Friday, January 23, 2015

Virginia Woolf, naturalist

Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf displays all her many strengths as a biographer: a seemingly insatiable appetite for research, an ability to synthesize huge numbers of disparate and complicated sources, an eye for a telling anecdote (and the ability to tell it, or get out of the way and let her sources tell it), and, most important, a powerful desire to understand. Again and again in this biography Lee offers us different possible Virginia Woolfs, different ways to read or understand particular actions, statements, or decisions. She has opinions, certainly, but while she clearly wants to end up with a coherent portrait, she's nearly as concerned with simply making sure that we understand the limitations of our definite knowledge. A biographer's art is necessarily speculative and interpretive; the better ones remind us of that regularly.

As Lee acknowledges on the first page, Woolf is a daunting figure for a biographer, if for no other reason that that there's been so much written about her, by her friends, family, and acquaintances, initially, and then by scholars in the decades since her death. In addition--and probably most important and most daunting--there are the thousands and thousands of pages of her own writing, particularly the essays, letters, and diaries, in which she presents, analyzes, and refracts her own personality and mind as they change over the years.

At the same time, those thousands of pages are a biographer's dream: they contain so many wonderful nuggets of insight, humor, aphorism, analysis, and character that choosing what to leave out is surely nearly as hard as figuring out what to draw on. Lee makes excellent use of the material, and in doing so she's all but cemented a hitherto vague conviction on my part that I will eventually need to read all of Woolf's writing--not just the novels and the handful of essays I've read and gone back to over the years, but the letters and diaries, too.

What caught my eye today was a small group of diary entries that Lee highlights, from 1917 to 1919, when Woolf took up diary writing again in earnest after a break in the early years of the war. She and Leonard were living in their country house at Asheham, and, as Lee explains,
To start with, as if a great soloist were getting back into shape with simple exercises, she put down brief, exact nature notes, suppressing the "I" of self ("went mushrooming") and becoming merely a mirror, a recorder, of wartime rural life.
Lee draws out a batch of those entries:
Swallows flying in great numbers very low and swift in the field.

The field full of swallows, & leaves broken off in bunches, so that the trees already look thin.

Found the same caterpillar--dark brown with 3 purple spots on either side of the head--that we found last year. We took him home . . . The caterpillar has disappeared. There is a purple smudge on the window sill, which makes it likely that he was crushed.

I waited for him [Leonard] in a barn, where they had cut mangolds which smelt very strong. A hen ate them.

The days melted into each other like snowballs roasting in the sun.
Elsewhere, Woolf refers to the "tragedy" of the smushed caterpillar.

Woolf's notes don't have quite the assurance of a true naturalist like Thoreau--you get the sense that Woolf still feels outside of nature in a way that Thoreau, at his most engaged, seems not to have--but they do share a keenness of eye, and a simplicity of description that lets natural objects be what they are, only later to be turned into ideas or symbols or metaphors. If Woolf's diary of that period is full of jottings like those, I think that volume is where I'll have to start reading.

Thoreau, of course, was also more analytical. Woolf was observing in order to limber up to write; Thoreau wrote to record, analyze, and understand. In his journal for January 22, 1859, he records an encounter with some caterpillars that highlights the difference. He spots some thin lines in the ice on the pond, and initially he thinks they're cracks:
But observing that some of them were peculiarly meandering, returning on themselves loopwise, I looked at them more attentively, and at length I detected at the inner end of one such line a small black speck about a rod from me. Suspecting this to be a caterpillar, I took steps to ascertain if it were, at any rate, a living creature, by discovering if it were in motion. It appeared to me to move, but it was so slowly that I could not be certain until I set up a stick on the shore or referred it to a fixed point on the ice, when I was convinced that it was a caterpillar crawling slowly toward the shore, or rather toward the willows. Following its trail back with my eye, I found that it came pretty directly from the edge of the old or thick white ice (i. e. from where the surface of the flood touched its sloping surface) toward the willows, from northeast to southwest, and had come about three rods. Looking more sharply still, I detected seven or eight such caterpillars within a couple of square rods on this crystallization, each at the end of its trail and headed toward the willows in the exact same direction. And there were the distinct trails of a great many more which had reached the willows or disappeared elsewhere. These trails were particularly distinct when I squatted low and looked over the ice, reflecting more light then. They were generally pretty direct toward the shore, or toward any clump of willows if within four or five rods. I saw one which led to the willows from the old ice some six rods off. Slowly as they crawled, this journey must have been made within a few hours, for undoubtedly this ice was formed since midnight. Many of the lines were very meandering, like this: --

and apparently began and ended with the thin ice. There was not enough ice to support even a caterpillar within three or four feet of the shore, for the water was still rapidly rising and not now freezing, and I noticed no caterpillars on the ice within several feet, but with a long stick I obtained quite a number.
Thoreau--after drawing those very Tristram Shandy-like squiggles--goes on to delineate the three types of caterpillar he gathered, note that they "All curled up when I rescued them," and then to speculate on how they got trapped on the pond in the first place. The thoughts lead him to a mini-rhapsody:
Undespairing caterpillars, determined to reach the shore! What risks they run who go to sleep for the winter in our river meadows!
Virginia Woolf may demonstrate and unexpected openness to nature; Hermione Lee may be a wonderfully perceptive biographer of powerfully intelligent writers. But if a biographer of the caterpillar is ever needed, I think Thoreau's your guy.

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