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Wise Virgins

by Leonard Woolf
ISBN: 1903155339


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Who's Afraid of Leonard Woolf?
by Michael Greenstein

Published on the eve of World War I, Leonard Woolf's neglected second novel, The Wise Virgins, has generally been regarded as a roman a clef, shedding light on the character of his wife Virginia and their respective family circles. In addition to being a roman a clef, however, the subtitle-"A Story of Words, Opinions and a few Emotions"-suggests that it is also a roman a thFse, offering insights into Woolf's personal beliefs, Jewish status, and the anti-Semitism he encountered within the Bloomsbury Group early in the 20th century.
Woolf's grandfather was a successful tailor in London's West End, and his father was an equally successful lawyer who died when Leonard was eleven years old, forcing the family of ten children to move from their comfortable house in Kensington to more modest premises in suburban Putney. At school at St. Paul's and later at Trinity College, Cambridge, Woolf experienced a "gentrified" form of Edwardian or early modernist anti-Semitism. The Wise Virgins reflects his Jewish background, bearing baggage from Shakespeare's Shylock to Dickens's Fagin, and unpacking some of it in a more rational, Freudian, modernist era.
Neither a self-loathing nor a self-loving Jew, Woolf tries to come to terms with his status as an outsider in a class-ridden society where everyone carries a tennis racket on weekdays and a prayer book on Sundays. The first chapter, "Begins With Words in a Garden", describes the row housing in suburban Richstead where walls separate neighbour from neighbour. The Garland daughters and their mother discuss the new family, the Jewish Davises, particularly their son Harry, who is "rather foreign looking and artistic," and whom they name "Byron" (Leonard Woolf's self-portrait). Mrs. Garland informs her daughters that she has only seen Mrs. Davis and her daughter Hetty who seem "rather foreign"-to which her daughter May replies, "I expect they're Jews." Mrs. Garland supports this view because the Davis family doesn't attend church. Vaguely impressed that the "foreign" son is an artist, May nevertheless "was thinking that it was rather a bore that these Jews should come and dump themselves down at Richstead." In this problematic pastoral, the words in a garden are far from Edenic, veering towards evil instead.
When the Davis family visits the Garlands, the angry young narrator paints an unflattering portrait of Mrs. Davis:

"The big curved nose, the curling, full lips, the great brown eyes would have made a fine old woman of her, if she had been squatting under a palm-tree with a white linen cloth thrown over her head and drawn round her heavy oval face. The monotonous sing-song of her voice would have sounded all right if she had sung the song of Miriam which tells of how the Egyptian horse and his rider were overwhelmed by Jehovah in the sea; it came incongruously through the large nose in her quiet, precise, voluble and thin-sounding English."

Mrs. Davis is out of place in her discussion of servants in her neighbors' drawing room. Her son is even more uncomfortable and attempts to distance himself as much as possible from his surroundings by invoking remote Biblical scenes of heroism that contrast sharply with domestic banality. And the vehicle for this historic telescoping is a stereotypical Jewish nose. The "foreign" word in the garden becomes Mrs. Davis's Biblical portrait, as if the Jews belong in and to the Bible rather than in any British suburb.
Always uncomfortable in his neighbors' home, the Byronic Harry Davis launches into a description of exotic travels beyond the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. Just as the Bible is a means of escape from the dislocation of Richstead, so the Levant becomes another intersection of the British Empire and Hebrew history. If Mrs. Davis talks too much, her son talks too little, and as soon as they leave the Garlands', May, feeling spurned, exclaims that she hates Jews. Thus, a love-hate relationship with Jews begins in The Wise Virgins.
Women's words shift to men's in the next chapter, "The Words of Art and Intellect", as Harry and his father eat breakfast together. Mr. Davis reads the newspaper in front of his "large nose" and stuffs himself with toast and sausage, so there is no room for conversation. Woolf's Marxism surfaces: "At the moment, the prices of stocks and shares-he had the Jewish habit of manipulating his capital-were sinking into his supple brain through his eyes as quietly and unconsciously as the sausage through his mouth into his excellent stomach." In some detail we follow the sausage's trajectory into the paternal intestine and anatomy of assimilation: "[T]he little pieces of masticated hot pig were analysed and combined again into proteins and hydro-phosphates and oxygen to be packed away to liver and heart and kidneys." Not so far from Leopold Bloom's kitchen in Dublin, this process of digestion indicates the breaking down of barriers between Jew and forbidden foods. Mr. Davis's non-kosher breakfast begins a day of unkosher capitalist markets. Neither dietary laws nor human relationships are observed, as the stock exchange interferes with any filial exchange.
The chapter ends with a conversation between Christian and Jew, as Harry complains: "You can glide out of a room and I can't: I envy you that! But I despise you." When asked if most Jews feel that way, Harry replies, "All of them-all of them. There's no life in you, no blood in you, no understanding. Your women are cold and leave one cold-no dark hair, no blood in them. Pale hair, pale souls, you know. You talk and you talk and you talk-no blood in you! You never do anything." No self-hating Jew, Harry despises Christians for their inertia, but his earlier accusations against his mother's garrulity and his own emphatic repetitions partake of the same verbosity. Having internalized anti-Semitic discourse from Shylock to contemporary racial theories, Harry throws it back into the pale, bloodless, Christian faces around him. From his schooling at St. Paul's and Cambridge to his several years in the civil service in Ceylon, Woolf encountered enough anti-Semitism, and The Wise Virgins provided him with the opportunity to vent these frustrations. Harry Davis's counter-discourse is itself virginal: the Jew cannot simply be, he must do.
In the split between opinions and emotions, and in contrast to Harry's speech about cold Christians, Arthur Woodhouse tells Harry that Jews lack emotion. "You were all right when you lived in Palestine before the dispersal. You were farmers and agriculturists; you produced Job and Ecclesiastes. Since then you've been wandering from city to city, and you've produced Mendelssohn and Barney Barnato. You never find a Jew on the land." In this Zionist format that oddly juxtaposes musicians, philosophers, and diamond merchants, the Christian wishes to re-settle the Jew, to put him in his place, which is not in Europe. Even without Harry's Shylockean retort that Jews have feelings, if only contempt, Woolf condemns this parcelling of stereotypes into opinions and emotions. Woolf's satire extends to the British class system, which he compares unfavorably to the caste system in India (based on his years spent in neighbouring Ceylon).
Even within the supposedly liberal, artistic Bloomsbury Group, Harry Davis is referred to as "that Jew fellow": . . . too cold and clammy and hard. They're just like crabs or lobsters. They give me the creeps"-as if that crustacean reduction were a sound explanation for why there have never been and never will be "a good Jew artist." To protect himself against such prejudices, Davis-Woolf is forced to create a carapace. Harry (Leonard) tries to explain to Camilla (Virginia): "That's because I'm a Jew . . . We wait hunched up, always ready and alert, for the moment to spring on what is worth while, then we let ourselves go." Worth is not merely a question of materialism, but of values. "We're born that way; I suppose we were born that way twenty thousand years ago in Asia. Personally I'm proud of it." Stiff-necked and hard-shelled, Woolf protects his ego through historical and geographical distances, layering exaggerated millennia over his primordial body.
When Camilla presses him to reveal what is "worth while", he tells her what he only "half believes", so that this half-belief system remains as true as untrue in the mouth of an ambiguous Jewish artist. Ironically, his half-belief system becomes all-inclusive, moving from the crassly materialistic to the subtly aesthetic, covering so many values as to break down distinctions between insider and outsider status. Once again, his Shylockean offensive tackles all stereotypes: "Money, of course. That's the first article of our creed-money, and out of money, power. That's elementary. Then knowledge, intelligence, taste." Making it in the civilized Freudian world involves grabbing the horns of identity in a British class-bound system where even outsiders like the Bloomsbury Group have difficulty incorporating Jewish pariahs. Davis-Woolf builds to a Darwinian-Nietzschean crescendo: "We're always pouncing on them because they give power, power to do things, influence people . . . It's a sort of artistic feeling, a desire to create . . . You don't like us? You don't like my picture of us? But you must admit that our point of view implies imagination?"
Ever the son of a solicitor, Woolf cunningly deflowers the wise virgins with his rapacious rhetoric, turning life and values on their heads, accusing Camilla of not knowing what life is. "The lowest pawnbroker in the Whitechapel Road has enough imagination to get himself an ideal; he knows what he's after, what is worth while." Having descended the social scale from Kensington to Putney, Leonard Woolf needed more than imagination to achieve his ideal and restore his self-worth. His odyssey would take him to the civil service in Ceylon and back to Bloomsbury where he would never lose sight of the Jewish pawnbroker, bartering his wares.
The novel's final chapter, "Ends With Words", finds Harry and Gwen married in church. "No questions were asked, and the Holy Church administered its most holy sacrament to one whom upon a previous page of his prayer-book it condemned to perish everlastingly." Although the double marriage of the Garland sisters belongs within the structural pattern of Shakespearean comedy or Jane Austen's novel of manners, this is not a happy ending for Harry who does not truly love Gwen. Woolf shuffles the pages of the prayer book with "more mysterious anomalies": more consecrated than consummated, the real and fictional marriages depict the crossover between Virginia Woolf's initials and those of the title, The Wise Virgins. Mrs. Davis would have preferred a synagogue, and as if to underscore the disorientation of the entire experience, she turns her face absurdly to the North Pole, which she thinks is the East where Jerusalem lies. Her conformism is a capitulation to some assimilationist ideal, yet she finds consolation when the clergyman invokes the God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob. Harry almost smiles in mockery: "So those long-white-bearded old patriarchs of his childhood were presiding over his marriage with Gwen, and their God, old Jehovah! Shemang [sic] Yisrael adonai elohainu adonai echad!" ("Shemang"? How could such a blunder make its way into the Hogarth Press?) Woolf, the atheist Jew, ends with words both right and wrong: the marriage is as oxymoronic as the title, The Wise Virgins. In its themes and attitudes, Woolf's little-known novel paves the way for much Jewish fiction that follows throughout the twentieth century.

Michael Greenstein has edited the anthology, Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada (University of Nebraska Press).
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