When I read a homage, I usually have context through prior knowledge of the author to whom homage is being paid.  Apart from one short story by Virginia Woolf, all I know of her is the inevitable: a member of the Bloomsbury set, who drowned herself …

… to be pulled from the depths and reanimated in Maggie’s Gee latest comic novel.  Comedy is not something I associate with Woolf, but Gee, whose Ph. D is Woolfian, assured us at the Edinburgh Book Festival that, when she was well, Woolf had an enormous zest for life. Gee, unhappy with the stereotypical depiction of a depressive Woolf, wanted to rehabilitate her. This is why one of Virginia’s first acts after her – shall we say – resurrection, is to buy herself an enormous hat.

But how does Woolf end up in Manhattan? She is simply wished into life by author Angela Lamb, who is researching Woolf’s original manuscripts for her paper: Virginia Woolf: A Long Shadow, to be delivered at a writers’ conference in IstanbulAlmost a century has passed since her death, and so there is some catching up for Virginia to do.  For Lamb this is a golden opportunity to really get to know her idol and write the most informed paper ever.  But be careful what you wish for …..

The relationship is fractious – hilariously so for the reader, uncomfortably so for the two women.  There are rifts due to class background: Virginia accepting Angela’s help as self-evident; Angela resenting Virginia’s expensive tastes and lack of gratitude.  There are melancholy moments too when Virginia must face the consequences of her suicide.  Life moved on for her husband Leonard, but, of course, she knows nothing of that.  How is Angela to explain?

She makes a better job of her relationship with Virginia than with her teenage daughter, Gerda, who she has dumped in a boarding school to swan off to the Big Apple and her research. (Oh yes, Angela like Virginia is a complex and not completely likeable character.)  Communication with Gerda is via email, but it’s intermittent at best, and just when Gerda’s troubles at the school become unbearable, non-existent.  At which point Gerda run off to New York to find her mother … 

… just as her mother sets off with Virginia to the conference in Istabul.

I had an anxiety attack on Gerda’s behalf.  I would have known better, had I recognised the allusions to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Queen (Andersen’s fairy tales being Gee’s favourite childhood reading).  As it was I was surprised by some of the plot twists that followed.  A knowledge of Woolf’s oeuvre may have helped me anticipate at this point (Orlando, Between The Acts, To The Lighthouse amongst others) but to quote Gee “I don’t want to write novels that are games for the few“.  Prior knowledge of Woolf’s oeuvre is not required. There is plenty of plot to enjoy.

Beneath the fantasy and the globe-trotting adventure, however, lie more writerly concerns.  Gerda is bullied because she is bookish and wishes to become a writer.  Angela is a bestselling writer, though not a literary one. Virginia is a mega-star, who, in the course of the novel, once prejudices have been overcome, becomes not only an inspiration, but a mentor to both.  Due to her untimely suicide, Virginia, at first, has no idea of her posthumous success, and so we see her plagued with doubts about the value of her works.  At the writers’ conference in Istabul, she gives a brief self-deprecating career synopsis.  She was privileged.  She never wrote to survive but would she have written even if she hadn’t had that advantage?

I would have written.  Somehow I would have found my voice.  I would have found a way to be heard, published …. And so must you.  And so will you … The young woman beside me tells me that now it is easier to self-publish, but some of you are ashamed to do this.  Remember, nearly all my books were self-published”.

With those words, Woolf, through Gee (first female chair of the Royal Society of Literature), becomes a mentor to a whole new generation of writers, and, perhaps a new generation of readers (myself included).

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Perhaps you are a Woolf aficionado and wish to know if the novel would stack up for you?  Read Simon’s review and interview  with Maggie Gee at Shiny New Books.

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