Adeline: Norah Vincent’s Vividly Imagined Novel of Virginia Woolf
Norah Vincent’s new novel, Adeline, is a bold portrait of Virginia Woolf from her conception of To the Lighthouse in 1925 to her suicide in 1941. Though Virginia was named Adeline, after her maternal aunt who died before she was born, she never went by the name because it was too associated with death and grieving. However, Adeline is very much alive in Virginia’s mind as the girl she was at age thirteen—the pivotal year when her beloved mother died. In the many conversations Virginia has with her alter ego Adeline, the reader comes to understand Virginia’s complex artistic process and her lifelong struggle with mental illness.
Norah says that what really drew her to write about Virginia was her marriage with Leonard Woolf. “I’ve always felt that Leonard Woolf has been poorly represented and poorly remembered by history. In writing about them I wanted to present a clearer picture both of who people are—their wholeness, their complexity—as well as how that complexity is reflected in their relationship. I think the Woolfs had an incredible marriage, a model, in many ways for what a relationship can be. Contrary to what some have maintained, I don’t think Leonard in any way kept VW under wraps creatively or personally, or drove her mad. He nurtured her genius and believed in it wholeheartedly.”
Despite Virginia’s affairs with other women, primarily with Vita Sackville-West, an intimacy exists between Virginia and Leonard rooted in their respect and love for one another. They spend their mornings working, their afternoons walking and gardening, and their evenings sitting by the fire talking about the intellectual and scientific ideas of the time. Leonard is her first reader, and Virginia discusses with him her desire to experiment with fiction—blurring the distinctions between prose and poetry and representing characters as facets of consciousness.
The novel centers on Virginia’s relationships with other writers and artists of the period, including T.S. Eliot, William Yeats, James Joyce, and Lytton Strachey. Virginia is acerbic and often cruel with others, especially with Vivien Eliot and Dora Carrington, however the overwhelming picture of Virginia is one of a writer racked with insecurity and self-doubt about her own work. She characterizes her writing as being too careful and risk averse. Upon reading of James Joyce’s death in January 1941, she thinks, “He, only he, not she, she could admit this now—had come to the end of language. He had flown. He had had the courage, the negation, to do what she had not: to fail flamboyantly.”
Adeline is told largely from Virginia Woolf’s perspective, and Norah says she was able to overcome the difficulty of writing as VW, and creating the voice of Adeline, by using meditation to more easily access her subconscious. ‘When I say that I didn’t write this book, I really mean it. I received it in mediation, and I simply wrote down what I received—the words I heard, the things I felt, even the trajectory of the book itself. I tell people that this book happened to me. I simply watched it spread and take shape, like a stain on a tablecloth.’
One of the more interesting characters in Adeline is Dr. Octavia Wilberforce, Virginia’s physician. According to Norah, ‘Dr. Wilberforce was a fascinating person. She came from the Wilberforce clan who were so famous for abolishing slavery in England in the early 19th century. She was the youngest of eight children, and so named, and she became a physician at a time when women simply didn’t pursue professions, and often couldn’t. At Leonard’s insistence Dr. Wilberforce had a long conversation and consultation with VW on the day before VW took her life. It is not known what they said to each other, which is where I got to exercise the novelist’s privilege of invention. Her conversation with Octavia is about wanting to die, about asking a friend and physician to let you die. It offers the argument for why VW took her life and why she wanted to, and presents the challenge again of what a loved one might be confronted with under such circumstances.’
Prior to writing Adeline, Norah wrote two well-received non-fiction books. Norah says that ‘through writing Adeline I discovered a new genre for myself, which I’m calling bio-fic or bio-lit. It blends biography, literary criticism and fiction and attempts to present a portrait of the lives and work of writers I admire. The novel I’m working on now is another in this genre. It’s called Shadowbox and it’s about the life and work of Samuel Beckett.’
Norah Vincent is the author of two non-fiction books—Self-Made Man, and Voluntary Madness.