Sunday, January 08, 2006

a Prufrockian moment

Isaiah Berlin was a conversationalist. He loved to talk and his phenomenal memory fed a rapid delivery of learned wit, gossip, and high ideas. He could deliver monologues (and was a masterful lecturer once you got used to the accent and pace) but he prefered to engage in conversation, listening and responding, not just spouting forth. His letters have a similarly engaging conversational tone. The charm that make them fun to read also makes him an interesting subject for biography.

Not everyone was immediately taken with him however. Michael Ignatieff's biography of IB contains an anecdote about a Prufrock-like encounter with Virginia Woolf:
It was to Elizabeth Bowen that he wrote in November 1933, after he met Virginia Woolf at dinner at the Fishers' [Warden's lodgings] in New College Lodge. Woolf had the fine-boned beauty he was to find attractive in women and he was fascinated by her way of speaking. Warden Fisher asked her whether she liked walking, and she replied that she did, because she liked coming upon goats. 'They look so ecclesiastical,' she said. After dinner, Isaiah retired into a corner with the Magdalen don C. S. Lewis. They talked unctuously about 'God, Shakespeare and the charade of life', until Isaiah overheard Virginia, nearby, mention Elizabeth Bowen. He stepped forward and said that she was in America. A halting conversation then ensued about literature, before she turned away to talk to other guests. While Isaiah felt he had been rewarded with a few moments in the Elysian Fields, Mrs. Woolf's reaction was considerably more caustic: 'I should think there were one hundred promising undergraduates in after dinner; and I shook hands with all, and tried to think what to say, but oh dear what a farce! One might as well go to a school treat and hand out penny buns. There was the great Isaiah Berlin, a Portuguese Jew by the look of him, Oxford's leading light; a communist, I think, a fire-eater - but at Herbert's everyone minces and mouths and you wouldn't guess to talk to them that they had a spark.

This tells the anecdote nicely, but there's more to know about this Woolfian encounter. In his selection of Berlin's letters, Henry Hardy sets the scene:

At the end of the month Virginia Woolf dined in New College, and IB was a guest. The account he gives of this meeting in the next two letters is complemented by extra (sometimes conflicting) details in the memoir of Woolf he wrote in 1989. The seating plan for the dinner survives among the papers of the Warden's wife, Lettice Fisher[1]:
The Warden

Mrs Woolf -        - Mr Berlin

John Sparrow[2] -        - BJ.

Mary -        - Mr Crossman

A Ker[3] -        - Mr Lewis[4]


Woolf herself wrote to her nephew Quentin Bell[1] on 3 December: There was the great Isaiah Berlin, a Portuguese Jew by the look of him, Oxford's leading light; a communist, I think, a fire eater'; but to Elizabeth Bowen on 6 January 1934: 'I never realised which of [150 undergraduates] Mr Berlin was, but had to piece him together from descriptions afterwards.'

[1] Lettice *Fisher (1875-:956), economist and historian, married to the Warden of New College, H. A. L. Fisher, 1899.

[2] John Hanbury Angus Sparrow (1906-92), barrister, historian, Fellow of all Souls 1929-52, author of Half-Lines and Repetitions in Virgil (Oxford, 1931), later (1951-77) Warden of All Souls. {I met him!.}

[3] Alan Ker (1904-67), New College classics 1923-7, Fellow of Brasenose 1931-46.

[4] Clive Staples Lewis (1893-1963), Fellow and English Tutor, Magdalen, 1925-54, author of Pilgrim's Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism (London, 1933).

{Also: B.J. was Maire Lynd (pronounced "Moira"), daughter of Irish nationalists. She was IB's pupil and it was she who organized trips to Ireland in which he visited with Elizabeth Bowen. Mary was Mary Fisher, daughter of Lettice and The Warden. Crossman was Richard Crossman, Oxford don, editor of the New Statesman, and a Labour politician.}

Here is part of Berlin's letter to Mary Fisher, who was seated across from Richard Crossman at dinner. IB wrote it at 1 a.m. right after he returned to his rooms:

[30 November 1933]
All Souls
Dear Mary

X[3] was v. funny on the way home. "There was the Warden talking about Rosebery[4] and talking well, and Virginia gently questioning him, when a bellow from the lower end of the table - you know who I mean - Crossman or Crosspatch or whatever the name is." ... I do think she is the most beautiful person I've ever seen. I can also imagine what she looks like when she goes mad, as I believe, she occasionally does. I can't say how much altogether I enjoyed myself I'll be grateful if it is half as pleasant to-morrow night at the Clarks'

Completing this, he wrote a long letter to Elizabeth Bowen. Here's the beginning of it:

30 November 1933, 1 a.m.

All Souls
Dear Elizabeth
A most trivial peg to hang a letter on, but you will I hope forgive me. It is this: After huge preliminary preparations and a great deal of consulting and rearranging Mrs Woolf was finally induced to come & stay a night with The Warden of New College - her first cousin. She was asked for a week-end but funked that and came for one night. John Sparrow was specially got down from Town via me as intermediary and at 7.45 tonight we commenced. Mrs Fisher whom I saw on the previous night a whom I asked whether it was true, as alleged, that Mrs W. was very shy, especially of new faces, said "yes, she must pull herself together, that's all. I met her last when [she] was 17 and most priggish & horrible I thought her. I hope she's improved since then. Anyway there won't be many new faces. Only 20 or 30 or so".

During dinner I sat opposite her in petrified and satisfied silence admiring her beauty which is very, very great. The Warden talked gently & rather well about Rosebery, & she egged him on very gracefully with a minimum of effort. Now & then John Sp. murmured half and quarter sentences which mingled with the current without either augmenting or diverting it. We then trooped out led by a screaming Mrs F. who was shouting that she liked Uppingham it was so sincere and hearty, where chosen undergraduates and undergraduettes one or two titled, one or two possessing the even greater advantage of really humble birth + self-taught knowledge of literature ('700 books on Shakespeare alone, & some of them quite good ones, you must talk to him Virginia' The Warden said 'he's very poor') were awaiting us. There Virginia settled comfortably among the worshipping pop-eyed New College boys and girls (among whom Cox) and talked about Meredith. But we weren't allowed to listen (she was talking a behaving very nobly) but were constantly re-formed by Mrs F., who ill at ease and idle handed jumbled everyone into a sort of game of musical chairs in which nobody talked to anybody for more than 2 minutes, except me, who tired of this & hopeless of conversation however broken with Mrs Woolf retired sulkily into a corner with a man called Lewis and talked about God, Shakespeare, and the comedy of life. (Literally. He is a pious man & believes that God is a dramatist in a most literal way. It was rather exciting, really.) Mary F., B.J., others would stray into our neighbourhood, & be frozen away by the apparent repulsiveness of the subject & the unction in our voices. (I develop my interlocutor's voice to a ludicrous degree). Mrs F. like Anna Pavlovna Scherer in War & Peace continually refashioned her uneasy little groups into more & more ill fitting combinations. Only Virginia's corner was sacred, & there I had no apparent access. So matters dragged themselves till 10.30. Mrs F. now began to fidget & I grew angry at my spoilt evening, not wholly spoilt, for I enjoyed her appearance a gestures enormously (this sounds gross, but the feeling was really exquisite, really exquisite); 11 p.m.: finally we got up & water, I think, was handed round. Mrs W was talking to Sparrow: '. . . Mrs Bowen' (sic) she said. B.J. and I automatically turned towards her. 'We know her too' we both wanted to say grasping at an opening. It was here that my shameful act must be recorded, God give me strength. I stepped forward: 'She is in America' B.J. said 'I received a postcard from her' I said blushing as furiously as even you could have wished me to. 'What does she say?' said Mrs Woolf, I mumbled something unintelligible and quickly swallowing said 'which poet do you think will get the King's new medal?' etc. I cannot tell you how that lie which I shall think white to-morrow, but certainly don't to-night, revolved in my head, like some ludicrous autobiographical Russian's. I really had the feeling of a man who had committed an unscrupulous desperate act & had, moreover, been rewarded for it by a few Elysian moments. I am trying to make this as Tchekhovian as possible (I do think it is a theme worthy of no better author. But also of no worse a one) to melt your heart into not merely forgiving me (which I don't deserve, but you will, I hope, do, seeing how I grovel) but into not even being excessively amused, nor being as amused as I should be, for instance, if it had happened to someone else, being heartless in such matters, but on the contrary rather touched. After this the story ends abruptly. After some 3 minutes on Olympus I told myself that I must perform an act of will, obey the Warden's warning yawns, & leave before everything petered out. So I bowed stiffly and went. I've never felt more like an inferior character in a Russian story who goes through a gamut of trivial emotions which he dramatises ad infinitum, including a minor crime which looms enormous & pursues him and grows into quite an alastor.[6] She really is a most beautiful and godlike person whom it is a pity that anyone should know intimately. I hope I shall meet her again.

... rest of letter omitted.

[1] Quentin Claudian Stephen Bell (1910-96), son of Woolf's sister Vanessa and Clive Bell; artist, potter, author, critic; later (1972) Woolf's biographer. His wife, Anne Olivier Bell, edited Woolf's diaries, which do not mention this occasion.

[2] The Sickle Side of the Moon, The Letters of Virginia Woolf Volume V, 1932-35, ed. Nigel Nicolson (London, 1979), pp. 255, 360.

[3] Mary Bennett believes this to be John Sparrow. (JB usually uses "X" to refer to Christopher Cox, who, however, was not present at this dinner, though he was - as the next letter records - among those to whom Woolf was introduced afterwards.)

[4] Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery (1847-1929), Prime Minister 1894-5.

[5] Probably George Norman Clark, Chichele Professor of Economic History and Fellow of All Souls 1931-43, Regius Professor of Modern History, Cambridge, 1943-7, Provost of Oriel, and his wife Barbara.

[6] Greek for 'avenger'

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