The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf.

Leonard Woolf by Henry Lamb (1912).
With the vast majority of new-to-me authors I start with hope, but no preconceptions and no prejudice, but I'm afraid Leonard Woolf was not afforded this - shall I say - right. Though I tired not to, what I read was not The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf but The Wise Virgins by Virginia Woolf's husband. I couldn't help but compare it, and to me it shared a lot of similarities with Night and Day (1919). It's a shame and I wish I hadn't, but I did and there are few authors of the early 20th Century who can stand strong against Virginia Woolf. And, to make matters worse, though I resist biographical criticism it is well-know to Woolf fans that not only is the novel semi-autobiographical, but one of the characters of The Wise Virgins, Camilla, is inspired if not actually based on Virginia Woolf. The upshot is, I went into The Wise Virgins at my worst reading self. I did like it, though, so it's not all bad news.

It was first published in 1913, a year after Leonard Woolf's marriage to Virginia. The protagonist is Harry Davis, who, like Leonard Woolf is Jewish, and feels misplaced: he feels he is, in fact, the 'Wandering Jew'. Keep in mind when it was published, too - this was a time of great change when the young Edwardians wished to move away, even outright reject their parents, the Victorians, norms and values. Harry is no different. Throughout the course of the novel he finds he has two options: does he marry Gwen Garland, the young woman next door who is pretty, kind, and very conventional, or does he marry the young woman who he has quite the crush on - Camilla Lawrence, unconventional, intelligent, imaginative, and deep.

The Wise Virgins is a portrait of a conflicted young man; Harry is intelligent, but he's not the most likeable of characters and is very self-involved and somewhat self-important. There's a lot of angst and introspection in this novel and there's an underlying snobbery that grates on me. Also, there was an unfortunate part that invited comparison with Virginia - Leonard writes on the internal thoughts of a character and not only bungles it but gives up, remarking that if one were to understand the train of thought of this character one would have to spend hours in that characters mind. It's true, but our Virginia would have gone ahead and ran with it, and that is what is remarkable about her. Leonard Woolf seemed to attempt something similar (and he was, to give him his dues, the first of the two to attempt it) but didn't match up. But, nevertheless, I did enjoy it (and would have loved it were it not for my perpetual comparing it and obsessing over biographical details). It was vivid and very beautiful at times, and there's plenty of literary references within it, which is always fun, including Ibsen's The Master Builder in which Halvard Solness' dreaming and vanity proves to be his tragedy. That, I'm afraid, was very apt indeed for Harry Davis.

Further Reading


  1. both mrs. M and i read LW's 4 volume autobiography and liked it... we think it's sort of a mystery how V and L ever got together, much less stayed that way; L had a lot of self confidence and wasn't afraid to try anything; sometimes that came across as pontification, but not always: he gave the impression of a kind person, and i'm sure that meant a lot to V...

    1. I've read a biography on him - Victoria Glendinning, and from that I agree with you. I wouldn't mind getting his autobiography at some point...

  2. The thing is when you are the husband to Virginia Woolf, I think it will come naturally that willingly or not comparison's will be drawn. Virginia Woolf has too much brilliance that kind of outshone everything! Not the best place for your creativity to flower, but it is what it is. I think I will pass this one, but upon seeing Mudpuddle's comment, I may try the autobiography; atleast start with Volume 1 and see how things go!

    1. I'm planning on to, now mudpuddle's mentioned it! And yes, I think it was pretty much impossible not to compare with Virginia. I have a non fiction book by Leonard - forgot I had it, actually - Barbarians at the Gate - might be interesting to check it out at some point :)


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

The Prevention of Literature by George Orwell.

Moments of Being: Slater's Pins Have No Points by Virginia Woolf.