I have long found Virginia Woolf a fascinating woman. After reading A Room of One’s Own last year, which had a brief introduction to her life, I decided I wanted to read a biography of her. This is a big step for me because I don’t believe I have ever enjoyed a biography in my life. I prefer memoirs – less dry and boring for me. But Woolf didn’t write a memoir, and I wanted to know about her life enough to pick up a biography.
I chose Quentin Bell’s biography because of his personal connection to Woolf. He was her nephew. Others have said that a more recent version is good, but Bell’s is the only one I considered. I’m glad I chose it because I not only learned a lot about Woolf, but I learned a lot about Quentin Bell and I would have really liked to get to know him.
What I was most afraid of in this 1973 book was that it would skate over Woolf’s sexuality or take a moral stance against her. At best, I thought it would talk about her affairs with both men and women with a firm indifference. However, it wasn’t anything like this. Bell was straightforward and the exact opposite of moralizing. It was relieving and it made me so happy!
First, let me say what Volume 1 of this work deals with (I only read Volume 1 for the purposes of this review). It talks about Woolf’s family history on both her mother and father’s side, then talks about her childhood and her early adulthood up until she accepted Leonard Woolf’s marriage proposal in 1912. Volume 2, which I haven’t yet read, explores her life from this point until her death in 1941. Originally, I’d planned to read both volumes before writing this review, but after spending nearly three weeks reading Volume 1, I decided to set Volume 2 aside for several months. As I’ve said, biography is not my favorite genre by far and even though I really enjoyed this book and I loved Quentin Bell and his writing, I still can’t read this sort of history for a long time. I will enjoy it more split into two readings.
Bell does a marvelous job here. He had access to a bunch of letters and diaries that were in Leonard Woolf’s possession until his death in 1969. Bell also had Leonard Woolf’s permission to write this and to use all the information within, which I think is important. But what I loved most was Bell’s personal connection to Virginia. When he spoke about how her half-brother George molested her as a child and a young adult, there is tiny trace of anger behind it even though he tries to stay neutral and unbiased. His dislike of his uncle George is apparent every time he’s mentioned. Bell also does not skirt any of the sexual issues that occurred in the Bloomsbury group, to which Virginia and her sister Vanessa both belonged. He makes no excuses, nor does he moralize against them. His underlying philosophy comes out in favor of feminism as he talks about the anti-women customs of the late 1800s and early 1900s. He is, in short, exactly as I’d want him to be.
Yes, reading this I feel like I was learning as much about Bell as Woolf, simply because that’s what I was looking at. Maybe that’s why I tend to find biographies boring – because I pay so much more attention to the writer than their subject. But I did learn a lot about Woolf as well, plus a lot about the culture she grew up in. For example, I had no idea that there was a law in Britain at one point that if a man’s wife died, it was illegal for him to marry her sister. Because of that law, Vanessa did not marry her half-sister Stella’s husband after Stella died mere months after her marriage.
Honestly, I don’t want to just list out facts I learned about Woolf’s life. That would make this review more boring than it already is. I just want to say I really enjoyed reading this and I think it was a very thorough look at the first part of Virginia’s life. I loved all the personal connections Bell had to the family and his writing is very easy to follow. I loved that he stated frankly when Virginia fell in love with certain women. I loved that he included Leonard Woolf’s love letters to Virginia because they are beautiful and passionate. I loved learning more about Virginia’s personality because she reminds me a lot of myself in many ways.