Posts Tagged ‘Vita Sackville-West’

The Great Picture by Jan Van Belcamp: it takes three panels to suggest Clifford’s outer life

We should ourselves be sorry to think that posterity should judge us by a patchwork of our letters, preserved by chance, independent of their context, written perhaps in a fit of despondency or irritation, divorced, above all, from the myriad little strands which colour and compose our individual existence, and which in their multiplicity, their variety and their triviality, are vivid to ourselves alone, uncommunicable even to those nearest to us, sharing our daily life … Still, within our limitations it is necessary to arrive at some conclusion, certain facts do emerge … Vita Sackville-West, Introduction, Diary of Lady Anne Clifford (1923)

The knowledge that his arrow pointed to that impossible mark [‘a duplication of an image in the mind’] was Boswell’s source of confidence. Other biographers might forestall his book, but that they could rival it he never, in his most sombre moments, conceived. Those others did not know that biography is impossible … Geoffrey Scott, in the Malahide Papers, as quoted by Iris Origo, in “Biography: True and False” (1984)


This is me again working out evolving thoughts about biography and the relationship of Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf as modernist biographers. I’ve gone on to consider Maurois’s Aspects of Biography and define Woolf’s Flush as a canonical modernist biography. I’ve been reading Iris Origo’s short biographies and her essay on biography as well as Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage and Vita Sackville-West’s Knole and the Sackvilles as two true sources for Woolf’s Orlando. And I’ve spent two to three weeks teaching Woolf’s Orlando.

One of the characteristics those who first wrote and theorized about biography after 1910 (the year when, we will remember, the world changed) as such, described the history of the genre, its development between the early modern period and 19th century, and then outlined and defined the type they were writing as “modern” all come to when they discuss the genre is its impossibility. It is impossible to write a text that truly accurately tells the life of an individual. It’s arguable that the way modernist biographies were written in the wake of Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria, Geoffrey Scott’s Portrait of Zélide, and longer examples of the same sort of thing (it’s not true that modernist biographies are always concise) like Stefan Zweig’s Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, and self-reflexive experiments, A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, were attempts to overcome the considerable complicated obstacles in the way.

Two chapters are inserted fragments of an autobiographical memoir by Sackville-West about her sexually free marriage, her lesbianism and love of her husband, whom she nonetheless exploited hard

Most of the time this continual reassertion is dismissed because the plain reality is that these writers and others (colleagues, friends, rivals, people privileged by living knowledge of the subject) went on trying to achieve such impossible feats in words, sometimes accompanied by pictures, anyway. My feeling is this blithe sliding over is also done because at the same time it has proved also impossible to persuade the countless readers of fat popular biographies (“great men,” lurid women) to stop looking at the text they are devouring as a compilation of facts from unquestionable documents that add up to what is seen as an existence telling to know about. The “common reader” so strongly yearned after by Samuel Johnson and then supposedly targeted by Virginia Woolf also will not accept frank fictionalization in their intake of biography, and are on the record (on the Internet and elsewhere) as regarding another modernist tenet (admission) that the greatest biographies are autobiographies in disguise as a convenient way to dismiss a book that contains a perspective or whatever information they might not want to consider seriously.

It will be part of my iconoclastic argument that the value of examining Johnson and Woolf’s biographical art in alignment from a modernist point of view is that both worked hard in pursuit of their repeated self-appointed or commissioned biographical tasks conceived in the most high-minded way, all the while coming up against their own bedrock accurate perception that what they aimed to do was highly problematic, if not quite impossible. It is important to see where they failed in order to recognize where they succeeded, not just to do justice to to under-recognized because not well-known or long texts, but to grasp in what biography inheres. I want to write up first how they understood the biographical process, its aims and its problems, which they never solved. My belief now after reading so much (including Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale) is that someone’s biography is a product in the mind of the reader and writer after a process of induced identification and empathy: this process requires several texts taken together.

How about that? a biography and autobiography does not end where the text ends at all? I have to return to Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in Fictional Woods, which was so essential for my chapter on Trollope’s Autobiography in my Trollope on the ‘Net.

Taking it down form its shelf

With this kind of outlook or basis, one can then move into biographical texts by them that have attained the status of masterpiece biographies, Johnson’s Life of Savage and Woolf’s Roger Fry: A Biography. These two texts have seemed to do the essential required core of biography, convey a complex living presence, mind and body, in the context of, or emerging from a historically accurate portrait of their society as these people experienced it. I admit to loving the Roger Fry after having read some of Fry’s writing and Frances Spalding’s biography of Fry as an artist and art critic, connoisseur, museum person, curator. Woolf also wrote biographical fantasies one of which post-modern attitudes would include a legitimately biographical: Orlando: A Biography. It’s a woman’s time-traveling fantasy perhaps inspired by the idea behind a tiny girls’ book by Vita Sack-ville West (A Note of Explanation). I’m not sure how I feel about Orlando. At some level I even dislike it, it’s too frivolous for me, at times silly, and deeply elitist. How should a biography be written? is some form of verisimilitude necessary? I think so, so Orlando doesn’t make the cut at all. In some of Johnson’s unfair Lives of the English Poets he allows the political perspective of the whole set or his own personal distaste for a kind of personality or literary style or stance to lead him into fictional biography, the most obvious his life of John Milton — where Johnson gets away with what he writes by using verisimilitude with a seemingly practiced novelistic art.

All these texts stand up to scrutiny only in the context of more recent biographical, autobiographical, critical and even fictional texts on and by the subject — they are printed with long notes and annotations. In the case of Johnson’s Life of Savage, I am convinced after reading Tracy Clarke that like Boswell, concluded Savage was at first simply lying and then became a self-deluded impostor. Johnson’s text is also egregiously misogynistic towards Anne Brett (who appears as Lady Easy, a bullied woman in Cibber’s The Careless Husband). Johnson captures the pity of this gifted man never being given a real chance to enter the aristocracy or gentry he was so determined to belong to; his strangeness in some ways, the angry, the mysteries, that he was thrown away. But what was he? Tracy comes much closer to capturing the real man. Woolf’s Fry cannot pass muster without Diane Gillespie’s long introduction and annotations (two thirds again as long as the book). It should be considered a literary biography, the kind I can hope to write about Winston Graham. Orlando just won’t do (I shall write on it separately next week): it’s a time traveling wish-fulfillment fantasy, telling of the life of a woman writer seeking an identity in society. For Johnson’s Thomas Gray two modernist concise biographies: one by Edmund Gosse and the other David Cecil can function as touchstones on what’s lacking in Johnson: they are both so much superior, as is Frances Mayhew Rippy’s Matthew Prior (an unassuming Twayne book).

Which are or what kinds of other biographical texts constitute Johnson and Woolf’s problematic attempts and successes? Thus far from my reading Johnson’s Lives of Dryden, Pope, Thomson and Collins, and Virginia Woolf’s short biographical essays about obscure and unknown women (one of Geraldine [Jewsbury] and Jane [Carlyle] is superior to Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights, gathered in the Common Reader, others in other collections (especially Memoirs of a Novelist) and still more in the Collected Essays. In all these the needed background, the panoply of other texts are the paradoxically long biographies of the treated literary figures which fail to address central cruxes of these lives which Johnson and Woolf do.

Flush: A Biography is a wholly successful modernist biography if we take what Woolf says in her two essays on biography seriously. (Another would then qualify: Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing, a fictionalized life of Marie de Gournay from the point of view of her maid. A fictionalized biography.) So is Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen more insightful than Josephine Ross’s.

I’ve also been questioning the assumed great worth of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, thinking about how good John Wain is, how original and questioning Nokes, and the respect I once gave to WJBates’s book. About 2/3s the way through the listening to Bernard Mayes reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson, I’ve tired of it. Johnson is there all right, but I have realized I have been mis-remembering, elevating him, forgetting how he regards women as instruments for men to make children with, yes an obsessive Christian; Boswell further skews the portrait by his constant justifications, idealizing, omitting Johnson’s sex life (very troubled), misrepresenting Mrs Thrale. Every once in a while a letter by Johnson brings his deeply humane character through, his comments his sensitive morality towards everyone (an off-the-cuff argument showing how slavery can never ever be justified in human arrangement, a deep violation). Johnson nails precisely that something is deeply wrong with a society where the homeless and sick are simply ignored — with the leaders he says, as they must act first. But I’ve stopped listening (gone on to Gabaldon’s Outlander 3: Voyager, read by Davina Porter). I probably much prefer Johnson straight than Johnson through Boswell.

I ought to decide which of the several still respected biographies of Woolf stands up: Julia Brigg’s Inner Life, Phyllis Rose’s Women of Letters, Hermione Lee’s old fashioned huge tome, whose aims are nonetheless those of modernist biography. I admit I need to read through the first two.

Not everyone fails; indeed my favorite form of reading is the literary biography and many masterpieces exist in the genre. This summer I read one: Claire Haman’s Charlotte Bronte, and Iris Origo made a career as a writer because she wrote great biographies and diary-journals. One of the great books for me of the later 20th century is Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: The confessions of a Romantic Biographer, which I taught three times in a class called Advanced Writing on the Humanities.

And I still believe that the key to understanding any one’s art is to understand their lives and that means reading the life-writing coming from and attached to the subject in all its forms. Wrong-headed biographies if they are intelligent and written out of sincerity and original thought are important in understanding writers too, e.g., David Nokes on Johnson and Austen.

This is where I’m at tonight on this project. I think I had better give this one up for a while. Put it away. And come back to it in May when the heavy teaching and most courses end. My thesis as far as I can manage is the value of studying these two writers seen as modern biographers is in what they teach us about biography in their successes and their failures, brilliant insights and misapprehensions and along the way about the people they create or misapprehend.

I hope I have not bored you, gentle reader, and invite any commentary on what you think of biography as a form or any of the texts I’ve cited. These have been thoughts I pushed out of myself with difficulty and then added to late at night and then early in the morning before dawn.

Isabel Coddrington (1874-1943), Evening 1925

Next up: blogs on Woolf’s Orlando and then (if I can only discipline myself once more to it) women artists.


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Photo of Virginia Woolf by Barbara Strachey (1938)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Eight Mondays, 1:45 to 3:15 pm,
March 5 to May 9
4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW. Washington DC

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will read and discuss four of Woolf’s later books: two playful satires, Flush: A Biography [of a Dog], owned (so she thought) by the Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Orlando, a biography cum novel, which is also a time-traveling tale through literature and culture and gender changes from the Renaissance to our own times; two books written during the crisis time just before and as World War Two began: Three Guineas, an essay analyzing the origins of war and suggesting how we may prevent future wars; and Between the Acts, a novella in which a group of characters put on a historical pageant. The contexts will be literary (about biography, fantasy, historical novels), political, and biographical. We will see clips of the film adaptation, Orlando, in class. Our aim is to understand and enjoy these original, delightful and serious books.

Virgina, Leonard and Pinka Woolf

Required Books & an essay (in the order we’ll read them):

Woolf, Virginia. Flush: A Biography, ed. introd Trekkie Ritchie. Harcourt, 1983. ISBN 0156319527
Woolf, Virginia. “The Art of Biography:” online https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter23.html
Woolf, Virginia. “The new Biography,” available at the Internet Archive in Granite and Rainbow. I will send this by attachment.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography, ed. introd Maria di Battista. Harcourt, 2006. ISBN 9780156031516
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas, ed. introd Jane Marcus. 2006. ISBN 9780156031639
Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. ed. introd Melba Cuddy-Keane. Harcourt, 2008. ISBN 978015603473

One film: Sally Potter’s 1992 Orlando, featuring Tilda Swindon, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Simon Russell Beale.

Harvard has digitalized Virginia and Leonard’s photo album of life at Monk House, their home, and you can view the album here. Many of Woolf’s central long and shorter texts may be found on Project Gutenberg Australia:

Tilda Swinton as Orlando as a young Renaissance man

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

March 5: 1st session: Introduction: Woolf, & the art of biography, Begin Flush

March 12: 2nd session: Flush: Non-human animal point of view; Elizabeth Barrett Browning

March 19 & 26: Class cancelled: Read essays, “The New Biography” and “The Art of Biography” on your own.

April 2: 3rd session: begin Orlando: Knole & Vita Sackville-West, as and about biography

April 9: 4th session Orlando: history, time-traveling novel, tranvestite tale;

April 16: 5th session Orlando, we’ll see & discuss clips from the movie; begin Three Guineas

April 23: 6th session Three Guineas: political context, anti-war, anti-patriarchy, anti-colonial

April 30: 7th session Between the Acts as historical pageant, as history

May 7: 8th session Between the Acts: as a novel with story & characters. Last thoughts.

Vita Sackville-West photographed to look like Orlando in 1840

Suggested supplementary reading:

Barrett, Elaine. “The Value of Three Guineas in the Twenty-First Century,” online at Academia. edu: http://www.academia.edu/7822334/The_Value_of_Three_Guineas
Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. Harcourt, 2005.
Fleishman, Avrom. On “Between the Acts,” “Experiment and Renewal,” The English Historical Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1971.
Karlin, Daniel. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: The Courtship Correspondence. Oxford: OUP, 1989.
Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. NY: Knopf, 1997.
Forster, Margaret. Lady’s Maid. Penguin, 1990. A novel from EBB’s maid’s point of view.
—————–. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. Doubleday, 1988.
Maurois, Andre. Aspects of Biography. 1929; rpt. Ungar, 1966.
Nicolson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage. New York: Bantam, 1973. (Important text for understanding Vita Sackville-West).
Orr, Douglas. Virginia Woolf’s Illnesses. Clemson University Press. 2004. Online as a pdf: https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1017&context=cudp_mono
Raitt, Suzanne. Vita & Virginia: Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and V. Woolf. Clarendon, 1993.
Rose, Phyllis. Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. NY: Oxford, 1978.
Rosenbaum. S. P. The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs and Commentary, rev. edition. Toronto: Univ of Toronto Press, 1975.
Sackville-West, Vita. Knole and the Sackvilles. Drummond, 1948.
——————–. All Passion Spent. Virago Press, 1983.
Snaith, Anna. “Of fanciers, footnotes, and fascism: Virginia Woolf’s Flush, Modern Fiction Studies 48:3 (2002):614-36.
Trombley, Stephen. All that Summer She Was Mad: Virginia Woolf, Female Victim of Male Medicine. NY: Continuum, 1982.

Knole, Sevenoaks, Kent (2009)


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Giovanni di Paolo, Paradiso (14th century)

Friends and readers,

Before concluding my reports on the JASNA AGM for 2017, I return briefly to my work on women artists. I’ve not forgotten this series of blogs, just had to put them on hold for a while. I was asked if I would collaborate on a paper on Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson as modernists, and set myself to reading what Woolf (and Johnson too, though his specific views are not germane here) had written about biography and in the biographical way. What a task. This was a couple of months ago, and it seems to me the one subject Woolf didn’t write about, which one might have expected, was her sister, a great original visual artist, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961). Woolf’s two longest most sustained biographies are of the great art critic and visual artist, Roger Fry (1866-1934), and her beloved friend, Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962)

Vanessa Bell by Roger Fry (1916) — they were lovers for a time

Roger Fry by himself (1926)

I’m struggling with this topic because there are not natural easy parallels between Johnson’s deeply felt realistic biographies of the poets, and tragic-ironic Life of [Richard] Savage (1697-1743) and Woolf’s traditional and great biography of Fry (it’s more or as much about his inner life than his life as an artist/art businessman); and new or modernist biographies, say many of her short or “obscure” lives in her criticism/journalism (“Miss Mitford,” “Geraldine and Jane,” “Laetitia Pilkington”), and especially the imagined ones in Memoirs of a Novelist (“The Mysterious Case of Miss V,” and “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn”); and post-modern parodic biographies, Flush, the biography of a [Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s] dog; and the time-traveling fantasia, Orlando: A Biography

Vita Sackville-West photographed in the Margaret Cameron [aunt to Virginia] manner, circa 1840

From my notes on Orlando: It does what masterpieces should do: astonishes me with its beauty, power, deep insight into the human condition, comedy and tragedy and farce and all. The description of the river Thames as ice and then turning to a flood and storm is stunning. Although the book is self-reflexive all along, the narrative begins to be a parody of biography and refer to Vita only in the second chapter,and then is so far away from Vita’s life. I have Sackville-West’s Knole and the Sackvilles, which is one of the sources for the houses and staff. Orlando is also a playful coterie book — all sorts of in allusions, especially to the elite world of the Sackvilles, and it is an imitation of a child’s book by Vita too … The transgender part is sheer flattery, obsequious and embarrassing with its references to the gypsy mother …

A number of Woolf’s ideals for biography correspond with those of Johnson (such as the central goal of realizing the inner life, of showing how the art, character, and actual life of the person intertwine). Boswell, it would seem, came closest to her criteria that a biography must combine granite (fact, what can be reported as objectively having happened, been said, written down) and rainbow (the realm of the mind and body unrecorded in words), with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Bronte, doing this for the first time for a woman writer. But Johnson is no modernist in his biographical writing, though last night Richard Holmes’s book, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage began to render Johnson’s Savage in terms that are post-modern: Savage is the haunting figure of the poetic outcast, Johnson himself when young, a figure of both pathos and terror psychologically disturbed (p 52, 63), disabled, keeping a strange distance of otherness. (I find a good deal of Johnson’s political writing post-colonial, but that’s another matter altogether.) I wish Virginia whose relationship with her sister, can be said to resemble Johnson and Boswell in closeness and (ambiguously) influence, had written a traditional life of her sister (Suzanne Raitt wrote the book thus far: Vita and Virginia: The Friendship and Work of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf), for that would correspond to Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

But this morning I was stirred to feel I am on the right path after all, and this is a topic suited to my mind when in reading Frances Spalding’s Roger Fry: Art and Life (for comparison to Woolf’s), I came across a reproduction of a fourteenth-century predella panel, painted with tempera on a canvas, rendered in black-and-white, a full plate plate on art paper.

I was riveted by it. I had a few days ago told someone at this year’s East Central 18th century Society meeting here in DC, how I began to find myself (“When I was 17 …”), to find out who I am and what I can do in life for personal meaning and satisfaction by going when I was 17-19 twice a week in the morning to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Manhattan) to listen to lecture-tours, and one morning came across the most moving small drawing in a glass case of paradise. It seemed to me even then (before I had lost any beloved people to death) that this artist had captured what people long for when they imagine a life after death. Beloved friends reunited at last. Look how happy they are:

Here it is again, larger, albeit in black-and-white as printed by Spalding (I scanned it in and alas part of the left side could not be got into the scanner)

None of this nonsense about seeing gods, or nebulous awards, I half-remember thinking to myself. This, this is why.

I was prompted to tell of this because I was shown another image of paradise, also medieval, which reminded me of the one I had seen more than 50 years ago, but which missed the point, and I wanted to tell this friend who painted the image I had seen, and what was its name, but I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought to write it down, and anyway if I had, I would have long ago lost it. I could only describe it as understanding why people might long for an afterlife.

And now this morning here it was, with the name of the artist, of the picture, a scholarly description of what it is, where it came from. I had learned now that it was there in the museum that morning because more than 50 years before Roger Fry had acquired it for the museum. I felt my spirit soar as I looked at this image.

I would like to believe in the afterlife now, for then I might dream of seeing Jim once again, which I cannot. This longing is so strong that it is at the core of my engagement with the mini-series Outlander where the heroine travels though time and space through fantasy to see and be with her beloved again, though in 1945 on her first trip and again 1967 he is long since dust, and lying in a grave in a church, the kirkyard of st Kilda, near Inverness.

Kneeling among the unmowed grass she stretched out a trembling hand to the surface of the stone. It was carved of granite, a simple slab … Yes I know him. Her hand dropped lower, brushing back the grass that grew thickly about the stone, obscuring the line of smaller lines about the base: “Beloved husband of Claire” (Dragonfly in Amber, “Beloved Wife,” Chapter 5:76)

In my life-writing blog I’ve been writing about how my life has been and continues to be a journey through books and art, and if it is a trail with meaning, it ought to have some consistent inner shape where the parts relate. I thought of T.S. Eliot’s line: In our end is our beginning.

So I must be on the right track still, even if my project doesn’t necessitate my reading a biography of Vanessa Bell I also have in the house, one I discover also by Spalding, written 3 years after she concluded her book on Fry. It’ll be the one I read as soon as I finish this project-paper and be my first women artists blog, I hope this Christmas

Book-learning they have known.
They meet together, talk and grow most wise,
But they have lost, in losing solitude,
Something — an inward grace, the seeing eyes,
The power of being alone;
The power of being alone with earth and skies,
Of going about a task with quietude,
Aware at once of earth’s surrounding mood
And of an insect crawling on a stone
— Vita Sackville-West, from “Winter” in The Garden and the Landscape (a georgic)


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