Sunday, January 17, 2010

peers and posterity

My local library is too small for book sales, but the larger branch about half an hour's walk away is not. Yesterday I was lucky enough to be there while they were shedding three slightly elderly George Eliots, two volumes of the Thomas Wolfe quartet that begins with Look Homeward, Angel, a biography of Radclyffe Hall, a paperback book with a salmon cover called The Temperament of Generations: Fifty Years of Writing in Meanjin, Naguib Mafouz's The Harafish, and various other books, bought by me, who was especially glad to find the Eliots after coming to the end of Middlemarch weeks ago and realising that I had thrown away my old Mill on the Floss in Japan.

Quentin Bell mentions the Radclyffe Hall court case so briefly in his biography of Virginia Woolfe that the index only lists a single page number under her name. Hall's fifth book, the story of a lesbian aristocrat, had been judged obscene; Woolfe was willing to testify in its favour, but, "The difficulty," Bell writes

was that Miss Hall wanted her witnesses to declare that The Well of Loneliness was not only a serious, but a great work of art. This seemed too large a sacrifice in the cause of liberty.

However, the matter was compromised. Virginia went to testify at Bow Street but the magistrate, Sir Charles Biron, ruled literary evidence out of court and the novel, a sincere though feeble effort, was condemned as though it had been any other piece of cheap pornography.

He quotes a letter in which Woolfe calls Well "a meritous dull book." Sally Cline's biography of Hall admits it, but quotes another letter in which Woolfe told her sister, "I think much of Miss Hall's book is very beautiful" and refers to the shooting, in the Well, of a horse. "Her reaction to Hall's novel was ambivalent and changeable," the biographer suggests. According to Cline, Hall's desire to have people "declare that The Well of Loneliness was not only a serious, but a great work of art" began when she saw the draft of a letter that Woolfe, along with E.M. Forster, Arnold Bennet, Leonard Woolfe, and others, were proposing to send out in her support.

Despite Bennet and Forster's hard work, [Hall] was distressed at the draft letter which stressed the legal aspects of literary suppression rather than the merits of her book. Always over-sensitive to criticism, she now saw traces of it everywhere.

None of the authors who were willing to protest the banning of the book wanted to call it a worthwhile piece of literature. (Even Alison Hennegan, who wrote a favourable introduction to my copy of Well, says that it is "often unwieldy," although, she adds, "always courageous.") Cline sums up the clash between Hall and her supporters.

Although Hall and the Bloomsbury writers believed in many of the same principles, their methods of dealing with them, even of thinking about them, were diametrically opposed. Bloomsbury's writers and philosophers held most things at bay with an amused and abstract detachment. They liked spinning ideas, juggling truths, catching evasions … Hall … was by comparison simplistic and straightforward. The notion of overlapping truth did not interest her. The barbarity of suppressing 'the Truth' did.

Woolfe's Orlando was published a month before the court case began.

Hall [writes Cline] must have puzzled at length as to why Orlando … did not come under the censor's ban … it was an overt Sapphic portrait which even included photographs of the author's lover. But the difference between Woolfe's sexual presentation and Hall's was that although same-sex desire in the form of eroticized relationships between women is fundamental to Woolfe's writing, it is always emotional, elusive, imaginary, or symbolic. For Hall realism is the core … Woolfe was a satirist, a fantasist, an experimentalist. Authority left her alone. They allowed her to be judged by her literary peers and posterity.

Interesting, the difference in perspective between the two biographies: the same court case that occupies dozens of pages in one book appearing, in the other book, as not much more than a quick prelude to the appearance of a better novel by somebody else.

In another part of his biography Bell lets the reader know that his aunt was more cheerful than the public idea of her as a straitened nervous wreck would suggest, a point of view supported by the Guardian's recent interview with his half-sister Angelia Garnett: ninety-one and she's published a new book.

Of Virginia Woolf she says: "I was very fond of her and she was a very charming and delightful aunt to have. Most people seem to think she was somebody who was always on the edge of a nervous breakdown, but she wasn't. She was enormous fun."

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