Since completing Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction, a monograph in Cecil Woolf Publishers’ Bloomsbury Heritage Series, I find that I’m still drawn to and fascinated by the discovery of more Woolf references and influences in both newly published books and going back a few decades.
I recently discovered a “new” writer, Jane Gardam, and am have been burrowing through her work with delight and, initially, with no thoughts of Woolf. Gardam is well known in Britain, having published more than 20 novels since 1971, but relatively obscure to American readers. That may change since the New York Times Book Review praised her latest, The Man in the Wooden Hat.
This book and its 2004 prequel, Old Filth (which stands for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong”), are panoramas of two lives and a marriage from different points of view, startlingly so, as it turns out. Gardam writes vividly and beautifully, her characters are eccentric and fascinating, and the way she plays with time reminds me of Woolf, allowing past and present to weave through the narrative. Of course I started wondering what influence Woolf may have had on her writing and what she thought of Woolf.
Wanting to read more of her work, I picked up a couple of her earlier novels, and the link was established. Gardam’s name-dropping hints at a playful homage to Woolf as well as recognition of her prominence in the respective contexts of novels taking place during Woolf’s lifetime.
In Faith Fox (1996), a major character is Thomasina Fox. A confused woman refers to her as Thomasina Woolf, remarking that “She wrote The Waves, you know.” Crusoe’s Daughter (1985) starts with an epigraph from The Common Reader: “The pressure of life when one is fending for oneself alone on a desert island is really no laughing matter. It is no crying one either.”
Virginia and Leonard Woolf appear as guests at a Garsington-like manor house with gatherings of artists and aesthetes. The narrator observes new arrivals: “A melancholy brooding man and a very thin woman in old expensive clothes with the hem coming down, who was beautiful. Even her raggedness looked queenly. She was rather wild about the eyes which were in very deep caves in her face, and the corners of her mouth turned down in a desperately forlorn and anxious, yet sweet way.” They were identified as the famous Mr. and Mrs. Wolf (sic) and later referred to as the “dotty” Olympian Wolves.
I have a big stack of summer reading to occupy the months ahead, including more Jane Gardam. And part of the fun is that I never know when and where Virginia Woolf will appear.