Leonard Woolf, on meeting Gertrude Stein

Thanks to the delicious Virginia Woolf list-serv comes this tidbit, a piece by Leonard Woolf first published in The London Magazine October 1955  as “Coming to London — II”, part of a regular series about London life.

Leonard remembers meeting Gertrude Stein:

One of the things which I have been asked to deal with in this article is my ‘first impressions of the London literary world’. My feelings towards that world are probably also ambivalent. It is sometimes represented as composed of literary personages, major and minor, endlessly talking, eating, and drinking in pubs and Soho restaurants, in rooms and flats and parties. Into that world, if it exists, I have not penetrated, and I can only remember two occasions upon which I felt that I was in the real London literary world, even though not of it. The first was when, latish in life, I was sometimes invited to the Sitwells, a dinner, say, with Osbert Sitwell or a party given by Edith Sitwell to meet Gertrude Stein. This was, of course, not in the least like the imaginary would of the literary personages in Soho, but it was a literary world into which I went as an intruder feeling the inferiority complex of the amateur minnow among the great, confident, professional pike. To be led up to Gertrude Stein sitting on a kind of throne and to be given five minutes’ conversation with her was what an old Edinburgh Writer to the Signet used to call ‘an experience’. When he took me as a boy to see Abbotsford and halted me outside to survey that fantastic monument of literary fame and success, he said: ‘This is an experience which ye’ll do well to remember—O Ay, an experience ye’ll do well to remember.’ Gertrude Stein, I felt, was the same kind of experience.

And this, his other literary London memory, a hilarious story about Virginia and his bumbling at a fancy party:

My only other memory of entering the real London literary world recalls a more trivial and to me discreditable experience than a Sitwell party. Virginia and I accepted an invitation to dine with a well-known novelist whom we liked very much. We expected to dine with her alone or at most another guest, and late, dirty, and dishevelled we dashed from printing in the basement in a taxi to her flat—and found ourselves at a formal dinner of twelve or fourteen distinguished writers all in full evening dress. I suppose it was nervousness which made us fail the entrance examination to literary London. At any rate first, when one of those curious collective silences suddenly fell upon the company, Virginia’s extremely clear voice was heard to say: ‘The Holy Ghost?’ to which the distinguished Catholic writer sitting on her left replied with indignation: ‘I did not say Holy Ghost; I said the whole coast.’ Almost immediately after, thinking that the distinguished lady writer sitting on my left had dropped her white handkerchief on the floor, I leant down, picked it up, and handed it to her, to find, to my horror, that it was the hem of her white petticoat which had protruded below her skirt. As soon as we decently could, we slunk off home, feeling that we had both disgraced ourselves in literary London.