In the life of Virginia Woolf – and her friends, lovers and rivals – Norah Vincent has rich, if frequently plundered, source material. Bloomsbury’s tangled, talented lives provoke as much interest as their art, and this is at least the third novel about Woolf in the past year.
Written elegantly in rather Woolfian free indirect style, and with spiky, erudite dialogue, Vincent’s portraits are grounded in thick historical research. In truth, Adeline groans with it – would these people really spell out the importance of friends’ (now-famous) books or enumerate their (now-infamous) sexual histories in conversation? Vincent is, however, assured enough to do a rare thing: to really ventriloquise Woolf on the topic of her work and creative imagination.
As the Bloomsburys were such a troubled lot, Vincent is also able to sink her teeth into juicy encounters, and suck out their dramatic potential. She dwells on the stilted romance between Woolf and Lytton Strachey; Woolf’s meeting with Dora Carrington before Carrington killed herself; an explosively accusatory afternoon tea with T S Eliot and his wife.
That may sound lurid – and Adeline can be – but what’s really striking is the way that Vincent tunnels behind her characters, mining their psychological depths. She writes with astonishingly fluid conviction and insight – if we can call fictional conjecture that, for she is largely making up, not pinning down, the inner torments of these souls. Yet Vincent often seems to get to the heart of things – insisting, rightly I think, that Woolf’s mysticism, her “overwhelming revelation” of universal inter-connectedness, is key to understanding the work and the woman. This tunnelling beyond the surface was Woolf’s skill too, of course – and she often did use her circle as starting points for her writing.
Less successful is the character of Adeline: a vision of the 13-year-old Virginia, who draws Woolf towards death. It’s a bold invention, and yet Vincent seems not to make full use of it, as if sidetracked by the encounters with the likes of Yeats and Vita Sackville-West … Which is quite understandable – while the book may prove an overdose of Bloomsbury bitchiness for the casual reader, it would seem there’s still a huge appetite for the set. In Vincent’s hands, happily we have more than just the gossip: we have an attempt to render a truth behind it, even with the caveat that “truth is not to be had … fiction is all there is”.