Stricken lately with an illness that kept me in bed for several days, I had many long hours in between stretches of sleep in which to meander through my stack of bedside books.
I’d just been to New York for a precious week and, after a visit to the iconic Strand Bookstore on lower Broadway, my suitcase was lined with an extra 10 kilos, the weight of literary indulgence. No sooner did I unpack, stacking the Strand loot next to my bed, than I rushed out to attend the Brisbane Writers Festival. And quite naturally, every writer I encountered there fascinated, inspired, challenged. It was impossible to resist buying their books. I ended up with another armload to add to my growing bedside tower. And then the flu.
When you’re ill, only certain books will do. Some books require a degree of attention impossible to summon through a fever. Others are too lighthearted for the seriousness of the occasion. A sickbed book should be neither so short that the listless patient needs to find a second or third volume before health is returned, nor so long as to be only partially read when a full recovery is made. Size, therefore, does matter. In my experience, it’s best to bring several into bed and try each—whimsically or systematically—until something captivates.
This is exactly how I found myself a week ago: propped up against pillows, sharing my bed with a delicious assortment of authors. At random, these were:
Milan Kundera’s Encounter
Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why
Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American
Lyndall Gordon’s TS Eliot: An Imperfect Life
Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden
Elif Batuman’s The Possessed
Diane Middlebrook’s Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—A Marriage
I had started the Hughes biography in New York, but in the flurry of my return set it aside. I had a commissioned review to write, so in the intervening days, this took precedence. Plus, I’d gotten through the 1960s and 1970s. To my mind, Hughes’s most interesting years were behind him as he settled into middle age, placid domesticity, and literary stability as England’s poet laureate. I will eventually return to this very interesting book, but there in the sickbed, I had lost interest.
Elif Batuman spoke engagingly at the Brisbane Writers Festival about Russian novels and the people who read them. She is a serious reader with a knack for hilarious observation. I settled in quite happily, at first, but I know little about Isaac Babel, the subject of the first chapter. It was hard work to follow the events of his life, peppered with numerous historical figures all with unpronounceable names. The Possessed is a book to be read sitting up at full attention, not one to snuggle up to when you might at any moment drift off into fevered sleep.
I then picked up one of the novels. I enjoyed What I Loved and have long wanted to read another of Siri Hustvedt’s books. But I tossed away The Sorrows of an American after the first page as not being exactly what I needed at that moment. The narrative is told in the first person. The “I” of the novel interfered with the “I” of my sick body.
Kundera’s book Encounter is a collection of essays on art and the artistic process. While it’s sure to be satisfying and thought provoking, it’s just too slim for what might be several days of bed rest. I felt the same way about Bloom’s How to Read and Why. He’s one of my favourite critics, and I fully intend to read this book, but it covers a lot of literary history in very few pages. I felt writers and works and periods and influences might become jumbled if I read the anecdotes all at once. Bloom is like good cognac, something to be sipped sparingly and with attention, not devoured in great gulps.
That left Morton’s The Forgotten Garden and Gordon’s life of Eliot. I turned to Morton first as the most likely option. I’m chagrined to say that I haven’t read any of her books, despite her wild popularity, but I have taken pleasure in her tremendous success: local girl makes good. Who wouldn’t be delighted? And with a new book coming out in November 2010, it was good timing. It seemed to have just the right mix of mystery, distance, intriguing characters. Just long enough. Not too demanding. Not too frivolous. Plus, it came highly recommended. The Forgotten Garden seemed to me to be the ideal sickbed material.
Just to be certain, though, I flipped through Gordon’s biography of Eliot. I turned first to the two sets of photos, then glanced at the table of contents. Gordon is one of the finest contemporary literary biographers, having completed works on Woolf, Bronte, and James. Her chapter headings reflect her creativity as a writer. This drew me in immediately. Then, there were the references to the Bloomsbury group. Although I knew they were contemporaries, I wasn’t aware that Eliot was so much a part of their world. I had missed the film Tom and Viv when it was in cinemas, but I was aware of it and knew Eliot’s marriage had been a troubled one. Vivienne was a muse of sorts, but insane—right? I was curious. And of course, last year I read Steven Carroll’s delicious novel The Lost Life, which summons Eliot’s relationship with Emily Hale. Many pieces, but no coherent knowledge of who Eliot was as a man.
With The Forgotten Garden on standby, I dove into Eliot’s life. It was just the right length, kept me interested, allowed me to doze and pick up where I’d left off. When I first gathered the pile and brought these books to bed, I considered it to be the book least likely; through my illness it was exactly the right narrative.
I’m up and about now, but my mind is filled with this other world: life in England during the first half of the 20th Century, luminous literary figures, the art of one of the finest English language poets, who also happened to be tremendously flawed. It’s not just fragments of Eliot’s reputation I’m aware of; I now possess something of his life lived. Illness took me there along with Lyndall Gordon, allowing the time and space to enter.
Leonard Woolf’s 1914 novel The Wise Virgins opens much like the great classic Pride and Prejudice, written a hundred years earlier: A group of young women, the Garland sisters, sits in a discreet middle class drawing room and discusses the new arrival to the neighbourhood. The Davis family, like the Bingleys, include a brother and a sister around the age of the two youngest Garlands, Gwen and May. (This fact is welcome except that the Davises are Jews and therefore fall short of the ‘ideal’.)
Unfortunately, life has passed over Ethel, the oldest of the sisters, who at 39 is considered to be dried up, undesirable, unmarriageable, a mere extension of Mrs Garland in the care of the younger girls. Janet is a decade younger, but she’s not interested in marriage, preferring to be engaged in a game of golf than engaged to be marriage. The educated reader, raised on the novels of the 19th century beginning with Austen, immediately understands this is a courtship narrative that will focus on the hearts of Gwen and May. The new neighbours will figure. After some misunderstandings, disappointments, and perhaps a major upset, the drama will end in the happy marriage of both girls to men they love.
The perspective then swerves. We see the Garland sisters from the point of view of Harry Davis, who is befuddled by their ordinary concerns, seeing them as unformed dolls. In contrast, he’s bedazzled by Camilla, a young woman in his art class, who possesses intellect, imagination, and new ideas. The courtship narrative splits: Harry must choose between Gwen and a conventional life that includes pleasures of the flesh or an altogether different relationship with Camilla—one more ephemeral, more intellectually and aesthetically satisfying, but one in which physical passion is secondary. Harry Davis (and through him, Leonard Woolf) might dream of a future in which physical and spiritual love are joined, but the circumstances don’t allow it.
At the time of publication, other writers were concerned with the same issues. The female characters in D.H. Lawrence’s works throw off convention in order to live ‘freely’, a situation that has always held more risks for women than the men they’re involved with. Edith Wharton’s characters strive for something finer, something outside of conventional love, but in her stories these visionaries become the victims of a social code stronger than any individual desire. The Wise Virgins is compelling because it reveals the psychological struggle for authenticity in the midst of paralysing convention.
Leonard Woolf was caught between worlds in more ways than one: he was a civil servant with strong anti-imperialist ideas; he was an upper-middle class man who attended Cambridge and led a life of male privilege, but who, at the same time, was pro-suffrage, aligned with the early feminist movement; he was a man of startling intellect who possessed (and was possessed by) deep, impatient passions. He was a man with feet planted firmly in the Victorian era, but whose eyes glimpsed the future.
His recent biographer, Victoria Glendinning, asserts that Woolf is not a natural novelist, but The Wise Virgins is a fine, compelling work, not just for its historical and biographical interest, but because it shows this desire for a more satisfying partnership. Woolf’s hero Harry is unable to reconcile the passions of the flesh with those of the mind. Unlike Woolf, he ends up in a conventional marriage, fulfilling the reader’s expectations of the courtship narrative. But the spectre of Camilla haunts the wedding and casts a shadow over the future happiness of Harry and Gwen.
The Wise Virgins is an intensely autobiographical work. Woolf based his depiction of Harry’s mother and sister on his own family, who objected stridently to the unflattering portrayal. Camilla, of course, is based on Virginia Stephen. Much of The Wise Virgins was written during Leonard Woolf’s courtship of her and in the period immediately following their marriage. It’s an angry novel, full of bitterness. In fact, after Virginia Woolf read it, she succumbed to the worst breakdown of her life.
The Wise Virgins may be read as an examination of the path Leonard Woolf did not take. When Virginia Stephen agreed to marry him, he escaped both the delights and the boredoms of the ordinary marriage. The point is, for Woolf, as for Lawrence and Wharton, it’s one or the other—nothing is ideal.
By the end of the novel, Harry grudgingly admires Ethel and Janet and even Camilla. Each has managed to avoid the typical narrative of female life. For these three, when the new man arrives in the neighbourhood, there is no expectation or wish that he will call or educate her maiden mind and eventually propose and thereafter fulfil her life’s desire in the usual domestic arrangement.
Harry thinks perhaps they might be onto something.