Phase four of #Woolfalong is all about biographies – either biographies about or written by Virginia Woolf. Orlando and Flush immediately come to mind – as does Woolf’s biography of Roger Fry – which I initially overlooked when I put the list together.
Having already read Orlando – last year, and Flush last month I wanted to read a biography about Virginia Woolf. I am not however always very good with non-fiction, I read less and less of it and I have to be in the in the right frame of mind, so I opted for Nigel Nicolson’s short biography. This was actually a re-read – but I had remembered very little about it. I had remembered how I had enjoyed it before, finding it an engaging and readable little biography. I enjoyed it all over again, it is very readable, and Nigel Nicolson provides at times a wonderfully honest and intimate portrait of Virginia Woolf. He tells us of butterfly hunting and conversation with a woman not much used to children.
“One summer’s afternoon when we were sweeping the tall grass with our nets and catching nothing, she suddenly paused, leaning on her bamboo cane as a savage might lean on his assegai, and said to me: ‘What’s it like to be a child?’ I, taken aback, replied, ‘Well, Virginia, you know what it is like. You’ve been a child yourself. I don’t know what it’s like to be you because I have never been grown-up.’ It was the only occasion when I got the better of her, dialectically.”
Nigel Nicolson was the younger son of Vita Sackville West who was Virginia Woolf’s long-time friend and lover. During his childhood Virginia Woolf was a frequent visitor to the Nicolson family home, and it is Nigel Nicolson’s reminiscences of these childhood encounters that make this such a little gem. This edition also includes some wonderful photographs.
There were however things I certainly hadn’t remembered about this book, and which if I am honest I think makes it a slightly weaker work than I had remembered. Nicolson is very dismissive about Virginia Woolf’s feminism. His view of her famous A Room of One’s Own was that VW was referring only to the women of her own class (well yes possibly) – and says of it that it…
“…was in part a polemic, in part a fantasy. The mood of Orlando was still upon her. She was having fun, but the fun was soured by a note of real bitterness. ‘Why did men drink wine and women water?’, she asked again. In Bloomsbury both sexes drank wine. And was it not Virginia herself, by her conduct and achievements, proof that women of her class were already emancipated?”
I’m sorry, but I was a little disappointed in Nigel Nicolson for that. I was further disappointed by his approach to the sexual assault which Virginia Woolf claimed to have been subjected to by her step-brothers. His attitude seems to have been that VW made a big fuss about nothing. His evidence – to me scant – that the surviving family of the step-brothers dispute it (well yes, they would) and that VW continued to have dealings with them in adulthood – (families are odd complicated things – who can say what one person may or may not do).
I don’t want to dwell too heavily on these two points – I still overall very much enjoyed the book. While these opinions can only add to the myriad which exist about many aspects of Virginia Woolf – I felt them to be rather short sighted.
Still there are many things that I liked about this book. Certainly Nicolson doesn’t allow his family connections with VW to prevent him being objective. He discusses her work without bias, providing an interesting viewpoint on her work.
The majority of this slim biography concerns the woman Nigel Nicolson and his mother knew during the years they knew her. Therefore, there is only a little background given about Virginia Woolf’s own family – the Stephens, and her childhood. What Nigel Nicolson does give us is as well as those delicious childhood reminiscences are details about the Bloomsbury group. He explores the relationships which existed between the members of that group, showing us how the group lived and were viewed by others.
“It was an abrasive society, highly stimulating. It was said that the difference between Bloomsbury and Cambridge was that at Cambridge nothing witty was said unless it was also profound and in Bloomsbury nothing profound was said unless it was also witty. Virginia was largely responsible for this change in mood”
We meet VW the writer and publisher. A writer who was her own worst critic, doubting herself terribly, and putting herself under enormous pressure, working long hours, her mind never far from the book she was writing. She would write in longhand all morning, and type up her writings in the afternoon, in the evening Virginia wrote several letters, each letter unique no phrase ever repeated. As a publisher Virginia would spend hours setting the type – (it must have been an immensely tedious activity) for the Hogarth Press she ran with her husband Leonard.
Through Nicolson’s memory of her we meet Virginia the friend and lover, he acknowledges her love for his mother. Alongside that he shows his own very real affection for the woman he first met as a young boy. Nicolson also clearly shows some very real sympathy for the crippling depression from which VW suffered at various points of her life. In fact Nicolson portrays VW’s suicide in 1941 with tenderness and understanding.
So while I enjoyed Nicolson’s reminiscences of VW – and appreciated his objectivity and the warmth with which this biography is written, I think I probably need to read some other biographies to get a fully rounded picture of this remarkable woman.