Norah Vincent’s Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf is, in simplified terms, a fictionalised biography of one of the twentieth century’s most enduring authors. Adeline, named as she was after her mother Julia’s deceased sister, was Woolf’s given name. It was never used within her family, ‘as Julia did not like to use the name full of painful association’.
The structure of Adeline is fitting; Vincent has chosen to split the story into separate ‘Acts’, all of which correspond to Woolf’s own publications; one is entitled ‘Night and Day’, for example, and another ‘The Voyage Out’. The novel begins on June the 13th 1925, and ends with Woolf’s suicide on the 28th of March 1941. Throughout, Woolf’s thoughts – all of which have been influenced by her diaries and letters – have been woven into various plotlines from her novels. Vincent is marvellous at demonstrating in this manner how inspiration strikes.
In Adeline, Woolf comes to life immediately, and the novel’s opening scene is particularly vivid: ‘She is lying full down in the bath, with the tepid water hooding her head and lapping just below the vaulted arches of her nostrils… She can hear her heart galloping distantly, as it so often does when she is ill, thrumming weakly but so quickly, a soft insistence sucking at the drums of her ears’. Vincent goes on to describe the way in which, ‘as if startled by the sound of her own voice, she sits upright with a great sloshing urgency, her buttocks squeaking on the porcelain, her knees bucking, legs tensing straight and splashing’.
Vincent is so in control of Woolf’s dual personality; one gets the impression that she comprehends it, and its implications, perfectly: ‘There is the stall of recognition. She knows this feeling, this progression of decline, she knows it very well, the consciousness curling under the despair, helpless as a page in the fire, succumbing to the grey, darkening possession’.
In Adeline, Woolf and her genius have essentially been placed upon a pedestal, from where they are examined. Vincent has included some well developed conversations, and has built the plot around Woolf’s relationships with others, from her siblings and husband Leonard, to her affair with Vita Sackville-West. Famous characters from the Bloomsbury Group have been considered too, from biographer Lytton Strachey to poet T.S. Eliot.
Adeline has been meticulously researched, and its prose is both beautiful and intelligent. The turns of phrase are deftly created: ‘The world seemed to be speeding up and slowing down, going liquid and solid at the same time, and me with it’. The literary techniques which Vincent has used – Woolf talking to her child self, for example – work so well, as does the way in which the story follows both Virginia and Leonard. The Bloomsbury Group, intrinsic as it was in the lives of the Woolfs, has been considered too: ‘Their life, their bond, their work and their circle of closely kept friends are about one thing: maintenance of the necessary illusion’. So many ideas can be found within the story, and one really gets a feel for Woolf’s world.
The only thing which let the novel down for me are the Americanisms which sometimes creep into the text. The use of the word ‘gotten’ is rather jarring, and its historical inaccuracy with relation to England during the 1920s and 1930s pulls the novel from its otherwise excellent historical grounding.
Adeline is a must-read for any fans of Woolf, or those with interest in the wider circle of the Bloomsbury Group, providing as it does a stunning and interesting portrayal of an author whose life and legacy still fascinate to this day.