If you find Virginia Woolf fascinating, as I do (Don’t be Afraid of Virginia Woolf), it’s almost impossible not to find Leonard Woolf fascinating too. That is what drew me to Sophie Cunningham’s book This Devastating Fever (2022). She wanted to tell the story of Leonard Woolf and she’s been trying to tell his story for 15 years. Then along came Covid19 and the parallels between the Woolf’s trying to be writers during a pandemic (The Spanish Flu of 1918), and Cunningham’s own troubles writing during a pandemic were too good to resist.
This Devastating Fever has two narratives: then, the story of the Woolfs, of course, and now, the story of Alice, a writer writing the Woolf story; both stories deal with similar themes. The pandemic, mental illness, and writing. It’s a novel structure and a very interesting and effective one. Alice while globetrotting for research, and then in lockdown, sends excerpts of her Woolf novel, also called This Devastating Fever, to her Australian agent, Sarah, who keeps urging Alice to include more sex, and given the group of people the Woolfs were part of, The Bloomsbury Set, including more sex wouldn’t’ve been difficult. Bed-hopping and fence-jumping were rife.
However, sex concerning Virginia Woolf was problematic. It’s entirely possible that the Woolf’s marriage was never consummated, yet their relationship was loving, strong, and long-lasting – her suicide note is proof of that! Virginia found sexual release with women, and – possibly – Leonard did too.
Cunningham’s metafiction story of Alice is very modern, but Virginia’s writing, in her own era, was also very modern. Virginia’s mental health, always tenuous, is explored against Alice’s attention to the woman that once cared for her but is now demented and in care. There are parallels galore.
The most effective and moving parts are when Virginia and Leonard are together. Cunningham’s imagined dialogue is wonderfully evocative, intriguingly revealing, and utterly believable. Fiction at its best.
I only have one complaint. Cunningham has Leonard and Virginia ‘appear’ to Alice in her story and the resulting conversations are wonderful and enlightening. However, she calls them ‘imaginary Leonard’ and ‘ghost Virginia’ as if us readers wouldn’t understand what was going on when Leonard appeared and spoke in a chapter headed 2021. Annoying, but a minor gripe.
I highly recommend this unique novel.
Here is The Wheeler Centre interview with Sophie Cunningham from late 2022.
You can buy the Kindle or paperback editions here.