Monday, October 22, 2012

constantly stirred, but never shaken

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George Spater and Ian Parsons write a genuine and historical biography of Leonard and Virginia Woolf in A Marriage of True Minds An Intimate Portrait of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. They take pride in composing this book “in a clear and lucid way without affectation or ‘fine writing’” (p.xi). At times this biography can seem rather dry, but these authors offer a glimpse into the marriage and works of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. George Spater is a friend of Quentin Bell, Virginia’s nephew, and Ian Parsons is the husband of Leonard’s later companion Trekkie. These friends started this biography while Leonard Woolf was still alive. Therefore, their accuracy of events is even better than Leonard’s own autobiography. Spater and Parsons are attempting to present the real life of an exuberant couple, although they seem more transfixed on Virginia and Leonard is merely her support. Nonetheless, they try to present the Woolfs as real human beings with faults like everyone else. In fact, these imperfections are what make these two so interesting. Throughout this book, the authors use a sequential order within the different themes of these two lovers’ lives. By starting with “The Early Years”, the reader gets a brief background of both Leonard Woolf and Virginia Stephens, but then the biography moves on to themes like “The Apostles”, “Courtship and Marriage”, and “The Hogarth Press”. The authors have done a marvelous job at documenting the facts of these two lovers. There are tons of letters between the Bloomsbury group, and friends and family. There is also a large amount of previously unpublished pictures which help depict the years that passed by. Their documentation of facts is so great that they constantly are correcting other biographies errors, like on page 67 where they correct the date of Virginia’s second suicide attempt mentioned in Leonard’s autobiography by checking with both his and Virginia’s diaries.

Leonard Woolf, born 1880, grew up the third of nine children. His father died when he was a young boy leaving the family with insufficient funds to continue the life they previously knew. Even so, Leonard was accepted into St. Paul’s School at a reduced rate and became a leader in the Junior Debating Society. This union led way to Trinity College at Cambridge where he met up with a group of students called “The Apostles” mixing with great writers like Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Hallam. After school, he traveled well and kept in touch with the old “Apostles”, whom later set him up with Virginia.

Born 188, Virginia Stephen, grew up a very different life style, only five minutes down the road from Leonard. She lived in a very busy house full of leaders of art and intellect. Her father, Leslie Stephen and his library taught Virginia most of her knowledge. She thought of herself and her family to be better than others “never mixing with other children, almost like gods and goddesses” (p. 1). But in 185, sorrow fell over the house when her mother, Julia Stephen died. Her father plunged deep into depression, while little Virginia got a double dose because her mother was dead and her father drained her of all her energy. This caused the first of many nervous breakdowns where she heard voices.

Both Virginia and Leonard were sick, he with his trembling hands and her with her mental instabilities. Virginia had a “large desire to be loved but a slight desire to love”, while Leonard, like most people desired both (p 5). One cannot study Virginia without Leonard and vise versa; they became one with Virginia’s constant need of support and protection. In order to help control her “crazy bouts of anger”, he started controlling every aspect of her life sleep, food, and social activity (p.68). He became her “doctor, nurse, parent, semi-husband, and chief literary adviser” and there is good reason to believe that if Leonard Woolf had not regulated Virginia’s life as he did, many of her “works would have been lost to the world” (p 74).

Between these two, there were many great literary contributions such as Leonard’s International Government, which laid the foundation for The League of Nations and later, the United Nations, or Virginia’s To The Lighthouse, one of her many popular novels, but the largest influence these two had on the world was the making of the Hogarth Press. The Hogarth Press published more than 400 books, which were works of unusual distinction, the list of authors “of this youthful venture cannot be matched by any large established publishing firm over any equal period” (p110). It was very much a collaborated effort of Virginia’s artistic touch and Leonard’s business decisions.

Spater and Parsons use varying sentence structure to engage the average reader. The combination of simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentence structure in the various paragraph arrangements allows the reading to rarely become repetitive. The authors seem so concerned with being informative that their imagination is not allowed to take flight. Even though one would believe that such an eccentric couple would make it easy to construct a biography full of life and excitement. However, they do attempt to spice it up with a few amusing sayings like “Virginia took to pen and ink like some people took to gin” (p10). Spater and Parsons have so few philosophic comments that they are undetectable. It seems that they are being careful not to step on anyone’s toes. It is a very “nice” essay, with nothing too harsh or gutsy.

The title, A Marriage of True Minds, is very appropriate. It comes from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 which deals with true love and how it is unbreakable and surpasses even time. When speaking of these Leonard and Virginia Woolf, one cannot separate their lives and make much sense out of it. They come as a pair with an “ever fixed mark”.

The worth of the book was fine, but not very exciting. Virginia was much more colorful and Leonard had an incredibly adventurous life. I wanted to know more about their marriage and the difficulties they experienced, but that was all diluted in this biography. There was little talk about their extra-marital affairs or of their frequent vacationing with and away from one another. I did, however, enjoy the letters and pictures of the Bloomsbury group and The Apostles. The idea of being able to surround yourself with knowledgeable thinkers is astonishing. Nonetheless, I would not recommend this book to another student because there are better biographies out there about Virginia Woolf.

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