by Perry Meisel
Review of George Spater and Ian Parsons, A Marriage of True Minds: An Intimate Portrait of Leonard and Virginia Woolf (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977).
For a concise introduction to the lives of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, there are few books more useful and engaging than this new and semi-official portrait by George Spater and Ian Parsons. For a discussion of why the Woolfs continue to merit our interest, however, there are few books more incapable of answering even the basic questions.
Such a rift between biography and analysis has been endemic to the Woolf revival as a whole over the last five years or so, and while it may raise primary questions about the role of literature in our culture, its plainer result has been to demonstrate how little any real critical intelligence has been mobilized to situate Woolf in the history of writing and the history of ideas. Biography for its own sake has been the rule rather than the exception, and it is the particular failing of this new portrait to maintain the distinction at the cost of letting Virginia Woolf's art slip away once again.
Thus A Marriage of True Minds is of peripheral interest to serious students of Woolf the writer, although as a modest historical aside it is an enjoyable enough diversion and, for latecomers to the Revival, a handy summary of both Quentin Bell's biography of Virginia and Leonard's own five-volume autobiography.
The authors make no real attempt to hide the derivative nature of their portrait, nor do they claim undue importance for the pockets of new source material made available here for the first time. There is, for example, an astonishing paragraph of Virginia's precocious prose at age ten, a detailed account of the Woolfs' household habits and expenses in their later years, and a series of factual corrections relating to some suggestive errors in Leonard's autobiography.
Within this personal sphere it is Leonard who looms increasingly provocative and enigmatic the more we learn about Virginia herself, and it is to the authors' credit that they respond with a close, if guarded, account of both Leonard's origins and the world of the Apostles, the secret society of which he was a member during his years at Cambridge with the original male figures of what was later to be called "Old Bloomsbury."
Most of the book's fresh source material is from the newly-classified Leonard Wooolf archive at the University of Sussex, and most of it is used to fashion a Leonard different in some respects from the self-assured sceptic who emerges in the autobiography. Key among these new documents is an absorbing exchange of letters between Leonard and Lytton Strachey during the former's lonely seven years as an imperial administrator in Ceylon. Here the imperturbable Leonard admits to chronic despair, contemplating suicide as he reports his unsatisfying adventures to Lytton with a zeal usually reserved for the list-keeping and cataloguing that obsessed him throughout his life (one is amazed to learn, for example, that for years Leonard even kept meticulous records of his lawn-bowling with Virginia). In addition, these letters show that Leonard's courtship of Virginia was instigated and fueled by the homosexual Strachey soon after his own engagement to her had foundered - ironically enough, given our present knowledge of Virginia's frigidity - on their apparent sexual incompatibility.
Although the Leonard-Lytton correspondence offers little in the way of a radically new understanding of the characters involved, it nonetheless helps the authors to clarify the puzzling nature of the Woolfs' marriage from the point of view of its emotional complexion. If Leonard's succeeded in drawing himself as a stoic in his autobiography, Spater and Parsons have managed to humanize him instead by focusing on the stormy emotions that had to be repressed once it became clear to him that Virginia's demand for love was not to be matched by any ability on her part to return affection to a husband who clearly needed it. That Virginia was appallingly difficult to live with is a fact hard to ignore, and in addition to providing us with more indications of the extent to which she was snob, Spater and Parsons also present evidence that at times suggests she may even have taunted Leonard about his Jewishness ("I make him pay for his unfortunate mistake in being born a Jew," she wrote in 1923, "by discharging the whole business of life") - all this, of course, despite her reputation as a libertarian and socialist. Why Leonard loved and admired her, though, is clear from a remarkable passage cited by the authors from his unpublished diary: "She is one of possibly three women," he writes, "who know that dung is merely dung, death death & semen semen. She is the most Olympian of the Olympians. And that is why perhaps she seems to take life too hardly. She does not really know the feeling - which alone saves the brain & the body - that after all nothing matters."
It is, moreover, to everyone's benefit that Virginia's mental breakdowns are underplayed throughout the book, largely because they mark only sporadic intervals in a life devoted entirely to work. It is the work, however, that is the authors' downfall, since whenever they address it they prove themselves entirely out of their depth. Throughout the portrait Virginia's art is either reduced to autobiography or quickly summarized in terms like these: "People who insist on a 'story' in the novels they read are sometimes disappointed by Mrs. Dalloway. For Mrs. Dalloway is devoted to further speculation on the continuing theme What is life? What is love?"
What is especially lacking is some attempt to come to terms with the intellectual forces at work in a marriage often occasioned by very little else. Spater and Parsons are content to compile facts without so much as a word about what the Woolfs talked and thought about or what influences operated on them as they worked. Even an account of Leonard's effect on Virginia's thinking is beyond the book's ken. There are more than a few untold stories far greater in significance than what the Woolfs ate for breakfast, chief among them the translation of Freud supervised by Leonard and Lytton's brother James Strachey. For such topics, however, the authors have no real appetite, and their book is the poorer for it. Despite the Woolfs' inherent charms, a purely personal treatment is hardly enough to do them justice.
Originally published in Salmagundi No. 42., Summer-Fall 1978