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white gardenMany people consider mystery novels the perfect escape. Whether you dip into the genre regularly or infrequently, Woolfians may find it hard to resist a literary “whodunit” with Virginia Woolf at its center.

Stephanie Barron preceded this novel with a series of Jane Austen mysteries; she professes to enjoy making things up about real people, knowing they might not approve of her embellishments on their lives.

The White Garden revolves around the discovery of a new diary, believed to be in Woolf’s hand, but started the day after she was supposed to have drowned herself in the River Ouse. Intending to commit suicide that day, she goes instead to Sissinghurst, where she is comforted and cared for by Vita Sackville-West.

And there’s more, much more, including Woolf’s discovery of some nefarious wartime activities involving Maynard Keynes and others in the Bloomsbury circle, but it’s all too convoluted, and I wouldn’t want to give anything away.

And of course there’s the contemporary angle. The diary is found by an American garden designer, who is at Sissinghurst in order to duplicate the White Garden for her wealthy New York employer, while at the same time trying to uncover a hidden secret in her own family. A number of people become involved in the intrigue and with each other, including the Head Gardener at Sissinghurst, manuscript specialists at Sotheby’s, and a Woolf scholar at Oxford.

Barron reminds her readers that this is fiction, hoping that they will enjoy exploring the possibilities and forgive the license that she takes. There’s plenty of that, from the bald facts of Woolf’s death and the implausibility of the plot to some manipulation of the topography, so one has to suspend disbelief and just go with it. And in the process, you can soak up the atmosphere of Sissinghurst, Monks House and Charleston Farmhouse along with Oxford and Cambridge. You could do worse!

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Finding MyselfI just finished reading something wild and wicked, wonderful and Woolfian. Knowing that I’m always looking for fiction with Woolf references, Beth Hicks (an Australian friend and Woolfophile) told me about Toby Litt’s Finding Myself, a 2003 novel about a novelist who is writing a novel called From the Lighthouse.

Victoria plans to invite a group of acquaintances to spend a month together, all expenses paid, during which she will observe them, with their consent, and write about them. This book is her manuscript, her “docu-novel,” with handwritten comments and deletions from her editor.

She finds a house on the Suffolk coast with not just a lighthouse, but “all the atmosphere one could desire. I kept expecting Virginia Woolf herself to waft round the corner, silk gloves in hand.”

She buys copies of To the Lighthouse for everyone to read for what she envisions as “an extended discussion of Virginia’s masterpiece, all secretly examining the parallels with our own relationships.” And she will, on their last evening, serve boeuf en daube.

She notes in her diary that if it comes out right, it will be “just the best beach book in the world, ever: naughty, gossipy—with just the right ratio of tittle to tattle. Virginia Woolf’s letters are all very well, but they don’t exactly make one throb, do they?”

Woolf is Victoria’s muse and is never far from her mind. When the guests decide to go to church, she is dismayed: “We’re meant to be the Bloomsbury set—who would never have been caught engaging in Anglicanism.”

Writing her notes by hand “seems more fitting to the spirit of Virginia” when necessitated by a computer malfunction. But from the start, the experiment fails to live up to Victoria’s expectations, and a hilarious romp ensues.

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Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood’s terrifying picture of the future run amok, starts with an epigraph from To the Lighthouse: “Was there no safety? No learning by heart of the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air?”

Woolf appears in two seemingly inconsequential instances of name-dropping that nevertheless help establish and substantiate Jimmy/Snowman’s literary background. Recalling great human achievements, all of which were relegated to the distant past, he recites a list to help commit them to memory: “The Divine Comedy. Greek statuary. Aqueducts. Paradise Lost. Mozart’s music. Shakespeare, complete works. The Brontes. Tolstoy. The Pearl Mosque. Chartres Cathedral. Bach. Rembrandt. Verdi. Joyce. Penicillin. Keats. Turner. Heart transplants. Polio vaccine. Berlioz. Baudelaire. Bartok. Yeats. Woolf” (79).

Recalling his university days at The Martha Graham Academy, “named after some gory old dance goddess of the twentieth century” (186), he explains that there was no longer a need for film-making and video arts, as anyone could splice together or digitally alter whatever they wanted. “Jimmy himself had put together a naked Pride and Prejudice and a naked To the Lighthouse, just for laughs” (187).

Also notable is a passage that evokes the interludes that begin each section of The Waves: “The sun is above the horizon, lifting steadily as if on a pulley; flattish clouds, pink and purple on top and golden underneath, stand still in the sky around it. The waves are waving, up down up down” (147).

In an essay written not long before Oryx and Crake, Atwood describes rereading To the Lighthouse in her early sixties, appreciating it in ways that she couldn’t when she first read it at the age of 19. She remarks on the patterns, the artistry, the resonance, “the way time passes over everything like a cloud, and solid objects flicker and dissolve” (Writing with Intent, 241-242). Little wonder that it left an impression that showed up in her next and perhaps most ambitious novel.

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women writers at workI love to read writers talking about their lives, their work, their influences.

A 1989 Paris Review collection, Women Writers at Work, includes interviews from the 1960s to the mid-1980s with Isak Dineson, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Nadine Gordimer, Joan Didion, and others. Not surprisingly, Virginia Woolf pops up a few times.

Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) cites three “almost perfect novels:” A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, A Passage to India by E.M. Forster and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. “Every one of them begins with an apparently insoluble problem, and every one of them works out of confusion into order. The material is all used so that you are going toward a goal. And that goal is the clearing up of disorder and confusion and wrong, to a logical and human end.”

Eudora Welty (1909-2001) says of Woolf: “She was the one who opened the door. When I read To the Lighthouse, I felt, Heavens, what is this? I was so excited by the experience I couldn’t sleep or eat. I’ve read it many times since, though more often these days I go back to her diary. Any day you open it to will be tragic, and yet all the marvelous things she says about her work, about working, leave you filled with joy that’s stronger than your misery for her.”

Several interviews discuss the troublesome label of “woman writer.” The always acerbic Mary McCarthy (1912-1989) names Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen as what she calls “a certain kind of woman writer who’s a capital W, capital W.” These signify “sensibility,” whereas she advocates for “sense,” represented by Katherine Anne Porter, George Eliot and possibly Eudora Welty.

Katherine Anne Porter, by the way, calls McCarthy “one of the wittiest and most acute and in some ways the worst-tempered woman in American letters.”

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brookner

Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner published her first novel in 1981 at the age of 53, following with one a year until 2000 when she slowed down just a bit. Her 25th novel, Strangers, was released this year.

She rejects feminism, and her protagonists are very traditional, but sometimes they make surprisingly independent and unorthodox choices.

Virginia Woolf appears in at least two of her novels, once as a significant icon and once in passing, both references adding flavor to the stories.

Hotel du Lac

hotel du lacEdith Hope is a romance writer with the pen name of Vanessa Wilde. People have noted her resemblance to Virginia Woolf, including her publisher, who says: “She really does look remarkably Bloomsburian…the hollowed cheeks and the pursed lips.”

Her life in disarray, she retreats to a Swiss resort and its eclectic cast of characters. A man says, “Whoever told you that you looked like Virginia Woolf did you a grave disservice, although I suppose you thought it was a compliment.” Edith prefers men to women, and favors the work of Colette and Henry James. Yet she is proud that she earns her own money, and she rejects the opportunity for a conventional life of comfort and ease.

Undue Influence

undue influenceClaire faces her future after her mother’s death, content to take life as it comes: her job in a Bloomsbury bookshop, involvement with the lifeless Martin. Claire’s opening line is a hook: “It is my conviction that everyone is profoundly eccentric.” She admits to making hasty assessments as a result of observing rather than participating in life, but her bland façade hides secrets.

Claire says of the bookshop owners: “I was surprised that they…always had lived in Bloomsbury. But I suppose that what was once an accident of geography had hardened over the years to a conviction that he was part of a ‘set’, an authentic Bloomsburian. Whether [Virginia Woolf] ever noticed him when they passed in the street, as they must have done on occasions, would have been highly unlikely.”

The Debut

debutI reread Brookner’s first novel, with another woeful protagonist and dutiful daughter, and another great opening line (“Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature”), wondering if I might find a forgotten reference to Virginia Woolf.

Woolf didn’t appear, but Ruth Weiss, an authority on women in Balzac, seems the academic counterpart to Edith Hope. “Her appearance and character were exactly halfway between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; she was scrupulous, passionate, thoughtful, and given to self-analysis, but her colleagues thought her merely scrupulous…” She is often sidelined by the exploits of her manipulative parents and escapes for a time to Paris to pursue her Balzac studies.

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