The White Garden
By Stephanie Barron
Random House/Bantam TP2009,
I scarcely know how to begin, not something a reviewer should admit publically, I suppose. This wonderfully realized and written novel is a first class literary mystery. It deals with a three-week period in l941 that marks the end of a troubled life, the life of Virginia Woolf. It is serendipitous that this novel comes to my hand at a time that epitomizes a good deal of what she was all about. In a word, independence. Independence for women and independence for writers.
Virginia Woolf was an English writer, essayist and literary critic of the early Twentieth Century. Her parents did not send her to school. She was entirely self-taught and apparently randomly tutored by her literary critic father. She was a major influence on the kind of novels being written today, yet she was always, always, self-published. Hogarth Press, established by Woolf and her husband, Leonard, a political theorist of that era, in their kitchen, published Virginia's writings along with those of E.M. Forester, and Sigmund Freud, among many others. Growing up she knew people like Henry James, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, and George Eliot. Her father, Leslie Stephen's, first wife was the daughter of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.
In addition to her literary credentials as an accomplished novelist, she was a prolific essayist who published over 500 essays. Virginia Wolf helped coalesce the famous (or infamous) Bloomsbury Group, a collection of social, political and economic theorists of varying stripes, including artists, critics, philosophers and writers who wrote, debated, loved, married and argued life throughout the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Woolf was sexually abused by a relative as a child, and clearly had mental problems during her lifetime. Her companions through life, including relatives, were mostly liberated intellectuals who ignored social constraints. On March 28, 1941, she disappeared from her home. Three weeks later, her body was discovered in the nearby river Ouse which had already been extensively searched. Her body was promptly cremated and there was no funeral ceremony, public or private.
Which brings us to this novel. Sixty years after Woolf's death, master garden and landscape designer, Jo Bellamy arrives in England. She is doing research for a wealthy client who wants her to recreate a famous garden of white flowers and plants at his Long Island Estate. Jo is trying to recover from her grandfather's sudden suicide. The celebrated White Garden of the title is located at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. It was created by Woolf's friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West.
What Bellamy discovers at Sissinghurst has the potential to set decades of literary analysis and speculation on its collective ear. Whilst grubbing about in some boxes in one of the garden sheds, Jo comes upon a diary which appears to have been written by Virginia Woolf. Well and good, the problem is the first entry is dated the day after Virginia Woolf is supposed to have drowned herself. Moreover, there appears to be a connection between the castle, the garden, Woolf and Jo's dead grandfather. Shocked and amid a growing desire to learn more about her grandfather's youth in Kent, Jo Bellamy sets out on a cross-country odyssey to try to authenticate the diary and uncover her grandfather's connection to one of the most famous feminists and literary icons of the past century.
The novel is wonderfully written and mostly moves at an ever-increasing pace as Bellamy encounters an array of character who are far more interested in their own aggrandizement than in helping Jo. The diary is stolen, Jo has help from several people with questionable motives and engages in some pretty far-fetched antics in order to follow some tantalizingly obscure clues.Ultimately of course, some of the questions surrounding the diary and the last three weeks of Virginia Woolf's life are resolved, but not all.
The author, skillfully evoking a past era of English letters and philosophical thought, has provided a rich and thought-provoking experience.The novel is written with grace and is rich in atmosphere and history. It is presented as a carefully wrought piece that could be true, and that climaxes in a stunning and most satisfying conclusion.
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