Wednesday 20 May 2009

Memoirs of a Novelist 1909

Memoirs of a Novelist raises the question of why people write biographies and what right they have to look into the inner and private lives of people, in particular after their death.

A very recent example is the publication of ‘The Other Elizabeth Taylor’ by Persephone Books founder Nicola Beauman. As discussed on the Blog Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover, it seems that the children of Elizabeth Taylor were not happy about certain aspects of their mother’s life being published even though her husband had give consent to the book being written.

I have found it uncomfortable reading about certain aspects of Virginia Woolf’s private life. The factual events; births, marriages and deaths are ok but reading about things which would be private if the individual were still alive is very voyeuristic. There is a fine line between what is comfortable and what is not. Reading about the inner life of the Bloomsbury Group; what they discussed at their get togethers and the relationships between them is interesting but it begins to feel intrusive when you read their personal letters and very private experiences.

Memoirs of a Novelist is a comment on a biography by Miss Linsett written about her novelist friend Miss Willat, although all of the characters in the piece are fictitious.

You don’t actually learn very much at all about Miss Willat or Miss Linsett, instead the piece focuses on some of the many issues involved in writing a biography.

What is interesting is that the characters of Miss Willat and Miss Linsett are fictitious, and therefore when Virginia Woolf quotes passages from their books this is written by her as well. In a similar vein to Joan Martyn she is writing a story about a character who in turns reads/writes about another person in biography form all of which are actually written by Virginia Woolf.

As in most of the pieces I have read so far the central characters of this story are women and more specifically women writers. Virginia Woolf was very clear that she thought the lives of women were as important of those of men and that there was just as much you could say and write about a woman as a man. I don’t know how important it is that all of these women were either spinsters (Miss V., Miss Willat, Miss Linsett) or only on the verge of getting married (Phyllis and Rosamond and Mistress Joan Martyn) but it may give an insight into Virginia Woolf’s views on marriage.

The image used at the beginning is of the reading room at The British Museum


  1. I am following your journal with interest. I have not had a chance to comment but will soon. I am looking for the title, Reminiscences. I feel that VW's experiences have been such an open book by now it does not bother me to read about them, except when authors attempt to explain her so called 'madness' in a detracting sort of way. She was who she was and coped as best she could, being fully aware of her limitations. That she chose to take her own life was an example of that.

  2. Thank you for commenting, I hope that over time I will get lots of comments so that I will be able to get some discussions going.

    I still find it odd that you can know so much about a complete stranger and yet at the same time it is fascinating. In particular I do like to know what Virginia Woolf read, her book lists are really something rather spectacular!

  3. I have just found a copy of Moments of Being (1985) in which Reminiscences is included. Edited by Jeanne Schulkind. So now I can get started!

    By the way, have you seen the new vegetable garden at Sissinghurst yet? It would be interesting to see a picture of it, if you are visiting this year.....

  4. PS Do you know any other Woolfian bloggers to add to my list of Blogs I Like to Follow? This may be a good way to get a discussion going, if we're all on each other's pages!