness. One itches with temper when Woolf turns working men and women into picturesque models of patience and languor; or slips into that sloppy hauteur that intellectuals of her time seemed addicted to when confronted with ordinary people en masse. On Hampstead Heath she inspects the crowd: 'Detestable; it smells; it sticks; it has neither vitality nor colour; it is a tepid mass of flesh scarcely organised into human life.' It has always seemed unfair to brand Woolf as particularly snobbish, when men such as Proust and Henry James get away with even haughtier grandeur. But it can still grate.

And when travelling in strange places, she is often too thrown by the strangeness to open out to the experience. On the Sierra Nevada she notes: 'This wrinkled red and white screen is found to consist of stones, olive tress, goats, asphodels, irises, bushes, ridges, shelves, clumps, tufts, and hollows innumerable, indescribable, unthinkable.' But such puzzlement is preferable to the pontificating of an up- to-date traveller. There is nothing faked or clamorous about her gentle glances, and when she loves, she loves for real. Her thoughts on Rome are almost stoppered by the delicacy of her adoration.

Although this book is not entirely a holiday from Woolf's darker moments - there is enough pent-up anguish in some passages for them to look like studies for Mrs Dalloway's misanthrope, Septimus Warren Smith - still, as Morris says, in travelling Woolf was released into a merrier world than the one her incisive vision generally allowed her at home. A world of scents and sun and surprising silliness. In 1927 she wrote: 'I should like to go on travelling from town to town all my life, rambling about ruins and watching the schooner come in, and falling in love with Italian girls.' Almost as likely as flying and shooting tigers.

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