Who's Afraid of Leonard Woolf?: A Case for the Sanity of Virginia Woolf

Irene Coates, Author
Irene Coates, Author Soho Press $25 (456p) ISBN 978-1-56947-222-4
Hardcover - 455 pages - 978-1-876040-12-3
Paperback - 464 pages - 978-1-56947-294-1
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Although Leonard Woolf's reputation has fluctuated even more than that of his wife, Virginia, no biographer has shown as much animus toward him as Australian poet and playwright Coates (Poems of Change; Sweet Fanny Adams, etc.) in this paranoid and disappointing book. In the authorized biography of Virginia by her nephew Quentin Bell, Leonard is portrayed as a selflessly devoted helpmate, but in Hermione Lee's recent, authoritative life, he comes across as an overly serious control freak. For Coates, he is a villain out of a George du Maurier thriller: a domineering hypocrite who jealously oppresses his artist wife until he can engineer her suicide. Coates does not have any new evidence for this theory, only her obsessive readings of the familiar documents, diaries and letters, and a penchant for melodrama. Early on in the Woolfs' marriage (they wed in 1912), Coates compares Leonard to ""a parasite"" and suggests that he subconsciously set up Virginia's first suicide attempt in 1913 by leaving her sleeping pills conveniently at hand. When Virginia succeeds in killing herself in 1941, Coates imagines Leonard scheming to get rid of her out of envy of her artistic accomplishments and greed for her royalties, going so far as to picture him dictating her last suicide note. This American edition's misleading subtitle (the subtitle of the original Australian edition was ""Getting Away with Murder"") implies that Coates actually offers an assessment of Virginia's mental condition. Unfortunately, her evidence amounts only to clich d assertions about Virginia's creativity being a magnificent by-product of her lapses into madness ""from which she brought back insights that have inspired her greatest books."" Even devotees of Woolf's writings, who may seek this out, will find it hard to follow Coates fully into her portrait of Leonard as a fiend. (Dec.)
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