I’m skeptical of so-called biofiction, novels that fictionalize real people, put words into their mouths, recreate scenes from their lives, sometimes inaccurately—its fiction, so literary license runs rampant. They leave readers, at least this reader, wondering what’s true and what’s been exaggerated or made up.
With novels about Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsberries, there’s also that tendency among Woolfians to be protective of “our” Virginia. We read them because we have to know what’s out there in case we’re called upon to defend her.
When Virginia Woolf in Manhattan came out last year, my interest was tweaked. Clearly it wasn’t going to be the same old rehashed and reimagined life and times. I put it on my list but hadn’t gotten to it in June when I went to the Woolf conference in Pennsylvania.
Maggie Gee, the author, was there and read a key scene from early in the novel. I was fascinated by her protagonist, Angela Lamb, a novelist and sometimes scholar who goes to New York to do research in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection for a paper she will be presenting at a Woolf conference in Turkey. She’s in the throes of the place’s aura when she senses a presence behind her. It’s Virginia Woolf, in the flesh, and just as shocked and confused to be there as Angela is to see her.
In 1990, when I was discovering Woolf and traipsing the streets of Bloomsbury for the first time, I had a story idea. I’m in a tea shop in Gordon Square, standing in line at the counter. I hear a cultured female voice behind me. It’s Virginia Woolf, and she’s talking as if she knows me. We have tea together and … that’s as far as I got. I never wrote the story, never will, but I’ve recalled it from time to time. I suppose many of us have imagined a similar scene, but Maggie Gee has acted on it with glee.
I bought and read the book as soon as I got home. It took me a while to relax my inhibitions and drop into it. You have to suspend disbelief—this is pure fun, lively and loony. “What a lark,” Virginia might say were she to read it. There’s no halo around this Virginia—we see her as a flesh and blood person, back from the dead and dropped into a strange time and place. Gee relates Woolf’s disorientation believably. Angela takes charge of her, and their relationship is a prickly one. Woolf is at times demanding, difficult and bitchy. And funny and charming. So is Angela. They do Manhattan and then they go to Istanbul where adventures abound, some pretty far-fetched.
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan has been out for more than a year (and in paperback since this summer), and it’s received its share of press. The Telegraph called it “A writer’s sparkling fictional love letter to her literary heroine,” and The Independent ran an interesting interview with Maggie Gee. The Guardian raked it over the coals, and the U.S. press pretty much ignored it.
So this isn’t a review, just a reminder that there are a lot of laughs (and a few smirks, groans and eyerolls) to be had from Virginia Woolf in Manhattan. Summer’s over, but a good “beach read” is always in order.