Virginia Woolf by Quentin Bell.

Left: Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry (1917).
Right: Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Duncan Grant (1911).
The Fry painting is on the front cover of vol. I, the Grant painting on vol. II.

There are out there a myriad of biographies on Virginia Woolf and, over the years (particularly when I was at university) I have read a great many, but somehow never got to Quentin Bell's. Quentin Bell is the son of Vanessa Bell and the nephew of Virginia Woolf, and in this biography he offers a simple and straight narrative of Woolf's life. 

The biography was published in two volumes in 1972, the first - Virginia Woolf 1882 - 1912, the second Virginia Woolf 1912 - 1941. 1912, the year when the biography shifts from I to II, is a good year to do it: it is the year Miss Stephen married Leonard Woolf and became Mrs. Woolf, and it is more or less exactly the half-way point of her life. But the biography actually begins long before 1882: Bell begins by telling us of Woolf's (and indeed his own) ancestors including the rather fascinating James Pattle (1775 - 1845), the father of Julia Margaret Cameron who was the great aunt of Virginia Woolf. Bell writes of Pattle,
[He was], we are told, a quite extravagantly wicked man. He was known as the greatest liar in India; he drank himself to death; he was packed off home in a cask of spirits, which cask, exploding, ejected his unbottled corpse before his widow's eyes, drove her out of her sits, set the ship on fire and left it stranded in the Hooghly.
Quite a story! Bell goes on to describe Woolf's other ancestors, her father, mother, and then siblings before embarking on Woolf's own life, year by year, from her birth on the 25th January 1882,
Virginia was born on 25 January 1882, at No 22 Hyde Park Gate. The house still stands and bears her father's name. It had five storeys and to these the Stephens added two further storeys of atrocious design. It is a tall dark house with a fairly large back garden.
to her death on the 28th March 1941, "'the one experience,' as she had said to Vita, 'I shall never describe'".

Virginia Woolf with Quentin Bell as a boy.
The biography is interesting for two reasons: one, Virginia Woolf is interesting, there can be no doubt about that, and second there is the obvious personal connection of the biographer and his subject. Bell's knowledge is extensive but no exhaustive and he is not afraid to admit when he doesn't know or fully understand an event. This and his style, his warmth, gives a very human portrayal of Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, they are not subjects in his writing, they are real human beings, vivid and full of vitality. One does not feel the distance one might from reading other works. Bell is, as I say, aware of his limitations, and writes in the second volume,
To know the psyche of Virginia Woolf, and this is what she was in effect asking of a biographer, one would either have to be God or Virginia, preferably God. Looking from the outside, one can go no further than what I have called the outline and for the rest one may guess, one may even build upon one's divinations, but never for a moment allowing oneself to forget that this is guesswork and guesswork of a most hazardous kind.
Nevertheless Bell succeeds in some ways of capturing her spirit and writing of the complexities of her attitudes, perhaps not dwelling for a great length of time on her more negative characteristics (her occasional spite, for example) and through his biography we come to understand not just an author but her web of relationships; the social Woolf, the private Woolf, the writer Woolf.

My edition of Virginia Woolf was about 500 pages, enough to dig a little deeper into her life, but not so much that it becomes tedious. He does of course write of her books and essays, but it is not so much a literary or biographical criticism, more a description of how they came to be and their reception following completion and publication. It is, for the Woolf fan, a must-read and I must admit I do have a liking of the linear approach to it. Fascinating, warm, and straightforward. An excellent starting point for the life of Virginia Woolf, and I do wish I'd read it sooner!


  1. i've been very curious about V.W. having read several biographies, i'm conscious of a gap between the facts of her life and her. it sounds like Bell's work may help fill in the chinks. so thanks for the interesting post; i'll have to get ahold of a copy...


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