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A Woolf Trilogy

 

Crescent Blues Book Views Leonard Woolf, The Wise Virgins
Persephone Books (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1-903155-339

Virginia Woolf, Flush: A Biography
Persephone Books (Trade Paperback), ISBN: 1-903155-452

Julia Strachey, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding
Persephone Books (Trade Paperback) ISBN 1-903155-274

I enjoy the writings of Virginia Woolf and recently discovered an exciting threesome of books in the Persephone Books catalogue: one book written by Woolf, one published by her and a third written about her. With this small pile of delights on my desk, I needed only wonder which to read first. Such sweet indecision! At last I settled upon Leonard Woolf's almost/maybe portrait of his wife.

Book: Leonard Woolf, The Wise Virgins
Woolf sets his novel in 1912, one of the times in history when feminist impatience with the societal constraints upon women made itself heard loudest. The Wise Virgins casts a satirical eye over middle-class men and women bound -- sometimes helplessly, though often willingly -- by the patriarchal conventions of early 20th century Britain. But it draws also, a magical picture of the beautiful, delicate/strong woman whose talent with words and clarity of thought I admire so much. Intriguing, too, to read a portrait of her painted by the man who devoted the most of the next three decades of his life to the nurturing of his wife and her genius.

Book: Virginia Woolf, Flush: A Biography
Next, I chose the book that Virginia Woolf herself authored. Many people consider Flush: A Biography the lightest, most accessible of Virginia Woolf's books, so if you feel intimidated or rather bewildered by her novels, this might be a good place to start exploring her work.

Elizabeth Barrett, the nineteenth century poetess, owned a spaniel named Flush. He shared much of her secluded life as an invalid and her courtship by, and elopement with Robert Browning as well as her life of marriage and motherhood in Italy. Through this story ostensibly about Barrett's beloved pet dog, one can read a charming account of the Barrett-Browning romance with an added bonus of snips of Virginia Woolf's sly wit that often made me chuckle out loud.

The recent Persephone Books' publication of Flush includes a thought-provoking introduction by Sally Beauman that explores feminist and other social interpretations of the story. But all such interesting approaches aside, devoted dog lovers can also enjoy this tale simply as a tribute to one of the family from which their own best friends descend.

Book: Julia Strachey, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding
Last of these three, I picked up the book that Virginia Woolf admired. Julia Strachey's Cheerful Weather for the Wedding impressed Woolf enough for her to publish it in 1932 through the Hogarth Press that she owned jointly with her husband, Leonard. The novella reads like one of those delightful period drawing-room farces that one sees so rarely on stage nowadays (at least in my part of the world).

The entire story takes place one March day in the home of Dolly Thatcham. It begins decorously enough as she takes an early breakfast and spends the rest of the morning readying herself for her wedding that afternoon. Then one by one, other characters make their appearances as they arrive for the festivities.

Some seem merely a bit eccentric. Others behave a little more oddly, and before one knows it, a half-drunk bottle of Jamaican rum appears in the least appropriate of places. The family's elderly spinster governess finds herself sharing her bedroom with the "exceedingly elegant" bedressing-gowned canon, while a small boy manages manfully to maintain a stream of polite small talk to otherwise occupy a great-aunt... to give you but a small taste of the comedy that Strachey rollercoasts through her tale with expert control.

Together these three books form an interesting introduction to Virginia Woolf or an irresistible little collection for any reader who knows and loves her work.

Moira Richards

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