The Wise Virgins

Preface to Leonard Woolf's novel, The Wise Virgins, published by Persephone Books (2003). More on Leonard Woolf in Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life.

Leonard and Virginia Woolf on their wedding day

It is a truth widely acknowledged that Camilla Lawrence in The Wise Virgins is a portrait of the author's wife, Virginia Woolf. Leonard Woolf began this novel while the couple was on honeymoon in Spain, a month after their marriage on 10 August 1912. The novel looks back to the period of their courtship after Leonard's return to London in June 1911 following a successful stint as a colonial administrator in Ceylon, the setting for his justly admired first novel, The Village in the Jungle .

Before he left for Ceylon, he had met the beautiful Stephen sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, when they visited their brother, Thoby, at Cambridge. On Leonard's return from the East seven years later, he found them part of an artistic group bent on breaking with Victorian pieties and on treating women as equals – it was hardly possible to do otherwise in the presence of the Stephen sisters. Vanessa, an artist, had married an art critic, Clive Bell. It was when Leonard Woolf dined with the Bells in Gordon Square in the Bloomsbury area of London in July 1911 that he re-encountered Virginia Stephen. She was unmarried at twenty-nine and writing her first novel, The Voyage Out . When she read him extracts in March 1912, Leonard thought them extraordinarily good. His heroine, Camilla, like Virginia, is given to flights of imagination - a young woman of indeterminate promise. 'Her life was an adventure, the joy of moving among experiences that were ever new under the shifting and changing of chance.' Camilla is an art student but is said to be more suited to writing, and like Virginia she comes from a confident upper middle class background, a cut above the suburban background of Harry Davis, a moody Jew. His mother sighs when he says 'strange things so dictatorially'. He's called jokingly 'Byron' by the Garlands, the idle, waiting virgins of suburban Richstead (Richmond/Hampstead), but Leonard's eldest sister, Bella Woolf, took a dimmer view of Harry when she read the first draft in August 1913. Bella thought Harry had Leonard's 'worst characteristics multiplied to the –th degree': an 'ill-mannered cub'. There is an accurate self-portrait in Harry's 'look of discontent, discomfort, almost of suffering in his face, as he sat with crossed legs staring at the carpet'.

Harry, studying art, meets Camilla in a London studio, and Camilla consents to sit for a portrait. Harry's pursuit of her elusive character awakens him to a kind of love he's never known. How should he reconcile this romantic love with a man's sexual nature? Harry's thoughts could not be printed at the time of writing. Leonard Woolf did battle with his publisher, Edward Arnold's prohibitions in the name of decency: 'virgin', Arnold insisted must be replaced with 'unmarried woman' because, he argued, it means the same. Defiantly, Leonard Woolf asks his reader to fill in what's unprintable which is what everyone knows – including the creepy Richstead vicar who deplores the vulgarity of sex, and steers 'the ladies' away from a proto-Waste Land scene: the sight of a couple locked together in a punt at Maidenhead.

Harry's refusal to deny his fantasies does not make it easier to approach the remote and unknowable Camilla. He sees her in exactly the way Leonard Woolf saw the aptly named Virginia, 'like a hill covered with virgin snow'. Virginity, in both the particular and a wider gender sense is at issue: what do men and women think and feel under their skins as well as in response to the touch of a hand? How is a man to read a virgin's hesitations over marriage?

'There's so much in marriage from which I recoil [Camilla tells Harry]. It seems to shut women up and out. I won't be tied by the pettinesses and the conventionalities of life. There must be some way out. One must live one's own life….

Would sexual union and other demands of marriage damage the possibilities of a gifted woman's singleness and freedom? The single woman – synonymous with 'virgin' in 1912 - is a deepening mystery in the course of this novel: what is she?

The Wise Virgins was written at the height of women's suffrage agitation just before the first world war. Harry declares himself 'pro-suffrage', and Leonard Woolf called feminism 'the belief or policy of all sensible men'. This political drama in the background to the novel is as crucial as the agitation for the Reform Bill of 1832 in the background to Middlemarch – another novel about the 'indefiniteness' of woman so long as her social lot remains in question in a society resistant to change. Bella Woolf misread the serious mystery of Camilla and her sister Katherine when she called them 'beautiful shadowy beings', as did one of Virginia's rejected suitors, Sydney Waterlow, when he told Leonard, 'Camilla seemed to me a little dim'. Leonard Woolf's portrait is consistent with the faceless portraits that Vanessa Bell was painting of her sister at this time – an experiment in the Modernist venture to 'see' an inward truth that is not immediately apparent.

As Harry muses over the phenomenon of a venturesome, not vacant virgin, he imagines her 'voyage out'. Virginia Woolf completed The Voyage Out at the time of the Woolfs' marriage. Here, it's said that it will take six generations for women to come into their own. If so, we're not there yet. Rachel Vinrace, the heroine, is a faceless, deep-sea creature who is surfacing all through The Voyage Out and dies before she can be known. The most appealing element in Leonard Woolf's novel is an alertness to what is far-out and alone in authentic womanhood, an endangered species recreated in Camilla Lawrence. And this uncommon alertness is all the more arresting for the fact that it comes from a man who prided himself on objectivity. Leonard Woolf's diary is almost curt in its respect for facts. He stood by clarity and common sense.

Most women at some time or other hear a man ask what women want. It's an awkward question, often rhetorical, in a tone that implies: do women know what they want? I have yet to hear a woman say that she wants what many men think she wants: size, muscle, power, self-importance. Those may be acceptable as signs that massage her public image, but can't, in the absence of character, satisfy her. No, when women talk in private, they agree that what they want is to be known for what they sense themselves to be. In Villette, Charlotte Brontë's irascible Paul Emmanuel replaces the princely hero who has no idea of a genuine woman. The keen-eyed Paul, on the other hand, is certain to appeal to his chilly fellow-teacher, Lucy Snowe, when he tells her, 'I know you, I know you'. What he knows is the fire - the burning words and active spirit - of 'a rising character'. Harry Davis is similarly drawn to the rising character of Camilla.

She is shaped by a truth-telling milieu based on Leonard Woolf's circle of friends who came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. Harry's explosions of annoyance – so like Leonard Woolf's shaking impatience– meant more than bad manners. For Harry is a convert to truth. He would sweep away the Jewish God and the Anglican vicar, along with Victorian cant. This was the time when Bloomsbury made its break with denial of sex and began to be explicit – even ostentatiously explicit – about 'semen' and what they gravely termed 'copulation'. We have to read 'virgin' in that explosive context.

This rage for truth derived in part from the Stephen sisters as renegades from the white-gloved, chaperoned society for which they had been destined. From 1904, when they had refused society balls and set up their writing-and-art home in Gordon Square, their sole chaperone had been their sheepdog, Gurth. When Virginia went on to declare that 'in or about December 1910 human nature changed', she meant that ways of seeing human nature changed. The date refers to the first Post-Impressionist exhibition of Cezanne, Matisse, Gauguin, and Picasso in London; and Leonard Woolf helped to run a follow-on exhibition in 1912. Their break with respectable façades prompted a furore of protest from viewers. In his Autobiography, Leonard Woolf recalls the outrage of red-faced gentlemen holding their toppers and grey gloves. In 1912 Leonard and his friends also went night after night to the Russian Ballet where audiences were rapt by the imaginative incursion of Le Spectre de la rose into a girl's bedroom, and shocked by Nijinsky's overt masturbation at the end of L'Après de midi d'une faune. In part the ideology of truth came from the ethics of G.E. Moore, the Cambridge philosopher whose influence on Bloomsbury men was 'lifelong'. Harry differs from Leonard Woolf in so far as he lacks the maturity and experience that Leonard had gained in Ceylon. But they do share a Jewish kind of energy: a need to know – the poetic word for sexual union in the Hebrew Bible.

The Wise Virgins was published in October 1914. Its first reviewers had little clue as to what its author was on about. 'It certainly leaves one rather agape', admitted The Pall Mall Gazette which looks on Harry as 'an uncomfortable sort of chap, suffering from a form of intellectual dyspepsia' with which he 'pesters' comfortable people. 'There are plenty of good-natured people about than Mr Woolf would have us believe', TLS reassures readers. Some were taken aback that a Jew should take so poor a view of his own tribe, while The Pall Mall Gazette puzzles over the author's pride in being Jewish. Why, it wonders, should an 'Israelite' flaunt that fact 'from the housetops'? Casting about for how to place the Lawrence sisters, this reviewer decides that they must be like 'very highly cultured but somewhat inefficient Oxford Dons'. Readers on the whole preferred pretty, empty-headed Gwen Garland who seems to them 'worth twenty Camillas'. They do devoutly hope Harry will come to appreciate her. Country Life alone recognises the calibre of Camilla: 'a wonderfully fine piece of character drawing, delicate, subtle and true'. But, for most, the Lawrence circle threatens established moralities. The worthies of 1914 worry about 'coarseness', particularly the hinted-at but unmentionable scene near the end where Gwen, keen to prove herself a convert to liberties for women, seduces Harry so thoroughly that he is forced to marry her. Mr Woolf's book 'is not by any means a Sunday school story', warns the Irish Times .

Leonard Woolf saw this work as an early casualty of the war. 'The war killed it dead', he comments curtly in his Autobiography. So dead did it seem then, in the 1960s, he didn't even list the novel in his index when he set down the story of a life that leapt the barrier between the middle-class groove of his Jewish childhood and the liberating values of Bloomsbury. And then, soon after Leonard Woolf's death in 1969, Bloomsbury swung into fashion with the publication of Quentin Bell's 1972 biography of his aunt, Virginia Woolf, followed by complete editions of her letters and magnificent Diary, in itself one of the foremost works of the twentieth century. Public interest in Bloomsbury was at its height in 1979 when The Wise Virgins was republished for the first time. Given the celebrity profile of Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, and Leonard himself, it was impossible in 1979 to distance the novel from the Bloomsbury characters on whom it drew. Ian Parsons, in an excellent introduction, did make a valiant effort to say it was only 'in part' a roman à clef, but this is how readers then took it. It was an aid to biography: it helped us look into the Woolf marriage and view the manners of Bloomsbury Group as they struck Leonard on his return.

We are shown a group of friends lying back in large, orange arm-chairs, with hands hanging loose and eyes fixed on the floor, 'as though stunned and silenced'. They cultivate 'an air of immeasurable wisdom'. When they get up, they gaze at the ceiling as though a bird were fluttering there, and then glide out. Unlike Harry Davis, Leonard felt 'immediately at home' in Bloomsbury, but it must be remembered that in 1911-12 he came upon it from the outside – from the outposts of Empire. This vantage point of the man of action shapes to some extent what Harry sees. 'You don't do anything', he accuses the Lawrence circle. His caricature of an effete society is not far from the image of Bloomsbury whenever it's out of fashion. The real Bloomsbury was energetic and innovative. We have only to recall Keynesian economics, or Leonard's own involvement with the Co-operative movement and his Hogarth Press whose first – then unknown - authors were Eliot and Katherine Mansfield, or Virginia's robustness as a walker and as a writer who emerged from her room flushed with the race of fiction. Leonard's Bloomsbury was a harmless caricature. But the link of Camilla and Virginia was more problematic, for it's long been accepted that a flaw in the Woolfs' union was made public in this novel. To what extent was Virginia implicated in the limp, passionless caricature of the Lawrence circle - what Harry, with his impatient Jewish steam, calls 'paleness'?

The introduction to the 1979 edition endorsed the notion that Virginia Woolf was 'frigid'. Since 'frigid' was a male criticism of women who did not respond to a masculine need, it has to be questioned. We now live in an era where it's accepted that there are many ways to make love, and some that conceivably elude the simplistic labels we still adopt. Virginia, at an early age, had lost her mother and mother-like eldest sister, Stella. It is not surprising that Virginia romanced protective women like Stella's friend, Violet Dickinson, who nursed her when she was ill; her remaining sister Vanessa; and later her friend, the novelist and gardener, 'Vita' Sackville-West. Vita was an active lesbian, but though Virginia romanced and flirted with Vita, it was not primarily a physical bond and no label quite fits. 'Frigid', anyway, is out of date: a word used in the past by men resistant to desires different from their own, and ready to label those as deviant or non-existent. After the sexual revolutions of the last century, we now perceive that men whose women were 'frigid' were likely to have been insensitive lovers.

The Wise Virgins repeatedly raises the question if Camilla is cold: 'Perhaps she was incapable of love.' Harry wants 'what the male wants, a certain fierceness of love… a flame that shall join and weld together'. He thinks of a primitive female who would come to a male's cave to possess and be possessed, and bear his children. Romance and sex are, for him, in separate categories. Camilla, adept at romance, only 'knew vaguely, felt vaguely what he meant. But it was not in her, a woman and unmarried to know the want.'

'Perhaps you were never made to be able to say "I love you",' Harry writes in a letter to Camilla.

She assents in her reply. 'I can't give myself. Passion leaves me cold.'

Her sister Katherine thinks no man should marry her, and that the only solution to her untenable existence is to die young.

When Virginia was finally allowed to read The Wise Virgins, three months after publication, in January 1915, she had to face an opinion contrary to Leonard's love letters. Both before and after marriage his letters lend themselves to the love-games of a female mandrill (a baboon) or exotic bird and a male mongoose whom she takes 'into service'. In December 1913 'Mandril' had informed 'Mongoosius Felicissimus' that 'her flanks and rump are now in the finest plumage, and invites you to an exhibition'. Such exchanges were more flirtatiously physical but otherwise similar to the love-play in Virginia Woolf's finest story, 'Lappin and Lapinova'. This is a honeymoon story where a marriage works only so long as the bridegroom, 'King Lappin', plays by moonlight with his mate, an elusive hare with staring eyes and drooping paws. The outcome of the union turns on the question whether the 'hunter' in the male can lend himself to the different, character-drama his bride desires.

When Virginia read The Wise Virgins, she made a restrained comment in her diary about it's being very good in some ways and very bad in others, as restrained as Vanessa Bell who told the author that emotions after all don't matter very much. Two weeks later, in February 1915, Virginia broke down. It was the worst breakdown of the four or five in her life, and significantly, the only one during which she rejected Leonard. For about two months she refused to see him.

This is one way of reading the novel, but it seems to me inadequate for two reasons. For one thing, the biographical situation was more complex. Virginia Woolf's adoring letters to her husband and her two fictional portraits based on him (the unconventional lawyer, Ralph Denham, in Night and Day - the only possible husband for a wise virgin - and the alien, Louis, in The Waves ) vindicate a man who responds to a woman's 'night' – what is dark, invisible, but coming into focus in her nature. Such a man is 'indispensable', not so much because he takes care of a woman but because he sees her. The young man who played the caring Leonard in the movie of The Hours was well-cast and convincing, yet a little too put-upon – a limitation not of the actor but of the script. There were imaginative as well as harsh aspects to the real Leonard. He was abrasive – alarming - with employees. He had a critical kind of stubbornness, and his wife coped through jokes that weren't only jokes, as when she named his room 'Hedgehog Hall'. Leonard Woolf's bristles and gloom went into Harry Davis; not his expressive ardour. Yet that ardour was there in the Woolfs' marriage, as well as a remarkable susceptibility to a woman's imagination.

Then, too, if we are to do justice to the novel as a novel, not as an aid to biography, we must recognise that 'cold' is but one of several versions of the single woman unattached to a man – what the book terms a 'virgin'. The title itself posits a 'wise' virgin. This is a more promising character than the 'wise virgins' of the New Testament where duty not virginity is in question. 'Wise virgins' fill their lamps with oil; 'foolish virgins' neglect to do so. This trivialising model of womanhood as functional but vacant shell is borne out by the Garlands 'who wait, timorous, ignorant, and in doubt of themselves, for… the gift of wisdom descending in the form of a man – that may never come'. Camilla, in contrast, can think. She combats Harry's crass idea of a 'spinster' as a dried up freak with hairs sprouting from her chin. Camilla demonstrates how free a single woman can be – unlike married 'cows'. Harry carries with him the sensitiveness of her forehead and mouth, the sensuousness of her lips, the light and sadness and aloofness of the eyes. The whole novel builds on the ambiguities of what appears more a state of being than a female membrane. Again, we have to ask, what is this phenomenon?

Leonard Woolf approached this unknown in a logical way. His first step was to isolate and eliminate what women are not. Reject specimens were drawn from his mother and her neighbours in Colinette Road, Putney. One of Leonard's brothers, Edgar, did, in fact, marry one of the Ross girls, models for the Garlands. The questing Camilla is entirely alive compared with the feminine construct of the suburb, shading from the 'pale soul' of Ethel Garland, the unnaturally sweetened eldest sister, to her youngest sister whose carapace of unreality is still forming round her. Gwen Garland already strikes Harry as a 'wax' dummy at a hairdresser. The opening is slow and at times satiric as the focus zooms through Richstead gardens towards Mrs Garland and her four unmarried daughters, all blighted by the emptiness of middle-class women's lives. They fill their days with golf, visiting, chat, and good works. Since workers rebuff patronage, it's foisted on 'the Poor Dear Things': the genteel, not wretched poor.

'What I should like to know is', Harry presses Gwen, 'how you live, what you do with yourself all day. I don't understand it. That's what's interesting.' He gives Gwen books by Dostoievsky and Ibsen, as antidotes to virginity and vicar's teas.

To succumb to routine sex with Gwen is to flatten Harry's feelings behind the bars of suburbia. He will replicate his father, after all. Mr Davis, who is into facts, stocks and shares, Mrs Davis with a furrowed brow beneath her lopsided festoon of ostrich plumes, and their beady-eyed daughter, verge on caricature Jews, but the anger of Mrs Woolf and Bella Woolf shows that some things did hit home. Bella thought the novel should not be published. Mrs Woolf warned that if her son did so, she would break with him. Obliterated by the turmoil of family resentment, ignored by thick reviewers, undercut by the limiting links of the roman à clef, and outshone by major publications during the Bloomsbury comeback in the Seventies, is the great voyage-out question of woman's untested potentialities. It is a question that projects into the future – our future. Leonard Woolf conceived a flawed and lost hero who can convince us that one man did want to know.

The Wise Virgins has gained lustre with the passage of time. To reread a third edition of this novel in 2003, a quarter of a century after the last, is almost to read a different book. It's seventy-five years since Virginia Woolf delivered her Cambridge lectures on 'the great problem of the true nature of woman'. At this distance, we can value a parallel take on that far-out phenomenon.