Leonard Woolf’s 1914 novel The Wise Virgins opens much like the great classic Pride and Prejudice, written a hundred years earlier: A group of young women, the Garland sisters, sits in a discreet middle class drawing room and discusses the new arrival to the neighbourhood. The Davis family, like the Bingleys, include a brother and a sister around the age of the two youngest Garlands, Gwen and May. (This fact is welcome except that the Davises are Jews and therefore fall short of the ‘ideal’.)
Unfortunately, life has passed over Ethel, the oldest of the sisters, who at 39 is considered to be dried up, undesirable, unmarriageable, a mere extension of Mrs Garland in the care of the younger girls. Janet is a decade younger, but she’s not interested in marriage, preferring to be engaged in a game of golf than engaged to be marriage. The educated reader, raised on the novels of the 19th century beginning with Austen, immediately understands this is a courtship narrative that will focus on the hearts of Gwen and May. The new neighbours will figure. After some misunderstandings, disappointments, and perhaps a major upset, the drama will end in the happy marriage of both girls to men they love.
The perspective then swerves. We see the Garland sisters from the point of view of Harry Davis, who is befuddled by their ordinary concerns, seeing them as unformed dolls. In contrast, he’s bedazzled by Camilla, a young woman in his art class, who possesses intellect, imagination, and new ideas. The courtship narrative splits: Harry must choose between Gwen and a conventional life that includes pleasures of the flesh or an altogether different relationship with Camilla—one more ephemeral, more intellectually and aesthetically satisfying, but one in which physical passion is secondary. Harry Davis (and through him, Leonard Woolf) might dream of a future in which physical and spiritual love are joined, but the circumstances don’t allow it.
At the time of publication, other writers were concerned with the same issues. The female characters in D.H. Lawrence’s works throw off convention in order to live ‘freely’, a situation that has always held more risks for women than the men they’re involved with. Edith Wharton’s characters strive for something finer, something outside of conventional love, but in her stories these visionaries become the victims of a social code stronger than any individual desire. The Wise Virgins is compelling because it reveals the psychological struggle for authenticity in the midst of paralysing convention.
Leonard Woolf was caught between worlds in more ways than one: he was a civil servant with strong anti-imperialist ideas; he was an upper-middle class man who attended Cambridge and led a life of male privilege, but who, at the same time, was pro-suffrage, aligned with the early feminist movement; he was a man of startling intellect who possessed (and was possessed by) deep, impatient passions. He was a man with feet planted firmly in the Victorian era, but whose eyes glimpsed the future.
His recent biographer, Victoria Glendinning, asserts that Woolf is not a natural novelist, but The Wise Virgins is a fine, compelling work, not just for its historical and biographical interest, but because it shows this desire for a more satisfying partnership. Woolf’s hero Harry is unable to reconcile the passions of the flesh with those of the mind. Unlike Woolf, he ends up in a conventional marriage, fulfilling the reader’s expectations of the courtship narrative. But the spectre of Camilla haunts the wedding and casts a shadow over the future happiness of Harry and Gwen.
The Wise Virgins is an intensely autobiographical work. Woolf based his depiction of Harry’s mother and sister on his own family, who objected stridently to the unflattering portrayal. Camilla, of course, is based on Virginia Stephen. Much of The Wise Virgins was written during Leonard Woolf’s courtship of her and in the period immediately following their marriage. It’s an angry novel, full of bitterness. In fact, after Virginia Woolf read it, she succumbed to the worst breakdown of her life.
The Wise Virgins may be read as an examination of the path Leonard Woolf did not take. When Virginia Stephen agreed to marry him, he escaped both the delights and the boredoms of the ordinary marriage. The point is, for Woolf, as for Lawrence and Wharton, it’s one or the other—nothing is ideal.
By the end of the novel, Harry grudgingly admires Ethel and Janet and even Camilla. Each has managed to avoid the typical narrative of female life. For these three, when the new man arrives in the neighbourhood, there is no expectation or wish that he will call or educate her maiden mind and eventually propose and thereafter fulfil her life’s desire in the usual domestic arrangement.
Harry thinks perhaps they might be onto something.