It’s no surprise that Virginia Woolf would be mentioned in three books reviewed in the July 25 issue of The New York Times Book Review—all are about Woolf’s contemporaries and the milieu of her times. What it does, however, is reinforce how ubiquitous Woolf continues to be, a benchmark, if you will, of her times.
The front page has side by side reviews of new biographies of Somerset Maugham and E.M. Forster. In The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings, Maugham comes across as a despicable character, cheering his ex-wife’s death and sacrificing friends and foes alike to his fiction according to the review.
Woolf noted Maugham’s pillorying of his supposedly close friend Hugh Walpole in his novel Cakes and Ale, “palpably exposed as the hypocritical booming thick-skinned popular novelist.” Woolf once described Maugham as having “a look of suffering & malignity & meanness & suspicion;” it would appear that Maugham’s life, according to this biography, gives credence to Woolf’s unsparing but often insightful observations.
Colm Toibin calls Wendy Moffatt’s work, A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster, “a well-written, intelligent and perceptive biography ” that portrays the writer as “sensitive, sensuous and kind, an artist who possessed a keen, plain sort of wisdom and lightness of touch that make him, to this day, an immensely influential novelist, almost a prophet.”
The biography dispels the idea said to have been held by some of Forster’s friends, including Virginia Woolf, that his life was drab and unhappy because of his closeted sexuality and his mother’s domination. Woolf and Forster had their differences, but they admired and respected each other’s work.
Finally, The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson is praised for its rich detail and Nicolson’s exceptional research. Noting Nicolson’s aristocratic origins as the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, the reviewer finds too much emphasis on the trivial sufferings of a privileged class as compared to the rank and file who were the real victims of the war.
“Reading of how that most high-minded of couples, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, celebrated the end of wartime deprivation by munching three bars of chocolate apiece doesn’t quite bring home the mass suffering caused by the rationing laws.”
Perhaps not, but having presented at the recent Woolf Conference a paper on Virginia Woolf’s enjoyment of food and citing those very chocolate bars, I think that it does add a dimension to this portrait of an era.