Today’s Woolf-pun wasn’t my own invention, though a trawl through past posts on Woolf will reveal quite a medley of ’em – as does today’s sketch, which is once more recycled. What can I say, I’m fond of it. And I’m also fond of Virginia Woolf, always on the look out for other things to read by and about her.
Can’t remember where I first saw Thrown To The Woolfs by John Lehnmann, but I have a feeling it was mentioned in Hermione Lee’s exhaustive biography Virginia Woolf – it appealed immediately; an account by Lehmann of being manager and later partner of Hogarth Press. He worked there between 1931 and 1946, with a sizeable gap in the middle – both chunks of time there, totalling almost eight years, ended in a rift with Leonard Woolf.
Although it is Woolf, V. who sold this title to me, Woolf, L. takes more central stage. Not in Lehmann’s opinion, certainly, but rather in the length of time spent together and consequent impact on Lehmann’s life. Like almost everyone else who has documented meeting Virginia, Lehmann was entirely bewitched by her, both as a person and a writer. He describes reading her final novel, Between The Acts, in manuscript: ‘It was a thrilling experience, and I was deeply moved. It seemed to me to have an unparalleled imaginative power, to be filled with a poetry more disturbing than anything she had written before, reaching at times the extreme limits of the communicable’. She herself died believing it to be “too silly and trivial”, but in her mental state also called To The Lighthouse ‘inconceivably bad’. It is a further tragedy that one of the century’s greatest writers died believing her work to be awful.
So, though Virginia was undoubtedly Lehmann’s preferred Woolf, it was Leonard who dominated the running of the Hogarth Press. The Press was important to both Woolfs – Lehmann describes it being treated ‘as if it were the child their marriage had never produced’ – but Leonard was far more concerned with the managerial side. He was notoriously parsimonious, going into a rage if a halfpenny could not be accounted for in, er, accounts. Thrown To The Woolfs, as the title suggests, does not tell a wholly happy tale, and it was (Lehmann suggests) Leonard’s over-bearing attitude, especially regards vetoing authors Lehmann wished to publish, which led to the eventual break up of their partnership. Much of the third section of this book is taken up with settling scores – quoting from Leonard’s autobiography and then refuting and repudiating. Though the final paragraph begins ‘it is absurd, and deleterious, in one’s later ages, to harbour enduring resentments about the struggles and tribulations of one’s younger career’ – but this feels a little like lip service to good nature. The tone becomes a trifle bitter, with light coming only in references to Virginia and other authors about whom he is passionate.
Despite these unresolved squabbles, Thrown To The Woolfs is a well-written and interesting account of a unique viewpoint on the Woolfs, and as such is well worth seeking out. Just don’t expect Happy Families all round.
By the by, I’m off to Snowdonia for a few days – see you when I get back!