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


WWriting a book can be like completing a Rubik’s Cube: no matter how long you work on it, no matter which way you turn it, the colors refuse to align. Until one day, with one movement, it all falls into place.

Melbourne author Sophie Cunningham had been working on her puzzle for more than 12 years before it clicked. The result is her wonderful – and wonderfully strange – third novel, This Devastating Fever.

“I tried many different versions with different ways of telling the story,” says Cunningham. “It was difficult because some of the stuff I wrote for it was among 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. It is especially a book about Virginia Woolf’s husband and collaborator, Leonard. The group has inspired more literary production than they produced – but Cunningham’s attitude is fresh.

Much of the novel is metafiction set in the present, about Melbourne author Alice’s 16-year journey to write her own book about Leonard Woolf. But Alice’s book – also titled This Devastating Fever – spins out of her control, its subject unwieldy and its author susceptible to delving down rabbit holes, much to the chagrin of her impatient agent. Meanwhile, the ghosts of Leonard and Virginia continue to visit – either to scold her (Alice is too focused on their sex life, Virginia says) or pass on more information as she struggles with the material she already has.

The book jumps between the present and the past. It covers Leonard’s entire adult life, from his courtship of Virginia to her death and beyond; and in the present, we meet Alice on the eve of the turn of the millennium, leaving her sometime around Melbourne’s seventh lockdown, in a zombie state holding 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 in which the book plays with what is real and what is not. Like Alice, she teaches writing, lives with her wife in Melbourne and has been carried away by her research on the continent. In one scene, Alice even attends the Zoom book launch of a real novel, The Animals In That Country, which Cunningham helped launch virtually in 2020.

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

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

“I’ve worked in publishing for more than 30 years – I was able to draw on a deep knowledge to create a character that felt very relatable,” says Cunningham.

The takeaway? Don’t call it autofiction and don’t try to guess who is who. Everyone is a creation – except the members of the Bloomsbury group.

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

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

Cunningham was in Sri Lanka in 2005, a year after the tsunami, researching her second novel Bird when she came across his books and journals. Before 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 quite a complicated character,” says Cunningham. “By reading his work, I realized that he was super smart. He was a magistrate and hard on people – and the system wasn’t much fun for the local people living under it – but he was a critic of imperialism. Each generation likes to think it’s more awake than the one before, but I don’t think that’s true. He raised questions that we are still debating today.”

Woolf left Ceylon for London, where he fell in love with Virginia Stephen, and moved into an unconventional share house with her and her brothers. While Leonard Woolf was modern in many respects, he still had an unpleasant side.

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

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

Virginia and Leonard Woolf photographed in 1914.
‘I think he was a bit of a mansplainer’: Virginia and Leonard Woolf photographed in 1914. Photo: Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy

Cunningham’s research led her elsewhere. At the Peradeniya Library in Kandy, Sri Lanka, she came across an alarming name in the library’s guestbook: globally acclaimed biographer Victoria Glendinning had also seen Leonard Woolf’s archive.

This could only mean one thing: a blockbuster biography was on the way (Glendinning’s book Leonard Woolf – A Life, published in 2006). A historical novel or direct biography from a lesser-known author risked being overshadowed by Glendinning’s book.

“If I changed my mind about doing nonfiction, that door was now closed,” Cunningham says. “I was interested in the crazy challenge of bringing people to life who had been analyzed so much. It seems insane – but not much was written about him [Leonard] until 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 editor of the literary journal Meanjin. “Leonard Woolf went on a high.”

Any writer will tell you that putting a novel in the drawer to “ripen” is a dangerous game: too long and you move on from work that suddenly feels stale. But Cunningham never lost sight of it, completing several drafts and going on several international research trips.

“The fact that I didn’t leave it made me ask, ‘Why do we write novels?’ I was 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 by Sophie Cunningham.
This Devastating Fever by Sophie Cunningham, out through Ultimo Press. Photo: Ultimo Press

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

Reading Geoff Dyer’s book Out of Sheer Rage in 2017 “gave me a kick up the butt,” she says. That book follows the British author who tries – and largely fails – to write a DH Lawrence biography. “[My] The book was then about process and writing, and it gave a sense of possibility. Call me paranoid, but people didn’t think I could do it. I thought, ‘Fuck you – I’m about to finish this book’.”

Like the book itself, the title can be read on multiple levels: This devastating fever can refer to Leonard’s words about love, or to the pandemic, or to Alice’s own night sweats as she tries to finish her novel. For a book that has had so many lives over so many years, it feels remarkably fresh.



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