Saturday, March 11, 2017

Rubies, roses, love

Virginia Woolf was so deeply impressed by her half-sister's engagement in 1896 that it formed her standard for love for the rest of her life. In her memoirs, she said new engagements always gave her the feeling of : "My Love's like a red, red rose, that's newly sprung in June,"  Mere affairs, or unofficial arrangements, didn't do it for her.

 Auntie Eve, centre, after her marriage to Uncle Len. Here she's surrounded by me and my siblings, with her own first child in the middle. Left to right, Diane, Betty, Auntie Eve, Victor, Larry, Brian, Carol. We are at Grandpa and Granny's place at Sylvan Lake, Alberta.

Virginia Woolf was 14 and recovering from a nervous breakdown after her mother's death when she first saw someone fall in love. From behind the folding doors of her family's London drawing room, she watched her half-sister Stella blossom during her engagement to a persistent young suitor called Jack Hills.

It was "so intense, so exciting, so rapturous" that it amounted to a vision -- "my first vision then of love between man and woman," she writes in her memoir, Moments of Being.

"It was to me like a ruby; the love I detected that winter of their engagement, glowing, red, clear, intense. It gave me a conception of love; a standard of love; a sense that nothing in the world is so lyrical, so musical, as a young man and a young woman in their first love for each other."

Woolf's description evoked the fizz in the air the summer that Uncle Len introduced us to the beautiful young woman who would become our Auntie Eve. We were staying at our grandparents' cottage at Sylvan Lake, when he brought his intended there to meet his parents. The newcomer had long blonde hair, usually pinned up; she had a German accent, and she was from somewhere "back east" -- all of which made her an exotic bird in a flock of wrens. But it was the fact that she and my uncle were to marry that turned the atmosphere electric.

Love! Marriage! I was young -- probably under 10 at the time -- and hadn't encountered many engaged people before. I knew nothing of the mysteries of marriage, but there it was -- a peculiar excitement that seemed to go with the idea of two once-strangers joining forces, joining families, to begin a new life.

For Woolf the novelist, her intense feelings around Stella and Jack were something to explore in her work. In To the Lighthouse, Paul and Minta, two young people visiting the Ramsay family at their summer beach house, become engaged, provoking different reactions in those around them.

The eldest Ramsay daughter Prue, naive and being schooled for marriage, keeps looking at them over the dinner table "as if the sun of the love of men and women rose over the rim of the table-cloth and without knowing what it was she bent towards it." Her mother, Mrs. Ramsay, who had brought the couple together, has a sudden sense of being past it: "They had that -- Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle -- she, only this -- an infinitely long table and plates and knives . . . . She had a sense of being past everything, through everything, out of everything." Lily Briscoe, the rebel who does not want to marry, is drawn to the "emotion, the vibration, of love" even as she condemns it as the "stupidest, the most barbaric of human passions."

The excitement around the first flush of love is no predictor of how things will turn out: in the novel, Paul and Minta's marriage is a failure. In real life, Woolf's beloved half-sister died of peritonitis three months after her marriage in 1897. In my own world, the engagement of my aunt and uncle turned into a long and happy marriage that lasted until Uncle Len's death in 2015. I had only a glimpse of their beginning, but their engagement was a hint of the grown-up mysteries ahead. To me, they'll always be my Stella and Jack.

Uncle Len several years after his marriage to Auntie Eve, with baby Thom and Victor.

Auntie Eve's glamour shot. We always admired her blonde hair.

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