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Posts Tagged ‘espionage’

In 2009 I posted a review of Stephanie Barron’s The White Garden, and a year later about discovering Virginia Woolf’s socks (on Julian Bell) in bed with infamous spy Anthony Blunt. In exploring spy connections, I’d somehow I’d overlooked—until now—the 1983 novel by Ellen Hawkes and Peter Manso, The Shadow of the Moth: A Novel of Espionage with Virginia Woolf.

It’s 1917, mid-World War I, and Woolf’s curiosity is aroused by the report of a young Belgian woman’s suicide. One thing leads to another, as Woolf and an American journalist uncover a clandestine attempt to pass English military secrets to the Germans. Spies and double agents, aristocrats and industrial magnates, MI5 and Scotland yard—all the greedy, power-hungry men; even Maynard Keynes and Clive Bell; even Leonard Woolf by his overprotectiveness of Virginia.

At the end she realizes that “The war might alter everyone’s values but her personal fight had to be on her own terms. She wouldn’t wage it by adopting men’s ways.” Back at work on her novel in progress, what would become Night and Day, she creates the character of Mary Datchet, a spirited, determined, independent woman, to balance the conventional Katharine Hilbery.

I enjoyed this portrait of a spirited, determined, and independent Virginia, but most striking was the authors’ epilogue:

“In 1937, with war once again threatening Europe, Virginia Woolf wrote Three Guineas, her indictment of masculine aggression, German fascism and incipient totalitarianism at home. Four years later, in 1941, her body was found in the river Ouse behind Monk’s House, her home in Sussex. To this day, her death is commonly believed to have been a suicide.”

Here, as in The White Garden, is the supposition that there were other possibilities. In an email exchange, I asked Stephanie Barron (real name Francine Mathews) how she came to question the cause of Woolf’s death. She said her research uncovered what for her were surprises: Leonard announcing Virginia’s death the day after she disappeared; the lack of a full-blown police investigation; Leonard’s identification of her remains alone; the swiftness of cremation; his burial of the ashes by himself.

“It all seemed highly irregular, almost furtive. It smacked of a cover-up. Probably that was due to the stigma of mental illness and suicide. But if one chooses to write speculative fiction, it’s rife with possibilities.”

Woolf scholars have accepted the seemingly incontrovertible evidence of her suicide. Still—and not to succumb to the current fetish for conspiracy theories—it’s hard not to wonder….

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