Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent
|Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: Set in 1925–1941 and focussing on Virginia Woolf's marriage and later career, this is a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside. For the depth of its literary reference and psychological insight, this is my favourite novel of 2015 so far.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 272||Date: April 2015|
Back in 1999, when The Hours won the Pulitzer Prize, Michael Cunningham set a precedent for depicting Woolf's later life and suicide. Nicole Kidman won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Woolf in the film version of the novel; she is best remembered for wearing a prosthetic nose. Fast forward 15 years. In 2014–2015 alone, three major novels about Virginia Woolf have been published. That confluence, especially in a year that does not mark a significant anniversary, speaks to a continuing interest in Woolf's life and writings.
Norah Vincent's second novel, Adeline, is closely based on Hermione Lee's biography of Woolf and would be a good companion read to that or to later novels such as The Waves and Between the Acts. Set in 1925–1941, it focuses on Woolf's marriage and later career. Here 'Adeline,' Woolf's actual first name (early abandoned for her middle name), represents Woolf's stunted, adolescent self – 'The seed of me that was then, and grew no further.' Structured in five 'Acts', like a play, the novel revolves around Virginia's highly philosophical conversations with Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and his lover Carrington, T.S. and Valerie Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Woolf's doctor, Octavia Wilberforce. My only minor disappointment was that Vita Sackville-West plays a negligible role.
The picture of the Bloomsbury group is considerably less rosy than in Priya Parmar's Vanessa and Her Sister (2014). 'The Bloomsberries are right out of fashion,' Virginia thinks: 'a bunch of self-indulgent, pseudo-socialist, bed-hopping prudes.' Where Maggie Gee's Virginia Woolf in Manhattan (also 2014) is witty and buoyant, Adeline is dark and introspective. Woolf is plagued by professional insecurity – especially when she compares herself to Joyce, Eliot and Yeats – and wonders if her madness, frigidity and failure are all down to never having been a mother. Her internal conversations with Adeline (who, like the inverse of a Muse, comes to her most often in illness) make her appear schizophrenic: 'these people that I am, we are trapped and talking to ourselves, both as we are now and as we were then, because there is no one else.'
Vincent has produced a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside: 'slowly comes the blackness with its burning edge-glow eating inward to the centre until all the parchment of her right mind is consumed and there is nothing but ash.' The author once wrote a memoir about her time in a mental hospital, and one previous about masquerading as a man in the business world, so she is clearly interested in definitions of madness and in the idea of multiple selves. There are so many stunning passages. Here are two of the best:
'I plunged below that surface and saw myself as a self, a multiple, layered, simultaneous self that could not be contained in the two dimensions of the looking glass.'
'This splintering…This breakage in the self. It means in the end that we cannot know ourselves. In which case, how can we ever know anyone? Moreover, how can we write a life when the self is beyond our grasp? How does one tell the truth in biography or autobiography when the truth is not to be had?'
Yeats tells Woolf that her one great theme, shared with Eliot, is 'oneness' – the idea of the individual as part of the collective mind. He also interpreted The Waves as having resonance with the cutting-edge science of particle physics. A true Modernist, Woolf was ahead of her time as much as she was defined by it. Adeline is proof that she is still as relevant in the twenty-first century as ever. For the depth of its literary reference and psychological insight, it is my favourite novel of 2015 so far.
Further reading suggestion: On writers struggling with madness and failure, try Beautiful Fools by R Clifton Spargo. A Man of Parts by David Lodge is another highly recommended work of biographical fiction.
Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2015.
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