Reviewed by Simon Thomas
I was very nervous about reading Virginia Woolf in Manhattan. I am an enormous Woolf fan, and was a bit scared about the crimes that might be – and have been – committed in her name. There is no better writer in the 20th century (to my mind), but there are few worse than the worst of her impersonators. Where would Gee fall on the scale? Thankfully, the book is brilliant.
Angela Lamb is a bestselling novelist who loves Virginia Woolf’s writing and wishes she fell slightly higher up the spectrum from trashy to scholarly. She’s certainly not trashy, but she’s also not scholarly – although an invitation to give a plenary address at a Woolf conference in Istanbul is something of a potential lifeline. So Lamb heads off to the Berg Collection in New York to see Woolf’s manuscripts… only to be told that they can only be read on microfilm. (The academic side of me thought this unrealistic – surely Lamb would have checked? And you can see the Berg microfilms in Oxford; I’ve done it myself – but apparently Gee fell foul of the same ruling, as you can discover in our interview in BookBuzz.) And then:
This woman. This strange woman. That was all I thought. Tall and dusty in bedraggled green and grey clothes. A suit.
Virginia Woolf appears. Like the best fiction which dabbles in the fantastic, no attempt is made to explain the apparition, and no concomitant world of changed rules is dragged into being. 21st-century New York continues much as ever, only it is all new (of course) to Woolf.
We see the action of the novel through three sets of eyes – Woolf’s, Angela Lamb’s, and Angela’s daughter Gerda. If it were up to me, the third member of this triad would have been excised completely. It works well for Angela to have a daughter (from a messy ex-marriage) as it is something which sets her apart from Woolf, and provides taut moments between them, but I’m not sure it helped to have sections focalised through Gerda. And not just because hearing any author adopt teen-speak is always more or less excruciating (‘She made Woolf sound like a total mong’), but because it diminished the central relationship of Virginia and Angela.
And this relationship is done so well. Woolf is as bewildered and haughty as one would imagine, confused by the intimacy Angela claims and the knowledge she seems to have, yet also – since Bloomsbury were nothing if not forward-thinking – keen to understand the new world she’s living in, and reconcile it to her 1920/30s vision of the future. Angela, on the other hand, is intelligent, selfish, and snappy – both appreciating the unique opportunity she has to engage with Woolf, and tiring of her. The only thing that didn’t ring true to me (besides a rather risqué scene towards the end) is that Woolf doesn’t read anything. I asked Gee about this in the interview, but I still can’t imagine Woolf not reading – even if she only seeks out her old contemporaries.
They go clothes shopping, book selling, and sight-seeing. An impossible premise is turned into a wholly convincing novel, which is moving and clever, but most often is simply funny.
My favourite thing about Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, though, and the aspect of the novel which most allayed my initial fears, is how knowledgeable and affectionate Gee is about Woolf. The book is laden with subtle references to Woolf’s work – most obviously To The Lighthouse, in the book’s three-part structure (also echoed in James Nunn’s masterful cover, which reworks Vanessa Bell’s famous illustration – although I could have done without the silhouetted women), but many, many other times. I’m sure I missed plenty of these, but there are unsignposted allusions to everything from Woolf’s essays about her childhood to her feminist writing to her fiction, not to mention events in her life which she never intended to be revealed. There are some very clever moments where Angela almost reveals that Woolf’s diaries have all been published for the public to read, but these are side-stepped.
As for Gee’s style – she incorporates many. Lots of sections are given in a sort of playscript between Angela and Virginia, and others echo Woolf’s writing. Still others are simply Gee’s own style – which is hard to describe, but neither overwritten nor too plain. It works extremely well. To my mind the least successful moments are those where she steps into modernist techniques – including spreading the text across the page, in a sort of poem. Experimentalism is so hard to do well, and would perhaps be best left alone, particularly when writing about the master (mistress?) of literary experimentalism.
I do wonder what readers will make of Virginia Woolf in Manhattan if they have never read Woolf’s own works, or have no knowledge about her life. But Gee writes about Woolf with such wit and affection, and has crafted such an amusing and clever novel from that first idea, that I hope it doesn’t matter. And, best case scenario, she will have helped create a new generation of Woolf fans.
Simon Thomas is a Shiny New Books editor, and would quite like to be best friends with Virginia Woolf.
Maggie Gee, Virginia Woolf in Manhattan (Telegram Books, London, 2014) 978-1846591884, hardback 476pp.