I Was Afraid of Virginia Woolf

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In his Third Satire John Donne tells us that

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Looking back, that pretty well describes how I came to Virginia Woolf. For years, like the hill’s suddenness, I resisted her. Only now do I realize that all the time I was circling her, going about her, making the gradual ascent, though it was not until a few years ago that I actually reached her.

I had come across her many times through those who knew her. I had caught glimpses of her in the letters and biographies of her relatives and friends. Sometimes the glimpses were frank and intimate, sometimes she was just passing through, captured for a moment on the edge of the scene. My circling of her began with the diaries of Harold Nicolson. While I enjoyed Nicolson, it was his wife, Vita Sackville-West, who fascinated me, and soon I was engulfed in the complex story of their marriage: their purchase of Sissinghurst Castle in 1930, the beautiful garden they created there, and Vita’s lovers, Virginia Woolf among them. This is how their son Nigel described that haunting garden at Sissinghurst:

Harold made the design; Vita did the planting. In the firm perspective of vistas . . . one can trace his classical hand. In the overflowing clematis, figs, vines, and wisteria, in the rejection of violent colour or anything too tame or orderly, one discovers her romanticism. Wild flowers must be allowed to invade the garden; if plants stray over a path, they must not be cut back, the visitor must duck; rhododendrons must be banished in favour of their tender cousin, the azalea; roses must not electrify, but seduce; and when a season has produced its best, that part of the garden must be allowed to lie fallow for another year, since there is a cycle in nature that must not be disguised. It is eternally renewable, like a play with acts and scenes: there can be a change of cast, but the script remains the same. Permanence and mutation are the secrets of this garden.

One summer afternoon I sat there entranced, but my strongest

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About the contributor

Richard Holloway is the author of Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt.

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