The role of the literary biographer can be complex. Some biographers take pains not to leave a trace of themselves. Others, through extensive biographical research and narrative technique, present themselves as flies on the wall. Some biographers might even assert creative agency, approaching the task as a kind of literary portraiture, wanting to leave behind their signature—however bold.
With bold strokes Gillian Gill recreates the life of her subject in Virginia Woolf: And The Women Who Shaped Her World. Throughout the biography, seemingly simple choices—ending sentences with exclamations, or leaving readers with hypothetical questions—insert Gill’s enthusiasm and passion for Woolf and her oeuvre. Oftentimes, Gill even writes about herself in the first person; she includes the reader in her adventures learning about Woolf: “…my Woolf-loving readers will be exclaiming!” Yet underlying this intimacy with her reader is a breadth of research that perhaps affords Gill such intimacy with Woolf, even when readers are left to wonder at moments that appear more conjecture than fact.
Gill has made an academic career of writing biographical accounts of famous women and the people that occupied their lives and social circles. She’s written about Agatha Christie, Florence Nightingale, Mary Baker Eddy, and Queen Victoria.
With her new book, the phrase “warts and all” comes to mind, but not regarding Gill’s rendering of Woolf. Rather, the “warts” and the “all” correspond to the aspects of Victorian society that clung to Adeline Virginia Stephen as she transformed into a widely read and respected voice of Modernist literature. The warts: the predominating patriarchal attitude toward women’s education that nearly stifled Woolf’s brilliance. The all: a cast of women (and some men) that supported—and often challenged—the writer.
Spanning Woolf’s “middle-class” birth in 1882 to her suicide in 1941, Gill’s biography frames the familiar triumphs and pitfalls of her subject against uncommonly known details of her upbringing, education, and authorial output. The relationship between Woolf and William Makepeace Thackeray, for example: Gill describes his daunting literary presence as “a legacy…part legal-financial, part literary-cultural, and part psychological-medical…it inflected the course of her life in subtle structural ways.”
Probed mostly in academic papers, the Thackeray/Stephen connection is explored at length in Gill’s biography, showing the ways it dominated Woolf’s life. Through a marriage and a step-sister, Woolf and the giant of Victorian letters were related (despite Makepeace Thackeray’s death occurring twenty years prior to Woolf’s birth).
Gill writes at length about Woolf’s struggles with mental health. At one point, after Woolf published an essay on George Eliot and suggested, in Gill’s words, that “the savagely rapid decline in that great woman novelist’s reputations after her death was due not just to her sex but to her physical appearance,” Gill offers the anecdote that Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, and friend, Vita Sackville-West, “thought she was losing her mind—again!” This tension among the women in Woolf’s life creates a vortex in which the author seems caught: she’s challenged and supported, worried after and harried by peers and pessimists.
The tragedy of Woolf’s death is not overlooked, nor is her struggle with episodes of mania and depression. Such details, however, are an occasion for Virginia Woolf: And The Women Who Shaped Her World to celebrate Woolf’s strength and her ability to champion her voice for the sake of other women. There are salacious details to be discovered in Gill’s book, sure. Love triangles, mad fantasies. Gill’s discoveries about Woolf’s experiences in the Bloomsbury Group will prickle readers’ spines.
For fans of Woolf, the more tender moments will subsist longer: her nurturing nature as a childless aunt to her nieces and nephews. Gill writes: “Virginia Woolf loved children, cared about them, saw, with a clarity rare in her generation, how often both boys and girls were seen as sexual objects and abused.” Even within the span of Woolf’s life, Progressive-era reforms took root and blossomed. Yet Gill’s twenty-first century readers, keen to recognize and support movements that challenge those who abuse power, will find in this book not just a kindred spirit, but as in one of Woolf’s novels, a heroine.
Virginia Woolf: And The Women Who Shaped Her World
By Gillian Gill
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Published Dec. 3, 2019
Jordan Foti Gulino is the Features Editor for the Chicago Review of Books. He is a poet, essayist, and translator based out of Chicago (and sometimes Greece). Follow him on Twitter at @fotakigulino.