July 12, 2003

Virginia Woolf A Biography, by Quentin Bell

Even if you can't stand her writing, I would still recommend reading Bell's biography of Virginia Woolf. She's such an eccentric, such an interesting character that her story is fascinating.

First, there's the whole madness issue. She committed suicide in 1941 after years of periodic psychotic episodes. And the treatment then was so primitive, almost nonexistent, that it almost seemed to make her problems worse. She probably had some form of bipolar disorder and Bell gives some time to tracing the mental health issues of her forbear back a few generations. I've often wondered if she were alive now, with all the therapeutic drugs available, would she have been able to write as imaginatively as she did?. Or would the drugs have stabilized her mind and destroyed her creative spark?.

Then, there is the whole Bohemian, Bloomsbury, lesbian thing. After reading the book, I can't think of anyone I know who led a more staid, happily married lifestyle than she did. She was married for years to Leonard Woolf and, yes, had passionate friendships with lesbians but Bell, who happens to be her nephew and actually knew her, is highly skeptical that any physical reaction was reciprocated by Virginia. She did have flamboyant, creative friends. Lytton Strachey, Desmond McCarthy and Roger Fry were just a small part of the circle she was involved in. She knew Henry James and H.G. Wells. And later in life, she befriended Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen. Her sister, Vanessa Bell, was a leader in Post Modernist painting in Britain and famous in her own right. But Virginia's major wild fling seems to be that she shared a house as a cooperative with unmarried men prior to marriage.

What mostly comes thru is a highly gifted woman plagued with shyness and insecurity and threatened by permanent madness who writes because she's passionate about language and words and thoughts. She isn't highly educated; in fact, Bell points out that neither she nor her sister were allowed to attend school and were educated, badly, at home by their impatient and overbearing father. She loved London and England. The war with its bombings and threats of invasion lead indirectly to her final slow slide into another episode of madness which she forestalls by putting rocks into her pocket and walking into the river Ouse.

Posted by Deb English at July 12, 2003 01:30 PM

Deb said:

Duh, vanessa Bell along with Roger Fry was a leader in the Post Impressionist movement in England, NOT the Post Modern. They held an initial gallery showing of Cezanne after spending time in France. I was tired when I wrote the reveiw!

Virginia Bell said:

I enjoyed reading your description of Virginia's life. Yes, I suppose she was eccentric, but why not?? Life in those days for women was probably very boring and what was then eccentric may not be considered eccentric now.