Reviewed by Harriet
This enthralling multiple biography is subtitled ‘Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the year that changed literature’. The year is 1922, and the claim is a large one which can only be fully substantiated by referring to writers who are not major players here: in that year, James Joyce published Ulysses, and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time saw its first English translation. Of the four subjects here, only Eliot published a ground-breaking work, The Waste Land, in the year in question, though Woolf’s 1922 short story ‘Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street’, was to turn into a genuinely experimental novel. As for Forster and Lawrence, they can hardly be described as modernists, but Forster did manage to break his twelve-year writers’ block and get back to A Passage to India, and Lawrence published an autobiographical novel, Kangaroo. However, everyone was reading Proust and Joyce, whose work undoubtedly had an influence on the writers studied here. Not that they always liked them on sight – Woolf initially didn’t care for Ulysses, and wrote in her diary:
An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating.
But, though literary analysis plays a part here, this really is a book that delves into the lives and thoughts of these four undoubtedly important writers, doing so by moving between their lives in separate chapters. The start of the year finds them all struck down with illness. A virulent flu is raging, and all four of the writers succumb, being laid out for weeks at a time – Woolf took months to fully recover, and was incredibly frustrated at her inability to write. Indeed, for everyone, along with the illness came depression and self-doubt. Eliot was in a bad psychological state for most of the year, having twice to take time off from his hated job in the bank to recover from nervous breakdowns, which were exacerbated by his difficult relationship with his wife. Forster’s depression was owing mainly to the fact that his Egyptian lover was slowly dying of tuberculosis, not to mention the fact that he had not been able to make any progress on his ‘Indian novel’ for more than a decade. As for Lawrence, his dissatisfaction took the form of endless moving around the world: in the space of a year he moved from Taormina in Sicily to a brief stay in Ceylon, to Australia, and finally to Taos in New Mexico, accompanied by his surprisingly uncomplaining wife Frieda.
Leaving aside the flu and the breakdowns, Eliot’s inability to finish The Waste Land, and then to publish once it was finished, is really notable. Several times during the year he took time off to visit Paris where he consulted with his friend and mentor Ezra Pound, without whose advice he was clearly unable to complete the poem and the endless revisions. He was undoubtedly aware that the poem was breaking new ground, and needed to get it right. He also wanted to find the right outlet and to be paid enough. Even once he had it in a state he was satisfied with, a good deal of his time was spent wrangling with publishers in an attempt to get what he considered a good deal. And even when he’d agreed a price, he was curiously unwilling to send a finished copy, denying that he had one even though he had typists on call who could have put one together in no time. Of the four writers here, Eliot seems the least appealing, to me at least – he appears to have been very absorbed with his own image, and there are several contemporary accounts of his wearing green face power to make himself look delicate and interesting.
Of the four writers, Lawrence is the least notable for any real breakthrough in his writing. Although he did finish Kangaroo, a novel which is not considered to be among his best work, the most dramatic events of the year for him were concerned with an earlier work, Women in Love. The novel had been published in New York in 1921, but in a limited edition only for subscribers. This was owing to the furore that had greeted his previous novel, The Rainbow (1915), which had been banned in the UK following an obscenity trial. In 1922 there was a breakthrough in American publication after a failed action had been taken against the book in an attempt to label it as pornographic. The book then became available in the US and subsequently in the UK. Lawrence and Frieda meanwhile had arrived in Taos, New Mexico, where he loved the landscape but was unhappy with the wealthy woman who had set herself up as his patron. Like Woolf, he didn’t take to Joyce, but noticed their names seemed often to be linked together.
In complete contrast to the globe-trotting Lawrence, Forster spent a quiet year, passing between his mother’s house and those of his various aunts, several of whom lived on the Isle of Wight. He’d done plenty of travelling in previous years and had only recently returned from a stay in India, passing through Egypt on the way home to have a melancholy meeting with his beloved Mohammed el Adl, who was in the last stages of tuberculosis. Sorrowful memories and reflections dominated his mind for many months both before and after Mohammed’s inevitable death, but his friends urged him to return to the novel he has abandoned in 1910, which he finally did later in the year, though Passage to India was not published until 1924.
As for Woolf, she really did have a major breakthrough in 1922. Once she had fully recovered her health, she worked not only on short stories but also completed an important essay in which she clarified her own thinking about how human beings should be depicted in fiction: it was their inner life that really mattered, she wrote, not their external appearances and actions. By the autumn she had realised that her short story, ‘Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street’, together with a second one, ‘The Prime Minister’, were to form the basis of a full length novel in which ‘All inner feelings to be lit up’, as she wrote in her diary. The result was Mrs Dalloway, finally published in 1925.
It’s fascinating to read of the struggles of people who may seem to us to be skilled writers whose words presumably flow effortlessly from their pens. But it’s equally interesting to read of their personal lives, both quietly at home or socialising with each other – Forster, Eliot and the Woolves, as they were known, seem to have been constantly visiting each other, with weekends spent either at Rodmell or Garsington Manor. All in all this is an extremely enjoyable and informative book, managing to be both academic (lots of notes and references) and highly readable.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Bill Goldstein, The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster and the Year that Changed Literature (Bloomsbury Circus, 2017). 978-1408894583, 368pp., hardback.
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