The foreword is by Doris Lessing and begins with a perfect description...'These pieces are like five-finger exercises for future excellence.' While many writers have contributed to the idea that Woolf's writings are intimidating, I love that Lessing describes Woolf and her close circle of Bloomsbury artists as 'that lot'. Rather than being disrespectful I found the comment to be a joyous leveller. She also brings together the polarizing views of Virginia Woolf as a snob and depressive with the fun-loving woman who enjoyed picnics and parties when she wasn't ill.
Moving on to the actual sketches, most are just two pages in length and taken from very early notebooks. For the most part, they're exercises in observation but after reading Woolf's scathing description of Amber Reeves I can see why acquaintances would be a tad nervous to get too close. Virginia's keen eye scanned for every detail...
'She has dark hair, an oval face, with a singularly small mouth: a lone is pencilled on her upper lip.....her taste and insight are not fine; when she described people she ran into stock phrases, and took rather a cheap view. She seemed determined to be human also; to like people, even though they were stupid.'
In the commentary, Miss Reeves is described as someone of 'great passion and intellect'. She was also much-talked about while at Cambridge for her fondness of breaking rules and sexual liberation. An affair with H. G. Wells resulted in a child but that's a story for another day. Around this time (early 1900s), Virginia was hoping for marriage and a child herself so were her observations of Amber Reeves seen through green eyes? As an aside, I had one of those 'Squee!' moments yesterday when I noticed that Persephone Books will soon be publishing an early book by Reeves, A Lady and Her Husband.
Other topics explored by Woolf are Cambridge, Hampstead, and Divorce Courts which is a devastating account of the petition for separation between Alice Mary Fearnley-Whittingstall and her husband. Finding out that her abusive and controlling husband was the local, and long-time, reverend made me shudder all the more. There is a suggestion that Alice Mary came under the spell of another woman, Miss Lewis, but perhaps she was simply offering the poor woman a means of escape. In any case, Woolf writes about sitting in on the proceedings.
'She, no doubt, was the less conventional of the two; though the more unjust. He was obviously consoled by the complete vindication of his character, and the consciousness that he had acted rightly and spoken the truth. She will flounder along for a time, one suspects; there will be a disillusionment, when Miss Lewis deserts her for another woman' and then she will come back, and be received with due Christian charity; and some penance will be assigned her, to last her life.'
Virginia was right, at least when it came to Alice Mary returning home.
If I haven't tempted you to find a copy of this slim, but rich, collection by now then there's simply no point in continuing. I'm off for a nice long walk before going to work. Enjoy your day!