Flirtations with a very smart set

Before Leonard
September 1, 2006

A writer should have an androgynous mind, Virginia Woolf observed in A Room of One's Own in 1929. And from Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse to Orlando, the male protagonist who morphs into a woman in the novel of the same name, Woolf's writing charts female eroticism and gender-bending identity. So it is hardly surprising that her bisexuality has attracted the attention of critics and biographers, and her most intense relationship - with Vita Sackville-West - generated at least a couple of specialist studies.

Most welcome, then, is a book that redresses this imbalance and attempts to offer a portrait of Woolf as a giddy twentysomething, resisting the advances of numerous male suitors. Sarah Hall aims to show the influence of Woolf's male friends, men who shaped her intellectual development and who have been written out of her biography. Each man, Hall claims, could be termed a "suitor" for Woolf's hand in the excitingly free and turbulent years between her father's death in 1904 and her marriage to Leonard Woolf in 1912. Some are well known: the biographer and historian Lytton Strachey and the romantic First World War poet Rupert Brooke. Others have been forgotten: the Cambridge University classics don Walter Headlam, for example, or the most conventional of the bunch, Hilton Young. They all knew each other and had Cambridge, classical Greece and a defiance of social mores in common.

But were they seriously pursuing Woolf, and did she really care anything about them? These are the questions that dog this study, defined as it is by the notion of the "suitor". Most of the relationships were merely flirtations; the one marriage proposal came from homosexual Strachey; and Brooke went skinny-dipping with Woolf only once.

The difficulty lies in disentangling what we think of today as a serious relationship and what passed in the first decade of the 20th century as courtship. Woolf and her set described various encounters erotically, but whether this was fiction, fact or somewhere in between is hard to define.

After all, even Woolf's marriage seems to have been largely celibate and, in general, the spectrum between friend and lover among the Bloomsbury set was quite blurred.

Complicating the picture further is the fact that Woolf, and many others in her set, were fantasists and poseurs, inventing personalities and emotions.

They might convince themselves they were in love, only to backtrack a day (or, in Strachey's case, a few minutes) later. They would alter affection according to circumstances, allowing jealousy, envy and social pressure to intervene.

Hall makes a sterling effort to untangle the stories to develop the biographies of the eight "suitors", but at times even she finds it hard to rise above the gossip. The book is inevitably a litany of famous names.

And yet, of course, this name-dropping gossip scene was essential to what Bloomsbury meant. These friendships mattered because Woolf and others were experimenting with new types of relationship.

But ultimately none of these suitors mattered to Woolf as much as her dead brother Thoby and her sister Vanessa. Most of the men had known Thoby at Cambridge. After he died aged 26 of typhoid fever, Woolf's relationships with his friends were arguably a way of keeping his memory alive.

Meanwhile her chaste "affair" with Vanessa's husband, Clive Bell, one of the "suitors", was motivated primarily by her desire to regain her intimacy with her sister after her marriage. Since these two figures form the emotional heart of the book, it is a shame that no photographs of them have been included.

Jennifer Wallace is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Before Leonard: The Early Suitors of Virginia Woolf

Author - Sarah M. Hall
Publisher - Peter Owen
Pages - 304
Price - £22.50
ISBN - 0 7206 1222 5

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