The critical eye of a single woman
CARLYLE'S HOUSE AND OTHER SKETCHES by Virginia Woolf Hespents, f4.99, pp. 88 ISBN 1843910551 When Virginia Woolf was 27 she bound a quarto notebook of 214 pages and wrote 1909 on the brown paper cover in green pencil. She numbered all the pages but for some reason began to write only from page 26, again putting in the date — February 27, 1909 — in the middle of the page. On page 27 she lists the contents, seven very short verbal sketches about people and places of the kind she had done before in her 1903 Journal which she had thought 'often, I'm afraid. uncouth'. Her revulsion from the coarse, the insensitive, even the commonplace and any lack of 'refinement' persists in the new notebook with the inner certainty of the intellectual snob, child of her class and time. Doris Lessing in her Foreword to this
first edition of the sketches sees them as 'five-finger exercises for future excellence', but whatever Woolfs purpose in writing them it did not last for long, for the text stops on page 51 and the rest of the notebook is blank.
Where has this little book been all these years to escape the treasure-seekers and the rag-pickers of the revered Woolf oeuvre? Lying, it seems, in the bottom drawer of Teresa Davies whose family was vaguely connected to Leonard Woolf while he was having his wife's diaries, letters and notebooks copied and sold after Virginia Woolf's death in 1941. Teresa was helping with the typing but before she could type this manuscript Leonard Woolf died and, unsure what to do with it or where to send it, she put it aside and it was only found in September 2002 when Professor Tony Davies moved house. It has now been interestingly researched and edited by David Bradshaw of Worcester College, Oxford and published under the title of the first sketch, 'Carlyle's House', Bradshaw having taken the liberty of adding the apostrophe.
But Woolf was 'never strictly conscientious about apostrophes' and the sketches are not just juvenilia. At 27 she was already a wonderful reviewer of books and a committed creative writer two years into the struggle with her first novel — it was to be six more before it was published — in touch with the great literary families and known as the daughter of the Olympian Sir Leslie Stephen.
So that although the sketches may look like an abandoned exercise book Bradshaw thinks she stopped writing them more because of her mood at the time than from dissatisfaction at the content. The sketches are very slight, but from the first sentence we hear the unmistakable Woolf voice, querying and questing and note her uniquely penetrating eye that has, Lessing says, 'the sharpness of a wasp's swift sting'.
1909 was a dismal year for Woolf. Her novel was a shambles. She was missing her sister and soul-mate Vanessa Bell, who was now happily married and beginning to be a successful painter. She had been forced to move in with her uncongenial brother, Adrian, to their shared distaste and, above all, she was miserable not to be married. Only a few days before her expedition to Carlyle's house in Chelsea she had broken her brief engagement to Lytton Strachey. It was a mutual decision, but she was very fond of him and his obvious relief can't have been flattering. Several of the sketches reflect Woolf s preoccupation with marriage and the poor status of the unmarried woman in 1909. 'Women who have worked and not married,' she says in the fourth sketch, 'Hampstead', 'come to have a particular look: refinement without sex; tending to be austere.' In another, 'Miss Reeves', she is, Bradshaw thinks, jealous as she watches the fearless and passionate Amber Reeves, the Fabian (who incidentally must have been pregnant at the time by H. G. Wells) across someone's dinner table. Amber Reeves was not only 'the Intellect of Newnham' but irresistible to men and totally self-confident and seemed to know exactly where she was going. (It turned out to be Morley College where like Woolf she would one day lecture but never so brilliantly.) Woolf shows this New Woman posturing, talking incessantly, leaning forward 'as if about to take flight' but at heart commonplace with no interest in the individual and totally unmysterious; the exact opposite to herself.
Woolf is a silent and watchful guest, decidedly mysterious, wandering about solitary between Cambridge (the household of Sir George Darwin, who sounds a nice old duck but Woolf finds dull, and the enchanting Gwen Raverat whom she finds likely to end up 'a strong and sensible woman, plainly clothed') and Hampstead where she sits in the shabby drawingroom of the two formidable scholars, the Misses Case, and their intense friend Miss Davies (not the typist). All three with their schoolgirlish reminiscences disappoint. In Lancaster Gate, in the sketch called 'Jews', she is entertained too lavishly by a Mrs Loeb whom she detests with an antiSemitism that is now shocking but must even then have been found pretty nasty. And at Bedford Square there she is again at Lady Ottoline Morrell's salon, painting a surprisingly kind portrait of 'the marble Medusa' whose husband was not sufficient to her.
There is another very funny vignette of a visit to King's College, Cambridge where Rupert Brooke and his friends sit in haughty silence as she desperately tries to make conversation and they make clear that she has no right to any opinions at all. 'I had to remember that one is not fully grown up at twenty-one.'
There is another expedition, in 'Divorce Courts', where she sits alone in court to hear the defence of the Rector of Chalfont St Giles whose wife has gone off with a Lesbian and is suing him for cruelty. He spoke from the dock in sermons and won, despite his excessive marital demands and hitting his wife over the head with a croquet mallet.
But it is in 'Carlyle's House' that Woolf is most Woolfian — that awful dwelling with the melancholy portraits and Thomas's soundproof double-bricked study. 'Did one always feel the coldness' between them, she wonders. The only connection the flash of intellect?' Outside at the end of Cheyne Row are 'brown sails and a timber yard' and the ghosts of the hawthorn hedges and little lanes of Chelsea only a generation before.
The more one reads the notebook the more it seems to have to do with marriages and the more one realises her wonderful luck in finding Leonard whom she called 'The Jew'.