Travels with Virginia Woolf

Jan Morris
Random House, 1997
ISBN: 0-712-6737-33

review by Ann Skea

I must confess that I am not a Virginia Woolf fan. Yes, her feminist essays are pithy, heartfelt and stirring, but many of her novels leave me cold. So, it was curiosity that drew me to this book. I wanted to know why Jan Morris would choose Virginia as a travelling companion; why Morris and other intelligent, able writers, like Jeanette Winterson, call the woman a genius; and why Virginia Woolf has become such a present-day icon.

Morris's 'Introduction' to the book did little to enlighten me. "Nobody was ever less of a travel writer, in the usual sense of the phrase, than Virginia Woolf", she claims in opening paragraph. She notes that Virginia was "never out of England for more than seven weeks"; that she was often racially biased and socially arrogant ("a little patronising and a little insensitive" in Morris's words), and that she was always uncompromisingly English. Yet, Morris believes that "few writers have been more powerfully inspired by a sense of place", and she finds Woolf's observations on her travels "terrific fun". She also pre-empts our judgement by telling us that these writings, drawn from journals and private letters spanning forty-three years, are "the work of a genius".

So, I began reading rather sceptically. And I was immediately intrigued by some of Woolf's descriptions of her early life in London. The very first piece is an essay Woolf read to the Memoir Club in the 1920's, and the second is a diary note made about Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, when Woolf was just fifteen. The essay (like other public pieces in the book) has been carefully crafted and polished and it evokes the sounds and smells of London streets full of horses, carriages and horse-dung. The brief diary entry captures odd, tantalising glimpses of the event:

"The queen was lying back in her carriage and the Pss of Wales had to tell her to look up and bow."

Both pieces show Woolf as an idiosyncratic observer with a talent for condensing her own moods and responses into words. And both pieces are fairly typical of the selection Jan Morris has made in the rest of the book.

Woolf, however, was not always nice in her observations and sometimes her insensitivity can be shocking. A gardener, whose work and whose roses she condescendingly praises, has eyes like those of "some vague old dog". And a friendly group of fisher-folk she met in a gale-swept Scottish inn are set down as: "practically sexless, and I've often mistaken one for a dog and vica versa".

Such observations made on her home turf, help prepare the reader for Woolf's comments on people and places 'abroad'. Germans she describes in a letter to Vanessa Bell as "hideous...incredibly stout and garish". And, later: "The grossness of the race is astonishing...". Spain she found vast and exhausting, expecting Spanish peasants in a second-class inn "to have knives at our throats every moment". But she fell in love with Italians, and Italy was "much more congenial than France".

Jan Morris is an exemplary editor, and her brief accompanying comments and explanations are informative and astute. She never excuses Virginia's insensitivity, remarking of her German comments, for example, that Virginia "had decided very early in life that she did not like Germans", and that Leonard Woolf's Jewishness probably reinforced these opinions.

Considering the range of sources from which Morris has made her selection (and which of us would care to have candid comments from our private letters published?), and the age-span which these extracts cover (15-58), it is not surprising that the quality of the writing varies. There are times, however, when Morris's admiration for Virginia seems to have blinded her to some florid prose and plain twaddle. Some "snatches of evocation" include a fanciful, overblown description of a Sussex harvest scene with "silver sheep", horses "like shaggy sea-monsters", and corn "dripping instead of sea-weed". "My word," Virginia then exclaims, "when one shuts off the villas, this land I think the fairest far in all Arabia". This was penned at the age of forty. Virginia wrote better when she was seventeen and describing the English Fen Country:

"There is some picturesque element in this country-- harvesters, windmills, golden cornfields. Everything flat with blue haze in the distance, and a vast dome of sky all around."

Or at fifty-six on the rainy Scottish island of Skye, which is "hardly embodied; semi-transparent; like living in a jelly fish lit up with green light".

On the whole, however, Morris's choice is excellent. Half the book is designated 'Home', which means England: the other half is 'Away', and this includes Wales, Scotland, Ireland, various European destinations, Turkey, and a selection of random comments on cultures, religions and travel in general which is called 'Exotica'. Sometimes the fragments quoted are too small to be meaningful, at other times they are just right, and at other times I wondered just what the omission dots omitted, and how the piece would read without Morris's expert editing.

To my surprise, when I reached the last few pages of the book I found Morris admitting that when she started the work she was not "among Virginia Woolf's greatest admirers". I was equally surprised to find that I agreed with her that Woolf's letters and journals display a personality which is far more agreeable, spontaneous and humorous than the public image. I still can't say that I would choose Virginia as a travelling companion, nor do I consider her a genius. But I do admire her flair and the determination she showed, as a writer, to work at and perfect her skills.

The hard-back edition of this book, published in 1993, was beautifully presented but so expensive that only a Virginia Woolf fan would have fallen on it with unquestioning joy. This new paperback edition will allow others less convinced of her genius to sample and enjoy her writing, and will go a long way towards humanising the icon. This may not be such good news for those people who only recently learned, when Jan Morris appeared on their doorstep, that Virginia Woolf once lived or slept in their home. If everyone uses this book as a Woolf-Morris travel guide their peace may be ruined for ever.

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