Interview with Victoria Glendinning.
Serial biographer Victoria Glendinning tells Anne Sebba her dislike for a venal and privileged literary set provoked her to expore the real Leonard Woolf.
“Nothing is forever,” proclaims an antique sign on the wall of Victoria Glendinning’s vine-laden conservatory where we sit for this interview. Looking out over a lush Somerset valley in south west England, across a field usually grazed by sheep from the next door farm, she tells me how apposite it is. There on the hilltop horizon stands the Bruton Dovecote, a roofless stone tower, all that remains of the local medieval abbey, destroyed at the time of Henry V111’s dissolution of the monasteries in the mid 16th century.
“It’s one of two maxims I live by, but this is the best because it works in good times or bad. It keeps you really grounded when everything is going well, but, when you are really down,” she sighs with painful emotion, “you know that even that will pass.”
The other adage that has guided her life is both more upbeat and of practical use for the award winning author and biographer now in her unlikely 71st year; “nothing is wasted”. Glendinning has written twelve books – nine biographies and three novels – at least two of which, including one on which she is currently working, have grown out of off cuts from excess material. But she has something more subtle in mind when she tells me that nothing is ever wasted. Victoria Glendinning has lived a rich life with three husbands, four sons, seven grandchildren, and in many different homes around Britain and Ireland. Not surprisingly, there is an energy both about the person and her books. Tall and slim with sparkly eyes, friends say she has an unusual ability to move on to new things. Her writing style is similarly fresh and immediate.
Glendinning trained first as a psychiatric social worker, invaluable for her future career as a biographer analysing the lives of dead people, especially for her most recent study of Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia who suffered recurring mental illness and eventually committed suicide. “I learned from my first career that we are all borderline clinically insane at one time or another. There is no fixed border between what is normal and what is not and if you have been seriously bereaved you will know that. I was insane with grief for at least a year after my second husband died.”
It was during those early years that she also learnt some basic interview techniques. “Allow the silences…don’t fill them with social prattle. It’s when nothing is being said that much is being remembered. As you are about to leave they will say ‘Then of course, what I always remember is….’ and out pops a gem.”
Born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, in 1937 to a Quaker father who worked for Barclays Bank and a half Jewish mother who did not work outside the home, Victoria was convent-educated until she was sent to a different school to prepare her for university entrance. In spite of being expelled – she tells me a long story about a boy – “where are you Nick Gubb?”- and staying out beyond regulation time – she got into Oxford to read modern languages. What has stayed in the mind about that escapade is the headmaster’s explanation for not also expelling the boy involved. “He told me it was always the girl’s fault. Something about boys having uncontrollable urges for which they could not be blamed,” Victoria laughs.
Perhaps that explanation was one of the reasons impelling her towards writing about women. But she insists nothing was planned. “I’m just not one of nature’s planners. I like to think of the future as a great big unknown sea, although I am quite good at planning the next 18 hours.” Oxford was, Glendinning insists, something her parents wanted for her as a place to meet suitable men. Instead, half way through her second year, she married her tutor Nigel, now Professor Glendinning, nine years older then her, and not what her parents had in mind at all.
Yet in spite of this act of rebellion against the polished mahogany formality of her youth, she completed her degree. But by that time her first son was born and her husband was working at Southampton University. Three other sons quickly followed. Victoria was a natural mother.
“I just went from student life to mother life and it wasn’t hard because no one ever told me it would be hard.”
But then came a period of what to do next. And, with four children under seven, she just fell into writing, she says, in the evenings when the boys were asleep or diving into the back bedroom when the cleaning lady came. Television, especially Match of the Day, was a boon.
“I learnt to write against noise so that the peaceful quiet of the study was almost threatening. I wrote my first article for Nova, the new women’s magazine, about why people like me went on having children. It was because it stopped you thinking about what to do next. I can still remember it was like walking on air the day that was published.” She immediately wrote more articles and then her first book.
A Suppressed Cry; Life and Death of a Quaker Daughter, published in 1969 and based on the story of her Great Aunt Winnie, an early student at Newnham, Cambridge was, she says now, written with minimal research partly because she had little time “but more because I didn’t really know how to go about it.” It is a touchingly concise portrait of an era as well as a woman, one tinged with undigested feminism of the sixties. As Victoria wrote about herself in a later introduction, she did the ironing then and still does the ironing now. “There’s nothing wrong with that.” Had she waited and written a longer, more mature book it might not have been any more telling.
“Too much information can blur the issues.”
The book was well received and one reviewer suggested that “Mrs Glendinning should be encouraged to spread herself in further books.” And so she did.
After a short spell working for the Times Literary Supplement – “my real education”- and moving to Dublin where her husband was next posted, she wrote her first full length biography, a life of the Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen.
By the time this was published in 1977 Victoria had met and fallen in love with Terence de Vere White, literary critic of the Irish Times and 25 years older than her. For the next few years she lived between Hertfordshire and London, trying not to disrupt her sons too much until she and Terence could marry, and all the while writing a biography of Vita Sackville West. I first met Victoria at this time (my subject, Enid Bagnold, knew her subject, Vita) and she gave me a pre-digital lesson on shoe boxes and card indexes and cross referencing for which I have been eternally grateful.
Vita was a hugely garlanded book, which won the Whitbread Prize for Biography and has never been out of print. From now on Glendinning was ‘the distinguished biographer’ who went on the write acclaimed studies of Edith Sitwell and Rebecca West and was courted by publishers and would-be subjects alike. “Rebecca asked me to write her life – I knew her through Terence and went to see her from time to time. She used to enquire what I was giving the boys for tea and write me long letters giving her version of her life. But I fear I was a disappointment as I wasn’t really free to sit at her feet.” After West, she tackled Anthony Trollope and then Jonathan Swift. But she has also written three novels, one of which, Flight, has been optioned for a film and it is her ability to get the balance right between the novelistic urge to tell a good story and the scholarly drive to assemble facts – what Virginia Woolf called the granite and the rainbow – that makes her such a good biographer.
After every biography Victoria has privately sighed ‘never again,’ rather like childbirth. “But somehow after Swift, you know, all the years of scholarship and then ‘they’ jump on you if you get things wrong, I thought what bliss just to make it up, even if ‘they’ don’t like it, and I said it publicly; no more biographies.” Biographies, we agree, just are not cost effective in terms of energy, emotion and time. But in addition, in 2000, Victoria took over the Chairmanship of English PEN, the writers’ organisation, at the most turbulent time in its history. She survived at some cost to her writing life, and three years later completed the first full scale biography of Leonard Woolf.
So what changed her mind?
“Well, a little bit of me hates Bloomsbury. The Jewish and the Quaker bit of me and the way they all worked for posterity. They were venal, gossipy, frivolous, clever and privileged and not all of them were that talented. And there is something of the devil in me… My friend Hermione Lee had written marvellously about Virginia and I thought Leonard is always in second place, always the nurturer, the looker after. Or else American feminists saw him as the oppressor of Virginia, or worse: the conniver in her death.
“Perhaps, as the mother of four sons, I knew there was another aspect to all of this. Thank heavens for feminism but we have come a long way since then. This is a post-feminist book in a way. I really thought it was the boys’ turn again”. The result is a deeply satisfying account of a complex and attractive man who deserves to be remembered in his own right as an original novelist, significant publisher, uncompromising politician, competent colonial administrator in what was then Ceylon as well as the carer of a genius.
There was a telling scene at the launch party for Leonard Woolf when the star of the evening could not be found. She had slipped out to the shops to find some child friendly food for one of her young grandchildren. It was indicative of the way she understands not just about human nature but how families work that make her such a supreme practitioner of what is often called the English disease. Also present was her first husband, Professor Nigel Glendinning.
For the last ten years Victoria has been married to Kevin O’Sullivan, businessman and engineer, and three years ago they moved deep into the English countryside, but only a couple of hours away from London by train. Bruton, reputed to be the smallest town in England, is redolent with history and their home is a converted trio of farm cottages near Stourhead on which they have devoted much love and affection. Victoria’s study opens directly onto the garden, past a beautiful oblong pond framed by the barn, and I wonder if such a rural idyll is a distraction. She admits that it is as she adores gardening and it shows. The montbretia, lilies and roses are all colourfully flourishing. New to it though she may be, this urban bohemian woman clearly takes a pride in country life. As she drives me from the station, we stop at the 17th century almshouses built by Queen Elizabeth 1’s auditor, Hugh Sexey, and admire the Jacobean chapel and the perfectly manicured grass quadrangle. She has been welcomed here as the celebrity that she is, immediately called upon to judge the local short story competition.
Not surprisingly in a town whose history is defined by a destroyed abbey, Victoria thinks her next project will probably have something to do with 17th English religious life, the dissolution of the monasteries and the dispossessed nuns. What happened to them all? Where did they go what did they do? It’s a rich subject and a timely one as religious intolerance is on the increase. I am reminded of how we began our conversation; discussing the headmaster who told her that when things go wrong it’s always the woman’s fault. I can’t wait to read this book.
Anne Sebba’s biographies include Mother Teresa, Laura Ashley and a history of Women Reporters. Her latest book, Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother, is published in September 2007 in the UK by John Murray and in November in the US by WW Norton. She is also an Executive member of English Pen.