The Wise Virgins
A Story of Words, Opinions, and a Few Emotions
The Wise Virgins(1914), Leonard Woolf’s second novel, was published two years after the author’s marriage to Virginia Stephen—and begun during their honeymoon. The autobiographical elements of the book are well documented. Its publication caused acute distress to Woolf’s family. Leonard’s sister, Bella, urged him to bury the novel, while his mother was shocked and mortified by unflattering portraits of herself and her neighbors. Two weeks after reading the novel, Virginia Woolf suffered the worst of her many breakdowns. As aroman à clef the novel holds considerable interest for its picture of Leonard and Virginia’s courtship, as well as its sketches of Vanessa Stephen and Clive Bell. (Virginia would later retell the story, from a much different perspective, inNight and Day.) But the novel offers the contemporary reader other rewards. It remains a witty, engaging satire about English society just before World War I and its conventions and prejudices. In Harry Davis, Woolf created a memorable Jewish antihero who rails against society’s conventions but tragically finds himself unable to escape them. Award-winning biographer Victoria Glendinning contributes a foreword to this new paperback edition.