Virginia Woolf’s 1924 essay, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” later published as “Character in Fiction,” begins this way:
It seems to me possible, perhaps desirable, that I may be the only person in this room who has committed the folly of writing, trying to write, or failing to write, a novel. And when I asked myself … what demon whispered in my ear and urged me to my doom, a little figure rose before me—the figure of a man, or of a woman, who said, “My name is Brown. Catch me if you can.” Most novelists have the same experience. Some Brown, Smith, or Jones comes before them and says in the most seductive and charming way in the world, “Come and catch me if you can.” And so, led on by this will-o’-the-wisp, they flounder through volume after volume, spending the best years of their lives in the pursuit, and receiving for the most part very little cash in exchange. Few catch the phantom; most have to be content with a scrap of her dress or a wisp of her hair.
There’s so much I like about this passage: Woolf’s playful personification of imagination with the “little figure” rising up before her and speaking; her use of “demon” and “doom” to describe her vocation; the rhythm of her always masterful sentences. She sounds so confident writing about the follies of writing. But it’s particularly the last sentence here that resonates with me: “Few catch the phantom; most have to be content with a scrap of her dress or a wisp of her hair.” While deep into my research for my biography of Clover Adams (gifted photographer and wife of Henry Adams), spending every day at the Massachusetts Historical Society to transcribe her letters, I would emerge bleary-eyed in the early evening to Boston’s crowded streets. And sometimes, I’d think for a moment that I’d glimpsed a swish of Clover’s dress ahead of me but turning a corner out of my sight. It was uncanny. She was vividly present, yet elusive, not quite graspable. How often I wished she could have just turned around, so to speak, to point me in the right direction, correct my errors, and whisper to me the secrets she took to her grave. Instead, it was as Woolf describes: “Come and catch me if you can.”
Richard Holmes, the great biographer of the Romantic poets Shelley and Coleridge, once wrote that biography was a “pursuit, a following of footsteps. You can never catch them; no, you can never quite catch them. But maybe, if you were lucky, you might write about the pursuit of that fleeting figure in such a way as to bring it alive in the present.” And so the pursuit continues, despite the elusiveness of the prey.
~ Natalie Dykstra, BSS Director