Sophie Cunningham on the “crazy challenge” of bringing Leonard and Virginia Woolf to life | Australian books


OWriting a book can be like finishing a Rubik’s Cube: no matter how long you work on it, no matter which way you turn it, the colors refuse to line up. Until the day when, with a single gesture, everything falls into place.

Melbourne writer Sophie Cunningham had been working on her puzzle for over 12 years before clicking. The result is his wondrous – and wondrously weird – third novel This Devastating Fever.

“I tried many different versions, with different ways of telling the story,” says Cunningham. “It was tough, because some of the writing I did for it was some of my best writing – but that didn’t mean I had a novel.”

At its heart, This Devastating Fever is a book about the Bloomsbury set, a group of English writers and thinkers active in the first half of the 20th century. In particular, it’s a book about Virginia Woolf’s husband and collaborator, Leonard. The group inspired more literary output than it produced – but Cunningham’s vision is fresh.

Much of the novel is metafiction, set in modern times, about Melbourne writer Alice’s 16-year journey writing her own book on Leonard Woolf. But Alice’s book – also titled This Devastating Fever – spirals out of her control, its subject matter unwieldy and its author likely to seek rabbit holes, much to the chagrin of her impatient agent. Meanwhile, the ghosts of Leonard and Virginia continue to visit her – either to scold her (Alice is too focused on their sex life, Virginia says) or to feed her more information, as she struggles with the equipment she already has.

The book oscillates between the present and the past. It encompasses the sweep of Leonard’s adult life, from his court in Virginia to his death and beyond; and, in the present, we meet Alice on the eve of the millennium, and leave her around Melbourne’s seventh lockdown where, in a zombie state, she’s hosting Zoom meetings from her bed while finishing the book.

That Cunningham also spent 16 years writing This Devastating Fever is one of the few ways the book plays with what’s real and what isn’t. Like Alice, she teaches writing, lives with his wife in Melbourne and has been carried away by his research across the continent. In one scene, Alice even takes part in the Zoom book launch of a real novel, The Animals of This Country, which Cunningham helped launch virtually in 2020.

But Cunningham says it is wrong to assume that she was literally writing about herself and others; with one or two exceptions, everything in the book is made up.

Even the agent? I ask. Sarah’s character is so wonderfully and specifically drawn that she feels like a real person.

“I’ve worked in publishing for over 30 years – I’ve been able to tap into a deep well of knowledge to create a very recognizable character,” says Cunningham.

Take-out? Don’t call it autofiction and try to guess who is who. Everyone is a creation – except for the members of the Bloomsbury Group.

“Leonard was quite a complicated character,” explains Sophie Cunningham. Photography: Alana Holmberg/Oculi for The Guardian

Those fascinated by the Bloomsbury group usually focus on its brightest stars, such as Virginia Woolf, her artist sister Vanessa Bell, EM Forster and John Maynard Keynes. So: why Leonardo?

Cunningham was in Sri Lanka in 2005, a year after the tsunami, researching her second novel Bird, when she came across her books and diaries. Prior to his marriage, he had spent time as a colonial official in what was then known as Ceylon during the height of the British Empire.

“[Leonard] was a pretty complicated character,” Cunningham says. “Reading his work, I realized he was super smart. He was a magistrate and tough on people – and the system wasn’t much fun for the local people who lived there – but he was a critic of imperialism. Each generation likes to think they’re wiser than the last, but I don’t think that’s true. He raised issues that we still discuss today.

Woolf moved from Ceylon to London, where he fell in love with Virginia Stephen, and moved into an unconventional roommate with her and her brothers. While Leonard Woolf was modern in many ways, he always had an unpleasant side.

“Early on in the process, I was self-censoring. I wanted people to like him, but later I wanted to make him a really complex person – and that involved bringing in other aspects of his personality. In the book, Alice goes on a similar journey, “I think he was a bit of a culprit. He was a very serious man and he took things seriously – like anti-Semitism – and people thought he was kinda boring about it.

We follow Alice as she travels to Sri Lanka to research Leonard Woolf, then to Bloomington, Illinois to look into her papers. She spends time walking the South Downs and returns to Melbourne to periodically meet with her agent, who tries to get her back on track.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf photographed in 1914.
“I think he was a bit of a culprit”: Virginia and Leonard Woolf photographed in 1914. Photograph: Granger Historic Image Archive/Alamy

Cunningham’s research took her elsewhere. At the Peradeniya Library in Kandy, Sri Lanka, she came across an alarming name in the library’s guestbook: world-renowned biographer Victoria Glendinning had also consulted Leonard Woolf’s archives.

That could only mean one thing: a bestselling biography was on the way (Glendinning’s book, Leonard Woolf – A Life, came out in 2006). A historical novel or a simple biography of a lesser-known writer risked being overshadowed by Glendinning’s book.

“If I changed my mind to do non-fiction, that door was now closed,” Cunningham explains. “I was interested in the crazy challenge of bringing to life people who had been analyzed so much. Sounds crazy – but not much had been written about him [Leonard] up to Glendinning’s book.

But then life got in the way – and the book was put aside for other projects. Cunningham wrote two non-fiction books – Melbourne and Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy – and became the editor of the literary journal Meanjin. “Leonard Woolf has gone on the back burner.”

Any writer will tell you that putting a novel in the drawer to “mature” it is a dangerous game: take too long and you walk away from a work that suddenly seems stale. But Cunningham never lost sight of it, completing more drafts and taking more international research trips.

“The fact that I didn’t give it up made me ask, ‘Why do we write novels?’ I came very close to losing my temper – people are so obsessed with Virginia and Leonard that there will always be an extra layer of scrutiny.

This devastating fever of Sophie Cunningham.
This Devastating Fever by Sophie Cunningham, published by Ultimo Press. Photography: Ultimo Press

Cunningham tried various devices to make the book work. For example: “I thought to myself, ‘It’s like stuffed animals in a diorama’ – then I made a whole draft with them in a diorama!”

Reading Geoff Dyer’s book Out of Sheer Rage in 2017 “kicked me in the ass,” she says. This book follows the British author trying – and largely failing – to write a biography of DH Lawrence. “[My] the book then became about process and writing, and it gave a sense of possibility. Call me paranoid, but people didn’t think I could do it. I was like, ‘Fuck you, I’m finishing this book.’ »

Like the book itself, the title can be read on many levels: This Devastating Fever could refer to Leonard’s lyrics about love, or the pandemic, or Alice’s own night sweats as she tries to finish his novel. For a book that has had so many lives, for so many years, it feels remarkably fresh.


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