Biography is not a polite business. Any pretense of biographical etiquette was done away with long ago. Beware then, the writer who aspires fame. Heed the confidential letter, the diary confession, the hidden photograph, the discreet friend and the whispered remark. There are no secrets.
Virginia Woolf was a noted biographer and critic herself. She was famous for her notorious wit and dry humor. Although she was successful and well-known, she nevertheless dodged celebrity, loathed being interviewed, was hyper-sensitive to criticism and hated having her photograph taken. She was shy and very private.
This penetrating new biography by Canadian scholar James King bursts into the world of this reclusive woman and illuminates the real and imagined characters that come together so vividly in her work.
The last comprehensive biography of Virginia Woolf was written in 1972 by her nephew Quentin Bell. In the forward to his book, Bell explains his purpose is “purely historical.” He claims to be only about the business of facts. By avoiding psychological conclusions, he could be somewhat protective of his aunt. This “polite” approach was the accepted mode 20 years ago. A biographer could scurry past sensitive issues and minimize potentially explosive revelations under the guise of privacy or respect.
In scrutinizing his subject, King capitalizes on today’s openness as well as on 20 years of research devoted not only to Woolf, but to her eclectic circle of colleagues, lovers, family and friends.
The study of Virginia Woolf is so far reaching that most biographies tend to specialize on either her writing or her life. King labels his work a “literary biography” and thoroughly examines both themes. He maintains the connection between Woolf’s life and art is unavoidable. Her writing formed the core of her existence, and therefore her novels are intrinsically autobiographical. Not only does he develop this thesis but he takes on almost every other aspect of her life as well. Consequently, it’s remarkable how many facts, anecdotes, quotations, theories and conclusions he can squeeze into a single paragraph. For the Woolf-phile, the book is a wonderfully rich read. Because of the enormous amount of information, the book is also, at times, a somewhat disjointed feast.
Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on Jan. 25, 1882, into a family that was dysfunctional at best. Virginia’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen was a lonely, self-pitying widower with one child when he married Julia Duckworth, a 31-year-old widow with three children. Together they produced Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian. Virginia was 13 when her mother died. She experienced her first breakdown that same year.
As if this trauma was not enough to unhinge a young life, Virginia was also sexually abused by her half-brothers, Gerald and George Duckworth. The abuse began when Virginia was 6. She was devastated by this violation and her delicate temperament never recovered. Throughout her life she considered herself ugly, and she regarded sexuality as an alien and hostile aspect of her self. Not surprisingly, she was uncomfortable when Gerald later became her publisher. She recognized the horrifying irony of her book being fondled by Gerald. “His commercial view of every possible subject depressed me, especially when I thought of my novel destined to be pawed and snored over by him.” (The abuse, and Virginia’s recounting of it in conversations and in numerous writings is fully explored in Louise DeSalvo’s excellent book, “Virginia Woolf--The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work,” 1989, Beacon Press.)
Although Quentin Bell briefly discusses the abuse in his biography, the statement “I do not know enough about Virginia’s mental illnesses to say whether this adolescent trauma was in any way connected with them,” not only dates his book, but underscores his timid approach to the subject.
Portraits of key individuals are dealt with more honestly in this biography. For example, the relationship between Virginia and her sister Vanessa Bell is often idealized. King reveals a complicated and at times stormy bond between these creative siblings. Beneath these tensions was a great love however, and a dependency upon one another. King suggests the relationship was also physical. As the women approached middle age. Virginia wrote to her sister: “With you I am deeply, passionately, unrequitedly in love--and thank goodness your beauty is ruined, for my incestuous feeling may then be cooled.”
Enter Leonard Woolf; the poor, unsuspecting civil servant. How did he fit into this odd quagmire of a family? A friend of Virginia’s brothers from Cambridge, Leonard was very much in love with Virginia. They married, and soon after a disastrous honeymoon, their physical relationship ended, and with it the possibility of children. What emerged however, and endured for 29 years, was a spiritual marriage and unique partnership. Although Leonard pursued his writing and political interests, he also provided a secure and loving foundation that enabled Virginia to write. Together they established the Hogarth Press. While enormously satisfying, this “child” was a poor surrogate for the children Virginia always regretted not having. Virginia often refers to her “childlessness” in her correspondence and diaries. King’s biography examines Virginia’s feelings about this loss, as well as about aging and the onset of menopause. In a footnote, King discusses the popular medical belief that menopause, madness and even suicide were somehow linked. Not only was Virginia Woolf a victim of antiquated diagnostic methods and inadequate drug therapy for her illness, but the awareness of this sexist medical theory must have greatly increased her anxiety as she grew older.
In addition to Leonard and Vanessa, the other individual who not only sustained Virginia, but influenced her writing was Vita Sackville-West. “Orlando,” one of Woolf’s greatest novels, was based on the masculine/feminine nature of this eccentric aristocrat.
Writing gave Virginia a purpose, and yet the anxiety generated by her creative process could produce catastrophic results. Although writing demanded enormous courage, she had no choice. “The only way I keep afloat is by working.”
In her writing, Woolf confronted her demons: life, death, suicide, madness and memories of the past. She assembled her foes together and sorted them out on the battlefield of her mind. Writing was a distraction from reality and a detour from death. There was only one problem: Writing was only a temporary escape. Tragically, when Virginia realized she could no longer write, she chose not to live.
Monk’s House is the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf in the East Sussex countryside of England. I remember wandering through the garden. The sitting room with its unusual green walls and Virginia’s bedroom with the long, narrow bed are forever etched in my memory. When I read Virginia Woolf’s novels, I often visualize her working in the small lodge at the rear of the garden. I can see Virginia seated at her desk writing on the pale blue paper she used for manuscripts.
Biography offers a similar experience. It enables the reader to draw parallels between the writer’s world and his or her words. In a 1939 article for the Atlantic Monthly entitled “The Art of Biography,” Virginia Woolf explores this bond between reader and author: “For how often, when a biography is read and tossed aside, some scene remains bright, some figure lives on in the depths of the mind, and causes us, when we read a poem or a novel, to feel a start of recognition, as if we remembered something we had known before.”