From the preface
It is a truth widely acknowledged that Camilla Lawrence in The Wise Virgins, is a portrait of the author’s wife, Virginia Woolf. Leonard Woolf began this novel while the couple was on honeymoon is Spain, a month after their marriage on 10 August 1912.
The story behind the story in this lovely Persephone book (no 43) was as interesting to me as the story itself. That’s not to take anything away from the story which I loved.
Leonard Woolf has written a leisurely semi-autobiographical summer’s tale which is essentially an exploration of the roles and choices available to young men and women, especially women in English society at that time. 1912 was a significant year for the women’s suffrage movement and although this is not directly mentioned in the story, in the preface we are reminded of this and how it would have been in Woolf’s mind when he was writing it.
Harry Davis moves with his family to a new neighbourhood in the fictional Richsted (Richmond/Hampsted). Here he meets the Garlands and their four daughters. The Garlands are everything that the rather contrary and moody Harry wants to avoid. He finds them conventional, boring and dull. Even pretty, sweet, innocent Gwen with her obvious crush on Harry fails to hold his interest for long.
Harry’s interest lies with Camilla, his painting model who is everything the Garland girls are not. Unconventional, independant, intellectual but unable to return his feelings in the way he needs.
Harry spends his time alternating between family duty outings with the Garlands and hanging out with Camilla and her sister and friends, having philosophical conversations and not “doing” much. In between times he ponders the differences between Gwen and Camilla, the likely future for each of them and the future for him depending on who he chooses to pursue.
Leonard Woolf’s writing is so insightful with plenty of dry humour that I really appreciated. He paints a vivid picture of his characters and settings and reminded me that even though this was written nearly 100 years ago, there are still some choices to be made in life that haven’t changed.
As with the other Persephone books I have read so far, I especially enjoyed the elegant, non intrusive style of the writing. This is quite a reflective type of book, not a lot of action but one that I would definitely recommend.