The fascinating woman you see became the mother of two fascinating women.
Julia Prinsep Duckworth Stephens had several children, but two were Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.
It was the Persephone Post from yesterday, and the picture of the dust jacket from a book by Virginia Woolf, with the cover art by Vanessa Bell, that made me think of Nan Fairbrother.
Nan Fairbrother (McKenzie) was, herself, a woman of uncommon beauty and intellectual vigor. Described as tall, beautiful, brilliant, imposing, strong—she wrote books described as ‘reflections of daily life’.
Which is like saying Virginia Woolf ‘wrote fiction’.
Every year I re-read some of Fairbrother’s extraordinary prose. Part of what motivates me, it must be admitted, is this vague hope that I have somehow, in the ensuing years, become more adept at grasping the core substance of what I’m reading, and come away with a sort of Fairbrother Manifesto of ‘this is what I’m saying, this is what I feel’.
Yet at times Fairbrother pulls back her gauze-like web of ‘poetic transmutation of our lives’ and writes a passage that is refreshingly clear. When that happens it comes almost as jolt of surprise.
In this passage about Virginia Woolf, one that is spun from a simple afternoon Nan Fairbrother spent ‘blackberrying’ with her children, she gives us an insight into her vulnerability as an artist and a woman:
‘One can imagine a sensibility so subtle and overwrought that to go blackberrying might satisfy the whole range of human feeling. We think of Virginia Woolf and of Mrs. Dalloway walking out to buy flowers for her party. And indeed Virginia Woolf is the perfect bedside book for visitors who come to stay with us here, for we live in the right receptive quiet. Yet I am never quite happy reading her; there is always a vague underlying sadness. Perhaps it is the feeling that a mind as sensitive as hers can never long survive our world of crude and violent shocks. So that as she watches each ripple of her consciousness, catches and pins it as surely and delicately as a butterfly, we are afraid always that she will lose her balance, that she will so refine and make sensitive the instrument of her mind that it must inevitably be destroyed. But then, too, there was once a young man who told me that his heart missed a beat only to see her name on the dust-jacket of a book. Virginia Woolf. It is the only time I have ever been jealous. But I suffered then–long it seems now–such an agonizing wave of misery, such an inmost stab of pain, that I have never read her since without a faint echo of uneasiness.’
It does not appear that Nan Fairbrother and Virginia Woolf ever met. And I am not entirely sure that the reference to Woolf as ‘the perfect bedside book’ is to be taken as a compliment. Based on the references Fairbrother makes to her own choice of books she takes to bed to read, this might have been a veiled slight.
“It is the only time I have ever been jealous.”
It was to Hogarth Press where she wrote to submit her first work. This was immediately accepted by Leonard Woolf and published. Later titles such as ‘Men and Gardens’, A House in the Country’, also published by Hogarth Press were to follow.
There is an audio interview here, one of a series, with Nan [Fairbrother] McKenzie’s son, Dan McKenzie, the famous Professor of physics at Cambridge. As mentioned in the interview, Leonard Woolf was a frequent visitor to the McKenzie home. As a young lad meeting Leonard Woolf on several occasions, McKenzie described him as ‘very nice’, and that he ‘always wore very hairy green suits’. (Wool tweed, apparently)
It is a little known fact that there exists a correspondence of over 100 letters between Leonard Woolf and Nan Fairbrother in the Sussex collection of Leonard Woolf’s papers. (Dan McKenzie expressed no interest in reading their content.) In the interview, McKenzie says his mother ‘admired Virgina Woolf’ a great deal. When pressed further by the interviewer what she really thought of Virginia Woolf and her work, McKenzie was obviously very reluctant to continue that thread of conversation.
I think we know. Nan Fairbrother told us herself.
“I am never quite happy reading her; there is always a vague, underlying sadness.”
What I would like to know is who is the ‘young man’ whose heart ‘missed a beat’ when he saw Virginia Woolf’s name on the dustjacket?
Shakespeare, Sonnet LIII:
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?