The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf
“Here’s a book for you to read,” The Wise Virgins’ cranky antihero Harry Davis tells the impressionable young Gwen Garland, “You’ve just reached the pinnacle of life to like it.” He is speaking of The Master Builder, the gloomy Ibsen play about "building castles in the sky" which becomes for Gwen a kind a mind-altering substance. Harry Davis likes to think of himself as a man apart, a wandering Jew, a creature entirely disparate from other young men, and yet he possesses a familiar blend of intuition and cluelessness when it comes to young women. He gets this much right: there are some books that, when read at just the right moment, can change your life.
Wise Virgins, if read at precisely the “pinnacle of life,” could very well be that book. While swinging in register from satire to psychological exploration and back again, this novel (Leonard Woolf’s second and last) studies three young people -- Harry Davis, his conventional neighbor Gwen, and his art-girl crush Camilla -- at the hinge of their lives, the very moment in which they are choosing between the life of their parents or some very different thing, some thing that hasn’t even, perhaps, been invented yet. When Gwen dives into The Master Builder with bone-crushing earnestness, struggling to block out the sounds of the busy beach where she is vacationing with her family, she finds that it instantly transforms the world. (Whether it’s actually the book or simply her love for the moody, Mr. Darcy-ish Harry that imbues her days with new romance is not a question she asks herself.) “Everything, even the sea and seagulls, rising and falling as if they were worked by wires from the top of the stage, had an increased solidity, a mysterious meaning.” The world reveals itself as a strange stage play; the bathers at the shore seem uncanny and unreal, like marionettes, wooden copies of themselves. The scales, it would seem, have fallen.
In the introduction to this new Yale University Press edition, Virginia Glendinning calls Wise Virgins “a very young man’s book,” and indeed it is. The moment at which one says, “there are more and more things that I can’t believe merely because my parents told them to me,” comes, I think, for most college-educated people living in middle-class America today, earlier and more inevitably than in Woolf’s day. This feels like the perfect book for a college freshmen of a particular sort -- for the kind of young person who is for the first time butting up against his dissatisfaction with the lives lived by dull, upstanding parents and trying to strike out on his own “great road.” (And probably, like Harry and Gwen, reading Dostoevsky for the first time, and holding mind-blowing conversations with the chambermaid one never would have thought to talk to before. Dude!)
Because Harry is the kind of boy who comes home from a seemingly pleasant visit with neighbors and says to himself, “The horror of the night is that we’re alone with ourselves.” He decides that “the only bonds between human beings seemed to be dislike and scorn and jeering and envy; otherwise, completely isolation, they staggered and strayed through life.” Oh, he’s angsty all right, in a way that today might seem unmistakably adolescent. But then again, it probably goes without saying that today’s young people -- women in particular -- have many more options than they did in Woolf’s Victorian world -- more ways to escape, more education, more access to different perspectives and different points of view. Post 1960s, rebelling from The Man is almost a cliché. But in the age of Bloomsbury it must have seemed exceedingly novel and unsettling that people were, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay “How It Strikes a Contemporary,” “sharply cut off from our predecessors… Every day we find ourselves doing, or saying, or thinking things that would have been impossible for our fathers.” The modern reader must struggle to see Harry in context, to see how new and impossible his ideas of rebellion must have seemed to him. The book’s final sad note serves to remind one of just how strict certain mores were in Woolf’s England, not to mention how much angstier all 20-something men would be were virginity still held in such regard. Poor Harry! His world is crushingly small, and his only hope for escape seems to be marriage to the unconventional and dreamy artist Camilla, a kind of Vaseline-lensed Virginia Woolf, who of course, unconventionally and dreamily enough, isn’t much moved by the idea of marriage.
Luckily for post-angst readers, there is more to this book, too. One can read this as a thinly-veiled version of Leonard’s courting of Virginia Stephen, as a biting satire of life in turn-of-the-(last)-century London from its conventional suburbs to convention-flouting Bloomsbury. The novel was begun on the Woolfs’ honeymoon, to which one can only say at this story’s close, “Ouch.” I have it from a very good source (the back cover of the new edition) that “the autobiographical elements of the book are well-documented. Its publication caused acute distress to Woolf’s family.” Woolf may have been foolish to expect any less, but he is in the end doing with fiction what many artists accomplish through art, which is to say, addressing the possibilities. Leonard’s marriage and life go one direction and Harry’s head down another, less-promising path. Harry’s talk about discovering a new way of being, about escaping the shackles of “Richstead life,” turn out to be so much hot air, and in the end, like so many young men full of potential, he traps himself in a mercilessly self-defeating bind.
When it comes to the poetry of language, Leonard was no Virginia, but as the female Woolf wrote of her literary contemporaries, the reader “can hardly fail to be impressed by the courage, the sincerity, in a word, by the widespread originality of our time.” In the same essay, she attempts to pinpoint what makes great literature great, and suggests (she is referring to Wordsworth and Scott and Jane Austen, but I think it relates here) that it is “natural conviction that life is of a certain quality. They have their judgment of conduct. They know the relations of human beings towards each other and towards the universe.” These relationships are what Leonard Woolf explores with such faculty and what makes this book particularly worthy of a contemporary look.
The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf
Yale University Press