Virginia Woolf’s libraries

John Passmore Edwards

Earlier this month there was an interesting comment by Anthea Arnold on my post from July last year about Virginia Woolf’s essay collection The Common Reader, vol. 1, and in particular her essay ‘Lives of the Obscure’. Anthea pointed out that when picturing herself reading obscure books in an ‘out-of-date, obsolete library’, Woolf seemed to be conflating three different ones.

Passmore Edwards library facade

Inscription reads: Passmore Edwards Free…The library underwent major renovations in 2010

Anthea went on to give outline histories of all three. One of them particularly caught my attention. She said that St Ives Library in Cornwall was opened by John Passmore Edwards in 1897. This reminded me of the library in my own city of Truro. I’ve seen his name emblazoned on its side countless times, without paying it much attention. I decided to research him a bit more.

John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911) was born in Blackwater, near Truro in Cornwall. After making his fortune as a journalist and writer, he dedicated his life and wealth to charitable and philanthropic causes. Between 1889 and 1903 he donated over 250,000 pounds to various such causes and established over seventy institutions all over the country, many of them in London, including libraries, cottage hospitals, convalescent homes, schools and art galleries – and even drinking fountains, so that the working classes would be able to drink uncontaminated water.

Edwards supported the abolition of capital punishment, the suppression of the opium trade and the abolition of flogging in the services. He also helped direct the Political Reform Association, and published and edited various magazines, promoting among other things peace and temperance.

He was offered a knighthood twice, but declined the honour.

Edwards facade Library

Inscription: Library

The Passmore Edwards library in Truro was built by local firm Clemens and Battershill to a design by Silvanus Trevail (see below) of Plymouth limestone with Bath stone dressings on a granite base. The foundation stone was laid on May 24th, 1895, and the building was opened with a great ceremony on April 30th, 1896: ‘thousands of people thronged the gaily decorated streets’. It was described as ‘a gift of Mr Passmore Edwards to the citizens of Truro without distinction as to creed or financial status’. In a speech he stated that he was planning to open nineteen institutions in Cornwall, as there were nineteen letters in his name. The three-storey Central Technical Schools for Cornwall were built on to the library in 1899.

Edwards foundation stone

The library foundation stone commemorates Passmore Edwards

Edwards was a delegate for the London Peace Society to various Peace Conferences, 1848 -1850, and stood unsuccessfully as an Independent parliamentary candidate for Truro in 1868. In 1880 he was elected Liberal Party MP for Salisbury, an office he held for five years.

Some of his major beneficiaries were the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the London School of Economics. I remember friends from my undergraduate days who lived in an LSE student hall of residence named in his honour.

Silvanus Trevail (1851-1903), the Truro library architect, was born in the parish of Luxulyan, just outside St Austell in Cornwall. After training as an architect in London he returned to his native county, where he went on to design some fifty of the new ‘board schools’ as a result of the 1872 Education Act, which broadened the need for compulsory education for children. He also designed the St Lawrence Hospital in Bodmin and some of the most prestigious hotels in Cornwall, including the magnificent terracotta-coloured Headland in Newquay, and the Carbis Bay Hotel just outside St Ives. He designed many of the Passmore Edwards buildings in Cornwall and London, for he shared that philanthropist’s passion for improving the living conditions and welfare of the working classes.

He participated actively in Cornish local politics as a councillor, and became Mayor of Truro. He was elected Fellow of the RIBA, Vice President of the Society of Architects in 1896 and President in 1901 – a position he still held when he died.

He apparently suffered from depression, and shot himself on a train as it approached Bodmin Road station in 1903.

Ardour and shyness: Virginia Woolf’s essays on women in The Common Reader vol. 2

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader vol. 2: cover

My Vintage Books paperback edition of 2003

When she turns her attention to female writers in The Common Reader vol. 2, Virginia Woolf’s tone become more fervent than in those essays that discuss male figures. More indignant, too. Not surprising, really, as this collection was published just three years after A Room of One’s Own.

Here she is, in her essay on the Letters of Dorothy Osborne, (1627-95), most of them written in the years of clandestine courtship to the man she married in 1654, Sir William Temple. ‘Material conditions’ that made it difficult for non-aristocratic men to become writers at that time were worse for women:

the woman was impeded also by her belief that writing was an act unbefitting her sex.

The odd ‘great lady’ might write and print her writings and be grudgingly tolerated, protected by her rank: ‘But the act was offensive to a woman of lower rank.’ Dorothy wrote as much herself when the Duchess of Newcastle published one of her books, exclaiming that she could never stoop to such unbecoming lack of decorum.

Yet she was a woman with a ‘great literary gift’, Woolf adds. Had she born 200 years later she’d have been a fine novelist. As it was, the only form of expression open to her was letters – and these allow us a rare example of the voice of men and women ‘talking together over the fire.’ Despite the stylistic (and social-domestic) constraints of the time for women of her station, Lady Temple took pains over her compositions, and produced a literature of her own,

a record of life, gravely yet playfully, formally and yet with intimacy, to a public of one, but to a fastidious public, as the novelist can never give it, or the historian either.

Jonathan Swift secured a position in the late 1680s as secretary to Sir William. ‘Mild Dorothea, peaceful, wise and great,’ is his description of her in her final years. He failed to perceive the passionate, spirited woman who is glimpsed in those letters to her forbidden lover, and whose voice has otherwise been muted or ignored, along with most of the other women who lived in those days, and for many years afterwards.

The sketch of Mary Wollstonecraft also glows with suppressed empathetic anger. Mary’s violent father’s profligacy forced her into that hated role of so many women of her class, governess: ‘she had never known what happiness was.’ All she knew was ‘the sordid misery of real human life’ – and yet she forged an identity and a philosophy all her own:

The staple of her doctrine was that nothing mattered save independence…not grace or charm, but energy and courage and the power to put her will into effect, were the necessary qualities.

Revolution was in her blood:

She had been in revolt all her life – against tyranny, against law, against convention. The reformer’s love of humanity, which has so much of hatred in it as well as love, fermented within her.

Only rarely does this fiery tone emerge in Woolf’s essays on male writers.

She’s more sober in the piece on the quiet, unassuming devotion of Dorothy Wordsworth to her brother, as revealed in her journals and letters. But even she is allowed some force and fervour, as here in an account of her writing about a waterfall:

She searched out all its character, she noted its resemblances, she defined its differences, with all the ardour of a discoverer, with all the exactness of a naturalist, with all the rapture of a lover.

Woolf notes how Dorothy effectively created the conditions in which her ‘beloved’ William could become a poet, not just domestically, but emotionally, artistically, even linguistically:

It was a strange love, profound, almost dumb, as if brother and sister had grown together and shared not the speech but the mood, so that they hardly knew which felt, which spoke, which saw the daffodils or the sleeping city; only Dorothy stored the mood in prose, and later William came and bathed in it and made it into poetry. But one could not act without the other.

A more sober account, then, but the language, imagery and style of that passage show the emotion tempered by intellect of the Metaphysicals, the graceful expressive symmetry of the Augustans. The brother ‘bathes’ in the life-giving spring waters of his sister’s self-effacing generosity and art.

Dorothy may have lacked the fiercely passionate nature and agency of Mary Wollstonecraft, but Woolf convinces us that Dorothy’s role in English literary history is just as significant – not just in acting as midwife to much of her illustrious brother’s work, but in her own surviving written work. There was a different type of passionate blood flowing in her veins, a different order of self-expression, and Virginia Woolf has the clear-eyed sympathy to perceive them, as she sums up a typical journal entry by Dorothy:

Her pen sometimes stammers with the intensity of the emotion that she controlled, as De Quincey said that her tongue stammered with the conflict between her ardour and her shyness as she spoke.

Yet ‘still she must control’ her impulsive nature, ‘still she must repress, or she would fail in her task – she would cease to see.’

As Nora says in A Doll’s House when her controlling, patronising husband talks about a man’s pride: millions of women have to swallow theirs, every day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 2: pt 2

Virginia Woolf isn’t just a brilliant stylist, she can be very witty. She has an excellent eye for offbeat humour and mordant observation in the writers she discusses in these essays (all but four of which started out as book reviews, and were subsequently ‘refurbished’ by her for this collection). In ‘Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son’ there’s this on the ‘training’ that helped the aristocrat compose his salutary correspondence (far too sophisticated for its schoolboy recipient!) that was also an outlet for his creativity:

The little papers have the precision and formality of some old-fashioned minuet…’Some succeeded, and others burst’ he says of George the First’s mistresses: the king liked them fat. Again, ‘He was fixed in the house of lords, that hospital of incurables.’ He smiles: he does not laugh.

What an excellent image to convey the poised, restrained style of her subject – and its velvety Augustan formal stateliness; that final dig at the lords is perfect. And Woolf has already established Chesterfield’s personal constraint: he considered laughter to be vulgar.

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader vol. 2: cover

Woolf is capable of fine imagery herself. In ‘Four Figures’ pt 1: ‘Cowper and Lady Austen’ she sums up the poet’s literary qualities with typical clarity and precision; after describing his pride in his ‘gentle birth’ and the ‘standards of gentility’ he strove for at Olney, from the elegant snuff-box to the silver shoe buckles and fashionable hat, she goes on:

His letters preserve this serenity, this good sense, this sidelong, arch humour embalmed in page after page of beautiful clear prose.

So much is conveyed by that use of ‘embalmed’. And then she shows how his new friend Ann Austen began to feel ‘something stronger than friendship rise within her’:

That strain of intense and perhaps inhuman passion which rested with tremulous ecstasy like that of a hawk-moth over a flower…

I tend to think of VW as a particularly urban woman; I’ve attended a conference in her former home in Gordon Square. But of course the bohemian, urban Bloomsbury set were keen gardeners and countryside-dwellers. Her family had the famous summer house down the road from me at St Ives, opposite the more-famous Godrevy lighthouse. She and Leonard initially rented in rural Sussex, where her sister Vanessa also lived with her complicated domestic set-up, and then moved there to a house of their own. Her novels are as likely to be set in the country as in London. Hence that striking hawk-moth image – though I wonder if she really means the humming-bird moth, which emulates the grace of the bird it resembles when hovering over verbena, sipping at nectar.

I mentioned in my previous post that VW is particularly good on Hardy. Here’s a sample of why I say that. Here she’s writing about his first novel, Desperate Remedies, published in 1871 when he was 31, before he became ‘an assured craftsman’:

The imagination of the writer is powerful and sardonic; he is book-learned in a home-made way; he can create characters but he cannot control them; he is obviously hampered by the difficulties of his technique, and, what is more singular, he is driven by some sense that human beings are the sport of forces outside themselves, to make an extreme and even melodramatic use of coincidence.

There’s the literary acumen here of a fellow professional writer, the literary-critical perception of a careful reader. This is an example, also, of her tendency to slip into a rather pompous, mannered writing style – all those semi-colons, the clumping anaphora.

But is there also perhaps a hint of snobbery? What exactly does she mean by ‘home-made’? Not Cambridge educated, as her brothers were? (She of course was one of the first women to be permitted to study at King’s College, London, denied the expensive education of young men at the time, as she so ruefully pointed out in A Room of One’s Own.)

She goes on more generously, less prissily, to show Hardy’s brilliance in conveying in his writing the ‘larger sense of Nature as a force.’ His characters are no mere puppets:

In short, nobody can deny Hardy’s power – the true novelist’s power – to make us believe that his characters are fellow-beings driven by their own passions and idiosyncracies, while they have – and this is the poet’s gift – something symbolical about them which is common to us all.

There’s still a bit of the mannered Victorian/Edwardian in the style there – those parentheses – but it reads as more heartfelt and natural, less crabbed and cerebral than the earlier quotation.

I intended writing about what are perhaps the most interesting essays in the collection: the ones about women. Maybe next time.

 

 

Men do kill women. Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), All Passion Spent. Virago Modern Classics 2010; first published 1931

Henry Lyulph Holland, first Earl of Slane, had existed for so long that the public had begun to regard him as immortal. The public, as a whole, finds reassurance in longevity, and, after the necessary interlude of reaction, is disposed to recognise extreme old age as a sign of excellence.

VSW All P Spent coverSo begins, eloquently and wittily, Vita (short for Victoria) Sackville-West’s ninth novel. Lord Slane had led a life of eminence as politician (rising to Prime Minister, then in later years he sat – when it suited him – in the House of Lords) and diplomat (ultimately as Viceroy of India). When he dies aged 94 his six children and ‘their two wives and a husband bringing the number up to nine’, a ‘sufficiently formidable family gathering’ – all in their sixties – gather like ‘old black ravens’ – or vultures – to determine the fate of his widow, their mother, Lady Slane, who is 88.

There’s a sort of inverted or subverted King Lear plot; led by the domineering Herbert, the eldest, they assume that she will spend a portion of the year in each of their houses in turn; they will ‘divide mother between them’. Each of them has their own venal, selfish motives for such an arrangement. She must, they assume, ‘be allowed to break down, and then, after that was over, be stowed away,’ or ‘cleared up’, like her late husband’s desk. They privately believe their mother ‘was rather a simpleton’ with ‘no grasp on the world as it was’, therefore malleable:

Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive – an appendage. It was assumed that she had not brain enough to be self-assertive…That she might have ideas which she kept to herself never entered into their estimate…She would be grateful to them for arranging her few remaining years.

This patronising assessment (shared by most who know or knew her) is proved inaccurate; for Lady Slane, who ‘had spent a great deal of her life listening, without making much comment’, and who ‘all her life had been accustomed to have her comings and goings and stayings arranged for her’, obediently doing what was expected of her as the trophy wife of a public male figure, amazes the vulture offspring by announcing that she has no intention of complying with their decision: she is to rent a house for herself and her equally elderly French maid Genoux in Hampstead where she will live alone. Visitors will be banned, except for her children; anyone younger she deems too trying.

They assume she ‘must be mad.’ This stereotypically passive, submissive woman, always ‘reserved in speech, withholding her opinion’, never revealing what she was thinking, had clearly fooled them all along. This was a mask she wore involuntarily. Now she is free.

Only Edith, the unmarried youngest child, ‘always flustered’ and inclined to say the wrong thing, and who the rest of the family dismiss as scatterbrained and ‘a half-wit’ (pretty much like her mother, then), has any emotional intelligence, is ‘surprisingly shrewd’, and perceives her mother’s true nature, just as she sees through the hypocrisy, greed and bullying of her siblings – except for her equally unprepossessing brother Kay, a bachelor whose collection of compasses and astrolabes was all that interested him and kept him happy.

What follows is a revealing portrait of a woman asserting her right to be herself – Vita habitually denied she was a feminist, but a believer in human rights. As a member of the bohemian, ostensibly free-thinking Bloomsbury set, and Virginia Woolf’s lover (along with Violet Trefusis and others), Vita was intent on showing how society oppressed and constrained women and their individuality, and how the institution of marriage precluded most women from expressing their true selves. Lady Slane had longed to be an artist, but marriage to Henry meant that she never once painted. She had a role to play as his decorative ‘appendage’, his obedient wife – this is the only life for which women like her were ‘formed, dressed, bedizened, educated…safeguarded, kept in the dark, hinted at, segregated, repressed, all that at a given moment they may be delivered, or may deliver their daughters over, to Minister to a Man’.

Victoria Glendinning, in an astute and intelligent Introduction, considers the weaknesses in this portrayal. Why make Lady Slane so intellectually dim, so feminine? Her argument is compelling.

The newly liberated old woman’s life in Hampstead is amusingly told, with some engagingly eccentric characters – including a long-forgotten old flame who turns up unexpectedly, reminding her of what she once glimpsed but foreswore in her radiant, unquestioning youth – and some lively, sparkling prose. It’s hard to believe that home-educated Vita saw herself, like Lady Slane, as a rather stupid and limited writer beside the glittering Virginia Woolf.

Take this, for example: Lady Slane’s landlord, the delightfully strange Mr Bucktrout, has taken a liking to her – he’s refused to rent out his house for decades, but recognises in her a kindred spirit; he’s even taken to giving her little presents, and is one of the few people she’ll allow to visit. She thinks of his small, thoughtful gestures of attentiveness, comparing them favourably with the empty manners of polite society:

Courtesy ceased to be blankly artificial, when prompted by real esteem; it became, simply, one of the decent, veiling graces; a formula by which a profounder feeling might be conveyed.

She remembers a flock of yellow and white butterflies that once accompanied her and her husband as they crossed the Persian desert together, in a passage too long to quote here, but which is a beautiful, fragile image of the life she glimpsed but was unable to enter into. As the man says who once locked eyes and souls with her in India, and then left her life:

Face it, Lady Slane. Your children, your husband, your splendour, were nothing but obstacles that kept you from yourself. They were what you chose to substitute for your real vocation. You were too young, I suppose, to know any better, but when you chose that life you sinned against the light.

Men do kill women, he concludes. Henry had ‘cheated her of her chosen life’, she reflects on another occasion, but had offered her another, an ‘ample life’, but one ‘pressed up close against her own nursery’. He’d substituted his life and interests, or their children’s, for her own. ‘It had never occurred to him that she might prefer simply to be herself.’

Vita can write (ok, maybe not sustained over every page), and needn’t have felt inadequate when compared with the better fiction of her famous lover; I’d have liked to quote more examples to support my case, and realise I’ve focused here on the novel’s themes and moral, rather than on the style. I’d be interested to know if I’m alone in admiring it – despite its unevenness. She is indeed a lesser talent, less serious, ambitious and experimental, less important in the annals of literature, perhaps, than the author of Orlando, whose protagonist is based on Vita; but there’s some fine writing in this heartfelt novel, even though it flags about halfway through.

A visit to the Tate St Ives

Mrs TD and I treated ourselves to a short break this weekend, going to the Tate St Ives yesterday, and driving on to stay at the quirky and charming Artist’s Residence hotel in Penzance. I was going to write briefly about both aspects of this trip here, but on researching the first part of it (as always happens) I got sidetracked, so shall focus here just on the Tate part; more on Penzance next time.

We wanted to take a look at the recently opened extension to the beautiful gallery, dramatically located overlooking the even more beautiful Porthmeor beach.

Porthmeor Beach

Porthmeor Beach seen from the ace café on the top floor of the Tate – hence the slight reflection in the glass. Arguably better than Miami Beach when the sun shines like this!

I wanted to visit an exhibition being held there: Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition inspired by her writings, Tate St Ives (until 7 April) – link is to the Tate’s page on the exhibition, with some lovely images from it (of course Woolf’s long association with St Ives is well known). My colleagues and I are going there again next week with our students, so I was keen to get a preview.

Do take a look at those images at the Tate site; it’s a fascinating set of exhibits – not just the variety of artworks reflecting aspects of Woolf’s life and work, but also letters and other interesting pieces. Dora Carrington, for example, was clearly a terrible speller, and had very large, dramatic handwriting (there are some of her works on display, even more dramatic).

Another artist (and writer) well represented in the exhibition, one I’ve been intending investigating further for some time, partly because of her writings about Cornwall, is Ithell Colquhoun. I hadn’t realised how yonic her art was…

But the one work that particularly drew my attention was this: Louise Jopling’s (1843-1933) Self Portrait, 1877:

Jopling, Self Portrait

Jopling, Louise; Self Portrait; Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-205303; public domain Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND

She was born in Manchester, studied art in Paris for a time – she exhibited at the Salon there – and her work featured in shows at the Royal Academy from the late 186Os or certainly by 1870 (depending which source one consults). She worked vigorously on behalf of women artists and of the Suffragists. She struggled all her life against the restraints imposed by Victorian and later societies on women and women artists, and succeeded in forging a professional career and reputation that few of her women contemporaries achieved. She campaigned for the right of women artists to work with live models without the prudish constraints of the Academy that such models be ‘carefully draped’ – which surely ruined the whole point of life drawing!

Like the portrait by Ingres I wrote about seeing at the National Gallery last month, this one drew my gaze with its forthright, full on contemplation of the onlooker: poised and self assured, intelligent, slightly amused perhaps – look at her right eyebrow. And that hat is at such a rakish angle. It’s a remarkable image.

When I looked her up online, I discovered there’s a Louise Jopling research project website, University of Glasgow (started 2005):

 The project aims to document her career as a leading female artist and her close-knit artistic, literary and theatrical world of late 19th century London and Paris. It also seeks to understand better the climate in which women then practised as artists and, more generally, the climate for women’s growing participation in the workplace and in public life.

[There follows a list of ‘core aspects of the project’, such as compiling catalogues raisonnées and databases of all her artistic and written works, transcripts of her correspondence, and the online edition of her autobiography, Twenty Years of My Life, 1867-1887 (1925).

The project also cites Louise JoplingA Biographical and Cultural Study of the Modern Woman Artist in Victorian Britain, by Patricia de Montfort (Routledge-Ashgate, 2016).

There are links at this site to a brief biography, with photos, a catalogue of works with links to the galleries holding them, and a bibliography. Well worth a look.

It’s interesting to compare the handsome portrait 1879 at the NPG of Mrs Jopling (link only, for copyright reasons) by family friend John Everett Millais; a lengthy account of how it came to be painted, with extracts from the writings of artist and subject, is at the NPG site here

Whistler’s portrait ‘Harmony in Flesh Colour and Black: Mrs Louise Jopling’, at the Hunterian Gallery, University of Glasgow, reflects the fashionable social and cultural life this remarkable woman led, mixing with these artists who painted her, Oscar Wilde, and other notables of the time. She deserves wider recognition.

It’s possible to see an image and account of Jopling’s Self Portrait at the Manchester Gallery site. While there I noticed this: John William Waterhouse’s famous (and rather twee) painting Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) was removed from Manchester Art Gallery last month on the grounds of its sexist objectification of the semi-naked female forms depicted, as widely reported in the media; the Gallery’s website gives a strikingly different account:

The painting – part of the gallery’s highly prized collection of Pre-Raphaelite works – was temporarily removed from display as part of a project the gallery is working on with the artist Sonia Boyce, in the build-up to a solo exhibition of her work at the gallery opening on 23 March 2018. Boyce’s work is all about bringing people together in different situations to see what happens. The painting’s short term removal from public view was the result of a ‘take-over’ of some of the gallery’s public spaces by a wide range of gallery users and artists on Friday January 26th.

The event was conceived by Boyce to bring different meanings and interpretations of paintings from the gallery’s collection into focus, and into life…In its place, notices were put up inviting responses to this action that would inform how the painting would be shown and contextualized when it was rehung.

 

I suppose this is what would have been called Fake News in some quarters…

Seagull

Outside the Gallery

Someone stabbed the panda: Sally Potter, The Party

I haven’t often written about films here, but today I feel compelled to do so. With Mrs TD I went yesterday to see British director Sally Potter’s new film ‘The Party’. It’s not sufficiently blockbusterish for our local cinema, so we had to go to the more adventurous arts centre, the estimable Poly in Falmouth.

It’s a delightful old building in the centre of the town. An added civilised pleasure is that you can buy a glass of wine in the bar and take it in to the auditorium while you watch the film.

It’s a theatrical sort of film, shot completely within the downstairs rooms and courtyard garden of what looks to be a smart little house in London. Janet, played with her usual cool sophistication and hint of darkness by Kristin Scott Thomas, has just been promoted to become shadow Health Minister – her film’s title presumably encompasses the political as well as the celebratory meanings of the word. She’s invited some of her closest friends to a dinner party to help her celebrate.

Sally Potter, The Party poster

Poster from the Sally Potter website

The film opens with a strangely detached Bill, Janet’s university academic husband, sitting staring vacantly in his chair, listening to a sequence of wonderful records, starting with vintage blues and jazz. He has a glass of wine in his hand, the bottle by his chair. Arriving guests assume he’s drunk. We soon learn there are other explanations for the haunted look in his eyes.

First to arrive is the cynical, sharp-tongued April (Patricia Clarkson almost steals the film; she has all the best lines – but there are plenty shared by the rest of the cast; her biting one-liners are worthy of Dorothy Parker. Her partner is the benignly smiley, cheerfully ageing hippy, bogus ‘life coach’ and vacuous ‘spiritual healer’ Gottfried, played by Bruno Ganz, who I last saw playing Hitler in ‘Downfall’; Gottfried could hardly be a more different role, and he clearly loves every minute of it. When April says of him ‘Scratch an aromatherapist and you’ll find a fascist’ at one point it’s like someone’s stabbed a panda.

April frequently reminds whoever will listen that they are breaking up, and berates him for his dippy New Age platitudes – yet there’s an unlikely, unacknowledged tenderness between them that starts to emerge towards the end.

The other guests are a lesbian couple Martha and another academic, Jinny (Emily Mortimer and Cherry Jones) with a big announcement to make, and Tom (Cillian Murphy), who’s suspiciously jumpy and erratic, more so after snorting coke in the bathroom. And why is he carrying a gun?

Like a classic drawing-room mystery-thriller, each character peels away layers of bourgeois gentility and complacency to reveal passions, dark secrets and obsessions that will change all their lives.

This all might sound a little earnest, but it’s far from it: the film is laugh-out-loud hilarious. But there’s a serious, satirical edge to the proceedings, so we never feel this is just a bit of escapist froth. For example, April’s caustic nihilism is an indication of her disillusionment with the optimistic soft-left stance of champagne socialists like her dear friend Janet (and philosopher husband Bill). Their comfortable middle-class liberalism is offset by city financier fat cat Tom’s callous, selfish capitalism. Martha and Jinny are shown to have differences, and all of the women characters are forced to confront their shortcomings as members of the postfeminist ‘sisterhood’. Even atheist Bill begins to listen more seriously to the cosy guru-humanist-spiritual Gottfried. In the spirit of all great drama, every character learns something about themselves and others.

The script then is sharp, the plot full of startling twists and surprises, but none of them forced or unnatural – they arise out of the characters and their relationships with each other, and deal with most of today’s most pressing social-political concerns. And the 71-minutes of the film, in which the action happens in real time, is just right. A tightly-plotted ensemble ‘entertainment’, in the Graham Greene sense (as Sally Potter said in a Guardian profile recently), the film moves inexorably, hilariously to its startling, inevitable conclusion, making a mordantly pertinent social commentary at the same time.

The characters are necessarily a little too representative of the types they represent, rather than fully-rounded, but this is inevitable in such a short piece which has so much to say. This is by far the best film I’ve seen in a long time. It knocks spots off the sumptuous nonsense that was Murder on the Orient Express, which I endured last week.

The lustrous black-and-white photography by Aleksei Rodionov adds to the tragi-comic atmosphere, as does the music (there’s a great joke about what’s suitable mood music for a crisis). Since her first major success, when she tackled the gender-fluid Virginia Woolf novel Orlando, with Tilda Swinton playing the central character’s shifting persona, Sally Potter has always portrayed gender relations and the problematic role of women in a social setting that’s corrupt, decadent and lost. There are echoes of Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

 

Look out for the urban fox: he’s perhaps a symbol of the feral truth beneath the sophisticated social veneer of this doomed dinner party.

 

 

Virginia Woolf, ‘Between the Acts’

Virginia Woolf, née Stephens (1882-1941), was famously a central figure in the Bloomsbury Group, that loosely-linked, sexually entangled set of artists and writers who originally lived and met in the Bloomsbury district of central London. I’m sure I don’t need to say more: this is well-charted territory, and my OWC edition has an informative Preface and Introduction by the great Frank Kermode.

1902 photo of Virginia Woolf by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) via Wikimedia commons

1902 photo of Virginia Woolf by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) via Wikimedia commons

Between the Acts was completed in November 1940 but published in 1941, shortly after the author had drowned herself in the River Ouse in Sussex, having lapsed into another episode of the depression that had dogged her throughout her life. Its title derives from the novel’s central event: the staging of a ‘pageant’ about English history in the grounds of Pointz Hall, the country seat of the Oliver family.

The novel’s subject is the history and culture of England as enacted in the pageant, possibly in response to the desperate atmosphere in which it was written, shortly after the outbreak of World War II. London was enduring the blitz – the Woolfs’ London house was damaged in it. Europe had largely fallen under the Nazi onslaught, and German invasion seemed imminent. Virginia’s husband, the Jewish intellectual Leonard Woolf, knew well what his fate would be under German occupation. From their Sussex house near the south coast of England they watched some of the aerial dogfights as the German planes flew towards their target zones: the industrial centres of Britain.

The very survival of the country, and all that the Woolfs held dear in it – art, literature, civilization itself – seemed doomed. This novel can be seen, then, as concerning itself with endings: internationally and politically, but also personally. It’s set in June 1939, just before war was declared, but the crisis was clearly coming even then.

My initial response to the novel was not entirely positive. The first half reads something like an Evelyn Waugh kind of witty portrait of privileged country gentry patronising the rural peasantry, with a great deal of sparkling social conversation and concerns expressed (as with Mrs Dalloway) about the refreshments (will the fish be fresh?) and about the weather – the pageant can only be staged outdoors if fine, in the swallow-haunted barn if wet. Kermode points out, however, that the novel needs to be read as a high modernist summa of contradictory images and thoughts: it is a linguistic enactment of the polarities which make up what we consider to be reality, and out of which we strive to make some kind of coherent sense. I shall give this a try.

From the opening paragraphs another feature becomes apparent: the use of imagery as another means of attempting to convey life with all its shiftings of solidity. First we see Mrs Haines, ‘the wife of a gentleman farmer’:

a goosefaced woman with eyes protruding as if they saw something to gobble in the gutter

 

Then Isa, wife of old Bart Oliver’s son Giles, enters:

She came in like a swan swimming in its way; then was checked and stopped.

People quote Byron (the first of innumerable intertextualities, from canonical literary authors like the Romantics and Shakespeare, to snatches of nursery rhyme), and the words, the narrative suggests – at this point focalising on Isa’s consciousness with its streaming flow –

made two rings, perfect rings, that floated them, herself and Haines, like two swans down stream. But his snow-white breast was tangled with a circle of dirty duckweed; and she too in her webbed feet was entangled, by her husband the stockbroker.

 

What’s going on here? It’s tempting to fall into biographical fallacy and see a prophetic allusion to Virginia Woolf’s imminent death in the weedy Ouse; this may be so, but more to the point the entwined, iterated images of birds and water indicate that there are darker undercurrents, especially in the central relationships between the elderly brother and sister, Lucy and Bart Oliver, but more particularly that of Giles – who has a roving eye — and Isa, with whom he fails to connect emotionally. At the personal and the national level, that is, things are falling apart.

Images of birds and death and violence convey this. In the next paragraph Miss Haines, feeling excluded from the emotion circulating in the room, anticipates the moment in the car on the way home when

she would destroy it, as a thrush pecks the wings off a butterfly.

It’s a mistake, then, to read Between the Acts – as I admit I did initially – as simply a fanciful sequence of non-events and what Kermode calls ‘irrelevant fancies’; the author wasn’t especially interested in plot – her aim is to represent the randomness and incoherence of the fracturing world in the texture of her language, as poetry does. If it’s read in this spirit, the novel appears less trivial.

The animal and bird imagery is woven through the novel, illuminating as in a verbal tapestry the narrative. This too is heavily freighted with rhythmic and syntactic patterns, as Kermode shows: dyadic and triadic patterns, repetitions and inversions, heavily marked by intrusive punctuation, are frequent. Back to violent imagery and stream of troubled consciousness. Here’s Lucy Swithin –

She had been waked by the birds. How they sang! attacking the dawn like so many choir boys attacking an iced cake.

 

She goes on to muse about prehistoric Britain, when there were ‘rhodedendron forests’ in Piccadilly, and no English Channel divided the country from the continent. By examining this imagery it’s possible to see that Virginia Woolf is attempting, through such poetic tropes, to portray Britain in its entirety, from prehistory to the current desperate time of war, in terms of transitory fleetingness and cyclical patterns (birds inhabit the air (like warplanes?) or drift on water; their lives are short; swallows are often mentioned: they migrate – depart, arrive back). The troubled relationships of the central characters counterpoint these larger matters.

The second half of the novel I found less satisfactory. It relates in what I found to be too much detail the contents of the pageant: staged tableaux and mini-plays depicting important milestones in Britain’s history, from early cavemen to the 1930s. There are long extracts of dramatic dialogue that I confess I often skipped. I also skimmed the last 50 pages.

The cover of my Oxford World's Classics paperback edition

The cover of my Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition

Between the Acts is worth reading, however, for its first half. Here’s a last extract to indicate its better poetic qualities, with those rhythmic patterns and swirling images:

Mrs Sands [the cook] fetched bread; Mrs Swithin fetched ham. One cut the bread; the other the ham. It was soothing, it was consolidating, this handiwork together…Why’s stale bread, [Lucy] mused, easier to cut than fresh? And so skipped, sidelong, from yeast to alcohol; so to fermentation; so to inebriation; so to Bacchus; and lay under purple lamps in a vineyard in Italy, as she had done, often; while Sands heard the clock tick; saw the cat; noted a fly buzz; and registered, as her lips showed, a grudge she mustn’t speak against people making work in the kitchen while they had a high old time hanging paper roses in the barn.

 

Some readers may find this too highly wrought; in some ways it is. But it’s also a subtle representation of the ways different people’s thoughts flow ineluctably towards the unknown, intertwining but never fully merging, laden with images (bread, clock, cat, fly) and sensations of sounds, sights and memories, from the mundane and concrete to the ethereal, abstract and imaginative. No individual can ever truly know another, this passage seems to suggest, or fully connect – but she can try. I can think of few other writers who come close to such a feat of narrative performance. Henry James, perhaps. It’s hard work, reading this novel, but probably worth the effort.

I maybe need to read it again in the light of the second thoughts I’ve begun outlining here, and the brief assessment of some of the extracts cited; and give its other half a more attentive reading. Meanwhile I have other holiday reading to post about, and more books to read. And work next week…