The Moth and The Star - A Biography of Virginia Woolf

 by Aileen Pippett


The Moth and The Star - A Biography of Virginia Woolf by Aileen Pippett book cover
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A selection from the beginning of the Preface: Before I began to think of writing this book, all I knew about Virginia Woolf was that I had read everything I could by her and about her and that in this way she had become a part of my life. I met her once, in a Bloomsbury attic, by candlelight, unexpectedly, at a small party some time in the middle nineteen-thirties. To me it was a memorable occasion, though I did nothing to make it so, being more than content to admire and observe and remain quieter than the mice behind the wainscoting, for I believed then, as I do still, that anything of importance an author has to say to a reader is to be found in books and heard in the privacy of the mind.

I continued to read her books as they were issued, not as the devotee of any cult but confident they would go on giving me the same sense that they were the real thing, part of English literature, with their roots in the past and their branches spreading out to the future. Each one was an invitation to enjoy with her more adventures in the world of the imagination. She was one of the host of friends who knew nothing whatever about me but made me freely welcome to use their eyes and ears, to listen to their discussions, quiver with their rages and share their jokes.

In this feeling about Virginia Woolf I knew, of course, that I was not alone, but I was rather surprised by the frequency and ease with which it was expressed. Her name could be expected to occur in memoirs, autobiographies and essays by her friends and contemporaries. What delighted me was to find it coupled with that of Dickens, as though she were a friend of the family, or Margaret Mead, as though she might be heard from again any time now: and this from people who could have had no opportunity of knowing her in person.

But this did not at all square with the evidence that the cold war between highbrows and lowbrows still goes on. "Bloomsbury" has been revived as a term of abuse, defying definition and puzzling people like me who have lived or worked there without being in the least incommoded by knowing that famous and talented artists were just around the corner. Nor do the words "Ivory Tower" make any sense as applied to Virginia Woolf and her friends when one remembers how they were in the very thick of all the controversies which raged in the exciting years of change between the two World Wars, and when one considers that her life span covered the vastly different Edwardian and late Victorian days.

Who is right? Those who maintain that the Bloomsbury Circle deliberately shut itself off from contact with ordinary life, or those who feel that it is part of the history of our times? Does the fact that it is dead and can never be revived prove that it has no influence today? Did it appear without cause and disappear without effect? How has it happened that Virginia Woolf has not been buried deep under a load of adulation and then promptly forgotten? Why is she still talked about, why are her books still read, and why do more and more people feel the continuing stream of the life force flowing through them?

It seemed to me that answers to some of these questions might lie in the personality of the woman herself as apart from the literary artist and the social thinker. In trying to reconstruct this very elusive and complex personality, fragile as a moth and enduring as a star, I received great assistance from talking with many of her friends, who knew her at different times in their lives and hers, who differ about the smokeability of her cigars but who agree that she was a rare human being, not perfect but always tenderly remembered, as though some bloom and freshness refuse to fade.

 

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