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The Last Day of Virginia Woolf. That’s one of the proposed titles for Elfrida Wing’s next novel in English writer William Boyd’s Trio, a romp that takes place on a Brighton film set in 1968.

Elfrida, the director’s wife, is one of three protagonists whose stories are related in alternating chapters of Boyd’s novel.

An alcoholic and ten years past her last success, she was dubbed “the new Virginia Woolf” when her first novel was touted as a modern reworking of Mrs. Dalloway. She’s haunted by Woolf, doesn’t even like her novels, was “underwhelmed” by Mrs. Dalloway.

“She could see no similarity between her spirit, intellect and style as a novelist and Virginia Woolf’s. And that was why she stopped writing, she supposed. It was all Virginia Woolf’s fault.”

A revelation about Woolf’s final day

Then one day, even before her first drink, she has a revelation to write about Woolf’s final day. At a bookstore she asks for a biography and is told there isn’t one, as “Nobody’s much interested in that Bloomsbury set.”

The bookseller mentions A Writer’s Diary, which is out of print, but he tracks down a copy for her. She also buys a pamphlet, Virginia Woolf’s East Sussex, by a local author.

This is before the Woolf revival, before the published diary and letters and Quentin Bell’s biography. Elfrida’s agent is skeptical of the project: “She’s a bit passe, no?” But she’s undeterred.

In Rodmell she walks down the lane to Monks House, “trying to summon up the spirit of Virginia Woolf—and failing.” Peering over the wall from the churchyard, she sees “an ancient man in a beige linen jacket and panama hat deadheading dahlias.”

After he confirms that this was Virginia Woolf’s house, she asks when he came there. When he says “1919,” she says “Ah. You must be Mr. Leonard Woolf.”

She tells him she’s a novelist herself, often compared to Woolf, and wants to write about in Woolf’s final hours.  He bids her good day and stomps back to the house.

At the pub she reads Woolf’s last diary entry, thinks haddock and sausage a disgusting mixture, but she’s inspired: “She would gain a ‘certain hold’ on Virginia Woolf and her last day—and thereby kick-start her own career into life again—by writing it down.”

Making sport of Woolf

Boyd loves to make sport of Virginia Woolf. Rereading To the Lighthouse, Elfrida recalls how much she disliked it, “with its footling detail and its breathy, neurasthenic apprehension of the world, all tingling awareness and high-cheekboned sensitivity.”

When Boyd dissed Woolf in Any Human Heart, he said that it was because he’d taught her and specifically Lighthouse too long. But he considered her diary and letters her best writing, a bias I share.

And so it goes, plots and subplots and overflowing wackiness, a great read to take you out of yourself and the grim present.

Take a look at a YouTube video of Boyd discussing his 2021 novel Trio, which features three people with separate lives and secrets.

I try to push my fiction so far into the real that readers begin to suspect its fictive status. – William Boyd

 

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