Leonard Woolf The Wise VirginsMy friend Bridget kindly gave me this book from her collection and I was very pleased to own one of Leonard Woolf’s novels. And of course it’s a lovely Persephone Books edition, with pretty end-papers and bookmark, which just adds to the reading experience, with an interesting preface by Lyndall Gordon (more on that later).

It’s a very interesting book which, while falling into a common Persephone Books theme of the suburban domestic and the plight of the unmarried daughter, also goes on, as so many of their books to, to look at wider societal changes and the fates of those who push against convention in whatever way, for however long.

It was published in 1914 and apparently eclipsed by the war, and in many ways it is a very pre-war novel which could have been set any time from the 1880s onwards, as society began to shift and women became a little freer. In fact, one of the four daughters we meet here is described as being the kind of girl who would have been a New Woman a little earlier in history (instead she has to fill her time with golf and having a stiff upper lip about things – I presume she goes to work for the war effort, has a fine old time as an army driver and goes off to university in the 20s, but I’m digressing there and letting the characters out of their novel!). We meet four sisters, all unmarried, the eldest a slow-smiling copy of their mother, the second our golfing chum, the third having clumsy legs and a pash for the vicar and the youngest, Gwen, still unformed enough to be interesting to Harry, whose family moves in next door.

Harry is shown being pulled between two worlds, as he tries to liberate and educate Gwen, giving her modern and disturbing books to read of which her almost-brother-in-law the vicar, always shielding the ladies from improper sights, heartily disapproves, while at the same time being jolted out of his own conventions by the Lawrence family, all massive armchairs and countryside reading parties, sensational conversations and startling daughters. Camilla is the main attraction here, even though her sister declares that she really shouldn’t get married, and she pushes against the conventional careers and lives for women, trying to get on as an artist (there’s a lovely passage in which one sister is described as painting when she should be writing and the other as writing when she should be painting; the fact that there are unconventional sisters who write and paint is also a key to the roman a clef nature of the book).

Because yes, although I never read the Preface or Introduction before I read a book, for fear of the dreaded spoiler, these are indeed portraits of Leonard Woolf himself and Virginia and Vanessa Stephen, in the early years of Leonard and Virginia’s courtship. Lyndall Gordon, who has written on Virginia Woolf, has put together an excellent and readable preface which covers the background to the book and its (bad) reception by Leonard Woolf’s family, but it is best read at the end. The book is not a straight biography, though, as Gwen makes a sudden bid for freedom, comes over all peculiar and liberated and commits an act which leads her to defy convention and poor old Harry to get trapped between following those very conventions that he seeks to destroy and incite Gwen to destroy and having the courage of his convictions, as Camilla coolly continues to do. Which path will he take?

The style of the book is interesting, with a certain amount of shifting perspective and stream of consciousness (although would this give you an echo of VW’s books if he were not her husband? Not sure). There’s a fair bit of metafictional authorial intervention as well, when he exhorts the reader to imagine the next few minutes for themselves or adds “a few more words” to flesh out a character. This makes for an attractive and engaging read which pulls you along into the story while making it fairly clear that we’re thinking about two separate strands of society here, and how one can navigate the path between them.

Of course, Harry is the “other”, being Jewish and from a markedly and almost caricaturedly Jewish family, but thus maybe able to stand outside conventional society a little and be accepted as being a bit odd (although his father and mother certainly don’t like this). Although he’s a difficult character and gets in a bit of a tangle at times, you can’t help but warm to him, and although this is a novel of ideas and principles, it does never forget that warmth.