According to a little note printed at the back of The Widow and the Parrot, Quentin Bell and his brother commissioned the piece from their Aunt Virginia for publication in the family newspaper the two young boys put together daily with the typically feverish intellectual energy of the Bloomsbury Child. ‘I know she was an author and … it seemed stupid to have a real author so close at hand and not have her contribute.’
Although her surviving nephews and nieces all confirm that Virginia Woolf was lots of fun, she played a mean trick on the lads. Instead of the expected squib (‘as funny, as subversive and as frivolous as Virginia’s conversation,’ which was what Quentin had hoped for), there arrived a ponderous piece of middlebrow camp, mercifully brief, designed, one feels to stop the boys asking such a thing of her ever again.
Nevertheless, Quentin Bell has seen fit to dust off this ancient disappointment and resurrect it, decorated with curiously lifeless illustrations by his own son, Julian, and the Hogarth Press have published it.
And why not, after all. The piece reveals that Virginia Woolf could construct a perfectly formed sentence even when she wasn’t trying; that she relished a joke shared only with herself – for to be boring in public on purpose is indeed an esoteric pleasure; and, last but not least, there is, tugging at the reader’s hindsight, the mild fascination with drowning that reveals itself, jokingly, delicately. Mrs Gage, the eponymous widow, fears to ford the River Ouse: ‘If the tide’s in, I shall step into deep water and be swept out to sea in a jiffy.’
Although writing for children typically unbuttons the imagination of the writer, allowing all kinds of imagery to slip out of the unconscious onto the page (think no further than Peter Pan), only the stray references to death by water hint at anything going on at the back of Virginia Woolf s mind as she hastily scribbled her auntly chore.
Borges, talking about Finnegans Wake, said that one day its simplicities would become apparent to everybody and, ‘Like all great novels,’ like The Odyssey, Gulliver’s Travels, Don Quixote, it would be read by children. The Widow and the Parrot is definitely not in that league of children’s books and it is difficult to imagine, after however long an evolution of the human spirit, an imaginative ten year old curling up happily with To the Lighthouse. Virginia Woolf, as a writer, did not produce novels with the kind of narrative excitements that Borges rates so highly; clearly, she found it difficult to write for an audience she presumed to be without introspection, even if it consisted of her beloved nephews.
She fell back on the model of the simple tale, and opted for the tale’s most lumpen manifestation, the improving stories, composed frequently by Methodists, for children of the last century. The story involves a poor widow, Mrs Gage, who inherits a parrot from a miserly brother. The parrot leads her to good fortune. There is even a moral: Be kind to animals and you will become rich. (This moral is not true.) The landscape is real, not invented; the action takes place in the village of Rodmell, sacred to Bloomsbury country life. There is even a reference to ‘Asheham House, lately the seat of Mr Leonard Woolf.’
Mrs Woolf may have enjoyed herself, just a little, by a meticulosity with language that allows the clement of parody to enter the text. Mrs Gage exclaims: ‘Lawks a mussy,’ from time to time. When she remembers her deceased brother, she thinks: ‘I make no doubt he’s all aflame at this very moment in Hell fire, but what’s the comfort of that to me?’ This may make a grown-up smile, but makes no particular sense to a child , who might very well have the impression that the writer is laughing at him or her behind its back.
Anything at all written by a writer of the stature of Virginia Woolf deserves to be preserved. That goes without saying. Whether The Widow and the Parrot merits being issued as an elegant gift book is another matter. Since Chatto has no children’s list, the issue is evidently not intended for children, which is just as well , since the language is too complex and too patronising for the age group who might enjoy the story and appreciate the sagacious parrot, while the ten year old children who would like the lightly parodic quality of the writing and feel they too were included in the joke are already deep into Finnegans Wake, if Joyce be not already old hat amongst the booksy young.