13 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 19

On the blandwagon

Richard Shone

Virginia Woolf and her World John Lehmann (Thames and Hudson £3.50) In his autobiography, John Lehmann gave an intimate account of his relations with Virginia Woolf and his years working for the Hogarth Press. He knew the WooIfs well and was friendly with most of their circle, particularly their nephew Julian Bell, his Cambridge contemporary. He lasted longest of all the "victims of the Hogarth Press", as Vanessa Bell described the young men taken on as managers under the exacting direction of Leonard Woolf. In spite of the usual exacerbating rows and the unhappy collapse of his partnership with Woolf, Lehmann brought much to the Press through his friendship with the 'thirties writers, among them Christopher Isherwood and the 'New Signatures' poets. His dazzled hero-worship of the author of Jacob's Room, Mrs Dal/oway and To the Lighthouse soon turned to affection and respect. "I found her the most enchanting of friends, full of sympathy and understanding for my own personal problems and the problems I was up against in my job, with an intense curiosity about my own life and the lives of my friends . . ." On her side, she must have found in Lehmann a representative of that puzzling younger generation who was amiable and sympathetic, a passionate apologist for his contemporaries, yet no iconoclast. "...A tight aquiline boy, pink, with the adorable curls of youth; yes, but persistent, sharp," she wrote in her diary after meeting him.

With these ten years of Virginia Woolf's friendship and all his love for and detailed knowledge of her writing, why is it that John Lehmann has written this somewhat flat and unenterprising account of one. of the most arresting writers of the century? She . is a perfect subject for this agreeable series and yet, under his pen, refuses to come alive. Where his personal observation would surely have illuminated any descriptions of her, he relies instead on previously published accounts. Of Course lashings of autobiography would have been overdoing it in this series but to refer to himself in the third person (save on one occasion) is too retiring. But if we reluctantly accept that we are in for an objective, factual run what can he offer to replace those expectations which his name on the cover aroused? Perhaps by keeping himself out of the picture, he has some plums to offer us, even if only table-talk from those who knew her. Perhaps he has some insight into the formative years of Bloomsbury, or the impact of Roger Fry's aesthetics on Virginia Woolf's thinking. It is disappointing to record that we learn almost nothing new.

The story is told with bland efficiency as the author goes on his leisurely stroll through the well-known landscape. There are, to be sure, some fine views and even slightly alarming crossroads. Clinging to his guide, Quentin Bell, he could hardly go wrong but a little initiative might have made for a more rewarding journey. He stresses Virginia Woolf's capacity to emerge from periods of insanity and depression, with her imagination unimpaired and her creative urge unchecked. He carefully suggests the depth of her relationship with Leonard but hardly develops the pivotal position in her emotional life of her sister Vanessa. It is also important to realise and Lehmann does not touch this Virginia Woolf's initial and in some cases continuing disdain for the Cambridge men of her youth; they could not compare, in her eyes, with her father's generation. But generally Lehmann is reliable and comfortably informative. Where he differs from Virginia Woolf's biographer is in his 'discussion of the novels and essays which Professor Bell did not attempt. Here Lehmann is persuasive and enthusiastic particularly on Mrs Dal/oway, A Room of One's Own ' and that last, blemished and agonising novel Between the Acts.

Since Monique Nathan attempted a pictorial essay in 1956 on Virginia Woolf in the 'Ecrivains de Toujours' series, much material in the way of paintings and photographs has been unearthed. The present volume is thoughtfully illustrated, paintings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, works very much part of Virginia Woolf's world, being especially evocative. But well known pictures of Jane Austen and Emily Bronte smack of padding, a few plates lack acknowledgements and the photograph of the Dreadnought Hoaxers is incorrectly captioned. Those of Virginia Woolf herself show the fragile beauty of her youth to ones of later years the mocking affection as she turns to a defiant Ethel Smythe or hunched and delicate, showing a small bird to her niece when, as Leonard Woolf wrote, "the beauty itself [was] painful."