CARLYLE’S HOUSE & OTHER SKETCHES by Virginia Woolf (Hesperus Press Ltd , 2003)
It is fair to say that 1909 was not a good year for Adeline Virginia Stephen. She was struggling to complete her first novel and was increasing fearful of turning into a frustrated spinster. Later, following her marriage to Leonard Woolf, she would look back and write: “I was unhappy that summer and bitter in all my judgements”.
It was just the summer months where she hit a low ebb. Her notebook of that year, from which the seven short ‘sketches’ come, consisted of 214 pages but over 150 of these were left blank.
The writing she did produce should probably have been ditched as none of its shows her in a particularly favourable light. One of the pieces entitled ‘Jews’ is downright offensive towards Mrs Annie Loeb and to Jewish people in general. Loeb is described as “a fat Jewess….coarsely skinned” who served up food which “of course, swam in oil and was nasty”. The ‘of course’ is an especially brutal detail which reveals an anti-semitic streak; ironic given that Woolf’s husband-to-be was Jewish.
Doris Lessing, in her introduction, refer’s to the “thumping prejudice” exposed here and cannot find a way to put a gloss on these pieces. She does, however, argue that the works, none of which were ever intended for publication. provide a useful lesson to critics and readers who tend to view great writers through rose-tinted spectacles.
Lessing writes “Posterity, it seems, has to soften and make respectable, smooth and polish, unable to see that the rough, the raw, the discordant, may be the source and nurse of creativity”. The sketches here are certainly not those of a sensitive and worldly wise writer, but show how Virginia Woolf could be spiteful, snobbish and full of self-doubt.
Woolf’s words account for just 16 pages with the longest sketch (Cambridge) being just three pages long. The forward, introduction, notes and commentary put things into thorough perspective but it remains a very slim volume that can easily be read in a couple of hours. It is mainly of interest to scholars and is not for those who want to keep Woolf securely on a high pedastle.