The Platform of Time by Virginia Woolf is a collection of memoir writing Woolf did about family and friends, some published, some not. The collection was put together by the good people at Hesperus Press. And what an interesting collection it is. This is where I read the essay Woolf wrote about her aunt, Lady Ritchie.
The idea of the platform of time came from Woolf herself and means, as explained in the book’s introduction, “how the present conditions one’s views of the past and the writing of memoirs.” The book starts off with a piece Woolf wrote about Julian Bell in 1937 after he was killed in the Spanish Civil War. Bell and Woolf often argued about war, and Woolf wrote the piece, with no intention of publication, to try to understand her nephew’s reason for going to war and to remember him as well. And we can see her on the page, struggling to understand but not finding any satisfactory answers:
And tho’ I understand that his is a “cause”, can be called the cause of liberty & so on, still my natural reaction is to fight intellectually: if I were any use, I should write against it: I should evolve some plan for fighting English tyranny. The moment force is used, it becomes meaningless & unreal to me. And I daresay he wd soon have lived through the active stage, & have found some other, administrative work. But that does not explain his determination. Perhaps it was restlessness, curiosity, some gift that never had been used in private life–& a conviction, part emotional, about Spain.
Also included in the book, right after Woolf’s piece, are some memoir notes Vanessa Bell made about her son after he died. Woolf’s piece is so very intellectual, a mind groping for answers. Vanessa’s piece has all the pain and emotion of a mother who has lost a child. It makes for an interesting contrast.
There are a couple cool, calm pieces Woolf wrote about her father. Also included in the book are essays about friends like Roger Fry, Ottoline Morrell, and Woolf’s Greek language tutor Janet Case. But wait, that’s not all! We get a brief recollection about the Dreadnought Hoax, the only known interview Woolf ever gave, and some “fantasy” memoirs.
A particularly interesting essay Life as We Have Known It was written as an introduction to a book called Maternity: Letters from Working-Women Collected by the Women’s Co-operative Guild. The book was edited by Margaret Llewlyn Davies who convinced Woolf to write the intro. It is clear that Woolf does not understand the women she writes about and she pretty much admits it. She talks about what it was like for her, a middle-class woman, to attend the Women’s Co-operative Guild Congress held in 1913. She writes,
If every reform they demand was granted this very instant it would not touch one hair of my comfortable capitalist head. Hence my interest is merely altruistic. It is thin spread and moon coloured. There is no life blood or urgency about it. However hard I clap my hands or stamp my feet there is a hollowness in the sound which betrays me. I am a benevolent spectator. I am irretrievably cut off from the actors.
I find it curious that a woman with Woolf’s creative powers can’t imagine herself in the place of these working-class women, can have a “merely altruistic” interest in them. Is it a lack of imagination? Or something else? Maybe it is a limitation? Maybe she lacks the emotional and imaginative ability to connect with a life and sensibility different than her own? I’m not certain what the cause of the failing is, but it is a failing in my opinion.
Platform of Time is a wonderful book. Anyone who has read and enjoyed Virginia Woolf is sure to like it.