I just read Brian Morton’s latest novel, Florence Gordon, and loved his protagonist, a 75-year-old New York curmudgeon and intellectual, an activist and celebrated feminist author. A Woolf sighting was almost a foregone conclusion.
Florence’s granddaughter, Emily, visits from Seattle and takes a summer literature class at Barnard: “It’s gonna be great. Jane Austen. George Eliot. Virginia Woolf. What could be bad about that?”
Emily assists Florence with research for her memoir and becomes fascinated with her grandmother’s accomplishments. “A few weeks ago she’d read an article that Florence had written about Virginia Woolf. Woolf had said that the task of a woman writer was to kill off the ‘Angel in the House’: the part of oneself that was trained to put the needs of others, in every situation, before one’s own.” Emily later has occasion to reflect on this in a difficult situation of her own and in a personal challenge to her grandmother: “If a woman needs help but she doesn’t ask for it, isn’t she just playing the part of the Angel in the House?”
Morton has invoked Woolf in earlier novels. She appears to have a prominent place in his literary pantheon, as touchstones for his characters. In Starting Out in the Evening, grad student Heather Wolfe (!) wants to write her thesis on fictional author Leonard Schiller. Her advisor ranks Schiller as seventh-rate. “In Bonner’s scale of literary merit, Shakespeare and Tolstoy were first-rate; Dostoevsky and George Eliot and Proust were second-rate; Melville was third-rate; Henry James fourth-rate; Virginia Woolf fifth-rate. To be called seventh-rate was high praise.”
Heather is disappointed to find Schiller’s later work stale and is prepared to dismiss it to his age until she considers: “Certain writers managed to stay fresh, even in old age. Yeats and George Eliot she felt got better, stronger. “D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf may not have gotten better, but they continued to experiment restlessly as long as they lived.”
Virginia Woolf in old age? The implications are frightening, but I guess 59 is old to a 24-year-old grad student…..