Review by Emma Venables
Norah Vincent’s Adeline is a beautifully written novel about Virginia Woolf. Spanning sixteen years, Vincent explores Woolf’s life: her marriage to Leonard, her writing process, her associations with the Bloomsbury Group and writers such as Yeats and Elliot, her depression, and ultimately her decision to commit suicide by drowning herself in a river.
The novel is split into five acts, each one depicting the events surrounding the writing and publication of one of Woolf’s novels. In this respect, Vincent demonstrates meticulous planning and research. Each of the chapters are multi-layered: something simple like how Leonard touches her hand in the present triggers a memory: ‘And once – she remembers this bit only now for the very first time – just for a moment, their eyes had met’ (p.186). This complex weaving of the present and past works to great effect in creating a well-rounded sense of Woolf’s world, and those who tried to hold her upright.
Vincent delves into the psyches of several people surrounding Woolf, including her sister, Nessa, but perhaps the mostly strongly evocated is her husband’s, Leonard. Vincent puts the spotlight on the Woolf’s marriage and while, of course, we feel sympathy for Virginia’s plight, Leonard’s struggle, his helplessness, to ‘save her life’ (p.177) is heart wrenching to read. Vincent demonstrates his conflict in such a powerful manner: ‘he’d look at her for the first time with that mixture of awe and worry that would cross his face so often over the course of their marriage’ (p.167-168).
The novel’s title comes from Woolf’s given first name. Adeline manifests when Woolf is at her lowest points: ‘[Adeline] is there still, communicating, conjured by this strange Virginia, who is the woman she did not become’ (p.25). The two, woman and child, chat, recalling the past, Adeline’s end and Virginia’s beginning: when Woolf began to menstruate. Adeline represents, not only Woolf’s descent into depression, and obsession with the past, but also her awareness of her shortcomings within society: she never became a mother. Indeed, their relationship is a vicious cycle: Adeline exists to Woolf because she is depressed, and because she is depressed Woolf cannot have children. The hallucination of Adeline, in some respects, provides Woolf with the daughter she never had.
Vincent documents Woolf’s complexity, the constant internal battle between defiance and depression, using vivid descriptions: ‘When we are not racked in this dilapidated body, leaking through a cracked brain, whirling without sleep, fingers plucking purposelessly at food’ (p.31). However, she also illustrates the external pressures on Woolf: a female writer trying to gain acclaim in a male-dominated world. Descriptions of the Bloomsbury Group and its members illustrate the gap Woolf felt between herself and the men but then, also, as time passes how honoured she was to be praised by them, particularly Yeats: ‘The words, the labour, the pain have not been wasted. God, but he is astounding’ (p.167). This tension between the external and internal, between depression and hope, results in a rather dense prose which at times can be hard to follow: Adeline is not a book you can put down and get back into easily. However, this density and depth of description, and character, is needed to represent the ingenious, fraught, mind of Virginia Woolf.