Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sh*t My Victorian Uncle Says About Virginia Woolf

I just finished Quentin Bell's Virginia Woolf: A Biography, and I'm fairly torn here. Bell was (is?) Virginia's nephew, so I was afraid I would get something that was heavy on the family gossip and light on the insight into her work, with a side of Familial Skiddishness. The book was everything I hoped and feared it to be. A few points:

1. It is heavily detailed. Bell drew heavily from the source material of Virginia's letters, as well as the letters/diaries/secret innermost thoughts of everyone she ever associated with ever in life ever ever. He references these items on every page, which can lead you to wonder why you don't just read the bloody volumes of letters yourself. On the other hand, if you were ever wondering how Virginia felt about dresses or what she liked to have for tea, this is your JAM.

2. Bell No Likey the Sexy Times. I understand- this is his family he's talking about here. But the parts about Virginia's sexual abuse at the hands of her brother George are glossed over. Bell seems uncomfortable with the topic and uses terms like "petting" or "overly affectionate." He doesn't flat out deny it happened, but he treats a monumentally important part of Virginia's life as something like an irritating scene from her childhood and then quickly moves on OH HEY LOOK SOMETHING SHINY OVER HERE SHE LIKED BOOKS AND STUFF AHEM. Also, he won't admit that Virginia had any physical relationship with any women, or even her husband. He calls her "frigid" and leaves it at that.

3. The handling of Virginia's mental illness is sorta odd. He doesn't offer any explanation or opinions other than his own and what Leonard or Virginia themselves wrote in their diaries, so if you're looking for a diagnosis or scientific exploration of what was actually wrong with Woolf, you're not going to get it. He mentions "bad times" and "madness" and the occasional headache. It seems to ME that she suffered from some sort of bipolar disorder, but again, Bell seems uncomfortable discussing it.

4. What he IS comfortable discussing is Bloomsbury, the group of intellectuals and artists with whom Virginia associated. He really wants you to know all about these people, and who slept with whom (except for Virginia, who he thinks is sexless), and where they hung out, and what they read, and card games they played, etc.

5. Virginia, if Bell's account of her is accurate, was insufferably snotty. I had an inkling of this after reading A Room of One's Own, but for real? She was jealous of any and all artistic success of her contemporaries, talked horribly about everyone behind their backs- especially if they were poor or not as smart as her. She was a socialist, but couldn't abide by the lower classes being anywhere around her. When World War II came, she actually spoke out against England putting up physical resistance (she called the potential violence "beastly masculine aggression" and meant it as an insult), and became irritated when air raids got in the way of her scheduled walks and writing time. She wasn't a fascist- far from it- but seemed more annoyed by the inconvenience of the war than anything else. The generation of writers coming after her pegged her correctly as a prim, stuck-up snob out of touch with reality. Again, this is all if you believe Bell's account, which I only do half-heartedly. I've had recommendations to read a different biography of Woolf by Hermione Lee, which may present her in a totally different light.

But. Still a genius. HOWEVER. You won't get much insight into her creative process in this biography, though she wrote about it in her letters and diaries. You'll get a day to day account of her movements, as well as accounts of all the awful things she said about her friends. You'll end by being irritated with her and wondering how such an annoying woman wrote such brilliant stuff- and Bell never tells you.

Three stars out of your mom


  1. This sounds like good reason for objective authorship. Maybe, take a few steps back from Auntie Ginny (that's what I would call her, if only because it would likely bother her) and write something unflinching, Bell.

    Haven't been around in a while but you remain one of my fav. book bloggers. Are you enjoying your twins? We had a baby earlier this summer and are so in love. Hope all is well.

  2. I really feel sorry for Woolf and her strange life.