On April 18, 1941, twenty-two days after Virginia Woolf went for a walk near her weekend house in Sussex and never returned, her body was reclaimed from the River Ouse. Norah Vincent’s Adeline reimagines the events that brought Woolf to the riverbank, offering us a denouement worthy of its protagonist.
With poetic precision and psychological acuity, Vincent channels Virginia and Leonard Woolf, T. S. and Vivienne Eliot, Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington, laying bare their genius and their blind spots, their achievements and their failings, from the inside out. And haunting every page is Adeline, the name given to Virginia Stephen at birth, which becomes the source of Virginia’s greatest consolation, and her greatest torment.
Intellectually and emotionally disarming, Adeline—a vibrant portrait of Woolf and her social circle, the infamous Bloomsbury Group, and a window into the darkness that both inspired and doomed them all—is a masterpiece in its own right by one of our most brilliant and daring writers.
Virginia Woolf is one of the icons of twentieth century British literature. She and her fellow writers of the Bloomsbury Group are some of the most influential authors of the previous century and every student of English Literature has been assigned at least one of their works to read for class. As was I. As it was, I liked some of the Bloomsbury Set’s works, and those of their contemporaries, I had to read better than I did others—couldn’t get through Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, really enjoyed Eliot’s The Waste Land and Woolf’s Into the Lighthouse, and adored E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View and Howard’s End. So when I discovered that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was publishing Adeline by Norah Vincent, a historical novel about Virginia Woolf focusing on her mental state and the events that drove her to choose her final journey into the Ouse, I was intrigued to read it and when I was offered a review copy I happily accepted.
Adeline was an engaging narrative, but not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination. Putting characterisation and thoughts on the reliability of the various points of view to one side, the writing and voice of the book alone required some serious acclimatisation. Vincent’s prose is interesting, especially since it reminded me a lot of Woolf’s phrasing. Bearing in mind that I haven’t read any of Woolf’s work since university and only Into the Lighthouse at that, Adeline’s prose reminded me of those works from the era I’ve read and the tone was very well done. Nonetheless, it did take some getting used to it, before I managed to get immersed in the story. This isn’t helped by the fact that from the start the book takes leaps in time and none of the viewpoint characters come across as particularly reliable, whether due to circumstance or mental health issues.
I liked the different points of view Vincent provided. The story is told not just through the eyes of Woolf and her husband Leonard, but we get some passages from a little further out as well, such as a particularly difficult discussion between Woolf and her family doctor and friend Dr Octavia Wilberforce from the latter’s point of view, in which her pain and feelings of frustrations at not being able to help Woolf are powerfully conveyed. Similarly, it was hard to read the scenes between Woolf and Adeline, since they are so painfully raw and emotionally vulnerable. Despite literally being a dialogue between Woolf and her younger self, these sections never felt strange and surreal; disturbing certainly, because they are the most vivid evocation of Woolf’s agitated and unbalanced state of mind, but in the context of Vincent’s depiction of Woolf they felt natural and served to deepen our understanding of Woolf’s character and past.
Woolf isn’t exactly likeable in the narration, in fact the only one who is actually wholly sympathetic was Leonard. One could perhaps charitably say that all of the main characters in the book were truly human and thus flawed and deeply traumatised by the events of the First World War, but at least in some cases they just weren’t that nice of a person and inconsiderate of those around them. Leonard is similarly flawed, but he comes across as at least wanting to do right by people and prepared to compromise on his needs and desires to keep those around him happy or, in Woolf’s case, functioning.
In Adeline Vincent not just provides the reader with a portrait of Woolf’s mental issues, but also shows the structure of her writing career. The book is divided in sections based on her published work and we see how – and perhaps why – Woolf returns to the same themes over and over, exploring them again and again, yet feeling that she never reaches the same heights in these explorations as she did in The Waves. I did wonder whether this idea of Woolf’s was caused by her mental state or in fact added to her decline, a question that wasn’t really addressed in the book.
Norah Vincent’s Adeline was a fascinating exploration of mental illness and a challenging read. Virginia Woolf’s story and in its wake the story of the Bloomsbury Set is intriguing, both due to their position in literary history and the singular characters they contain. Adeline packs a lot into its pages and it was a pleasure to discover what they held.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.