The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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August 28, 2010

The White Garden: a novel of Virginia Woolf

First of all, I'd like to express my appreciation for all the wonderful reading blogs I've discovered in the past few months. I've already read some authors who are new to me (if already beloved by others), and more importantly, I'm finding a lot of kindred reading spirits out there (even if some of them are from the UK, and tease me with books I can't easily get my hands on, but as Peter Llewellyn keeps telling Jo Bellamy, that's not their fault). What I've discovered most -- and this is deeply comforting and gratifying -- is that these readers read a wide range of books, on many different subjects, and with varying degrees of high and lower-brow-ness. A reader of many books (I'm talking about myself now) should never feel uncomfortable about what he or she is taking time to read.

I've started making a conscious effort to note down where I find book recommendations, so I can thank the readers who offered them. I read about this book on Frances' captivating and deeply thoughtful blog, Nonsuch Book (you can find her thoughts, and beautiful pictures of The White Garden, here)...I'm hoping to read Madame Bovary for the first time next month under her aegis.

But I digress...

‘So you said.’ Llewellyn lifted the teapot carefully and refilled his cup. ‘Only you see, it doesn’t work. I wish it did, because you’ve said you’re honest and I like you, Miss Bellamy. I’d hoped we could deal frankly with one another.’

Jo felt her face defuse with heat. Carefully, she set down her half-finished macaroon and wiped her fingers on her napkin. ‘I don’t lie, Mr. Llewellyn. What about the notebook doesn’t work?’

‘It doesn’t square with the evidence, I’m afraid. The historic record of Woolf’s life.’ He took a sip of tea. ‘Whoever wrote this went to a great deal of trouble – the notebook itself is authentically of the period, the ink is probably prewar, although we’d have to verify that chemically, the language is similar to the sort of stuff Woolf wrote to be just plausible —‘

‘Then why —‘

‘Indeed, certain phrases and passages might almost have been lifted straight from her work – and probably were,’ he added hurriedly. ‘Then there’s that reference to Lady Nicolson and her family, their shared past, Woolf’s novel Orlando, which is dedicated to Vita – and so on and so forth.’

‘So what’s – ‘

‘It’s clearly a forgery, I’m afraid.’


‘You honestly don’t know? You never noticed?’

Jo frowned.

‘Open to the first page, Miss Bellamy, and read out the date.’

She did as she was told.

‘Twenty-ninth March 1941,’ she read. 'Sissinghurst. What’s so wrong about that?’

Llewellyn leaned across the table. His gray eyes were studying her with something like pity. He had not touched his macaroons.
This book is a little less serious kind of literature, but it was a very, very enjoyable read. I'm a little surprised that I haven't already read it, or even known about it, because I would be drawn to a novel about VW and I've read and enjoyed Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen mysteries (a new one next month!) and another of her stand-alone books, The Flaw in the Blood. {Now that bothers me, because when I saw it mentioned in the author's note, I said 'Oh, I want to read that!' and when I looked in my reading journal, I found that I have. That brings me to truism #2:  A reader of many books should be a little better at remembering what she's read (this is an ongoing observation, and a little disconcerting). But The Flaw in the Blood is about Queen Victoria, so when I have a chance I think I'll read it again.}

I don't want to give too much away, but this novel is structured around two parallel stories:  a re-imagining of certain events in the lives of times of the Woolfs (Virginia and Leonard) and the Nicolsons (Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson), and a modern-day story about Jo Bellamy, a Delaware landscape designer who has come to Sissinghurst for research because she has been commissioned to replicate The White Garden for her wealthy American clients.  Jo also wants to understand why her beloved grandfather, Jock Bellamy, committed suicide the day after she calls him to tell him about this important accomplishmen.

Jo isn't the most interesting -- or deeply drawn -- character in the book; she's even a little wooden. On the other hand, I was quite fond of Peter Llewellyn, the reserved British book expert from Sothebys who is drawn into her search. {Maybe I'm just a sucker for that type, or for any man who would take a woman to tea when he needs to accuse her of lying. :)}  The Woolfs and the Nicolsons -- except for Harold, in the end -- don't come all that much to life either, but that might be because they're only present in the manuscript pages that Jo and Peter, and Peter's flamboyant boss,  and his sexy Oxford-don ex-wife, and Jo's client and lover, and the unfortunate Imogen Cantwell, Head Gardener at Sissinghurst, are drawn into chasing.

I have a habit of making things up, quite often about people who lived perfectly good lives of their own, people who would be furious to think they were the objects of my embellishments...But then these people, whose every word and act already seemed part of the public domain, died. And my imagination had its way with them.
-- from the Author's Note

I think that readers who know a little (even just a little, as I do) about the Woolfs, their friends, their houses and their lives might enjoy this book a little more than would readers (like Jo) who are new to the story. (Unlike Jo, the issue of the dates was immediately apparent to me, but the date of Woolf's death sticks in my mind because it's also my birthday.)  That knowledge gives us a chance to add some more layers to the characters and the settings, and I think also to appreciate (or criticize, if we want to) the work of a writer who is using real people and places for the bones of her book.  I know that I enjoyed it all the more because I could revisit some things I had read about in other books (biographies, etc.), and I could shake my head or be charmed by how Barron brought them into her story, and how she had her way with them.To be honest, I've sometimes thought that if I ever wrote a book -- probably a mystery -- I'd turn a real figure into a sleuth. Henry James would be too sluggish, but Edith Wharton would probably be a great detective.  So would Queen Victoria...but she seems to have been taken.

Anyway, a very enjoyable book, and recommended now by me!

1 comment:

Frances said...

Thanks for the kind words! As you know, I also enjoyed this book as a light and breezy entertainment between a couple of big books. As you mention, the setting is so wonderful that it becomes another character in the book. Glad it worked for you.

Thank you for visiting!

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