A review of Virginia Woolf and the Women who Shaped her World by Gillian Gill

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Virginia Woolf and the Women who Shaped her World
by Gillian Gill
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover: 432 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1328683953, Dec 2019

Virginia Woolf’s writing was well-known in the 1920s and ‘30s, then fell into the shade until her nephew, Quentin Bell, published her diaries in 1972.  In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the second wave of 20th century feminism was flourishing, and Woolf’s novels were eagerly embraced by a new generation of readers. She emerged again as a major literary and intellectual figure, important because she wrote about the second class citizen status of women and even about sexual abuse.

Gillian Gill is of the generation that rediscovered Virginia Woolf.  Her new book, Virginia Woolf and the Women who Shaped her World is a new slant on an author who has been the subject of many scholarly and popular works and even novels.  Written in a reader-friendly style, full of anecdotes and speculation, Gill’s book is hard for a Woolf aficionado to put down. With its forty-one pages of bibliography and notes, it is definitely a scholarly work that approaches Virginia Woolf  from a different angle.

“Rare in her generation,” writes Gill, “Virginia Woolf valued the contribution of women to the English literary tradition as much as we do today. From childhood she immersed herself in the work of women writers of the past, and as a prolific reviewer and essayist she liked to choose books that allowed women’s voices to be heard.  She saw herself as a link in a chain of women writers and this pride in  tradition was a spur to her authorial ambition. At the same time, she knew better than most the enormous obstacles that even the greatest women writers of the past had faced.”

Woolf was also influenced  by women of her own time, and by her remarkable female ancestors on her mother’s side of the family. Her great aunts, Sarah Pattle Prinsep and Julia Margaret Pattle Cameron, returned wealthy from colonial India and established salons of  writers and artists in Kensington and on the Isle of Wight. In an era of rigidly defined gender roles and separation of the sexes, Victorian women and men often reached maturity not knowing much about each other’s lives. These 19th century salons were flirtatious but adhered in principle to the conventional morality of the era, and provided an opportunity for men and women to meet and converse as friends. The Bloomsbury group of the early 20th century, in which Virginia and Vanessa Stephen played major roles, was similar in some ways to these earlier salons.

Julia Margaret Cameron was also a renowned photographer. Some of her pictures hung in Virginia Stephen’s home, making her aware  from an early age that a woman could pursue a creative endeavour of her own rather than devoting herself entirely  to family.

Virginia Woolf’s mother, Julia Jackson Duckworth Stephen, influenced Virginia mainly as a negative example. When she married Leslie Stephen, she a widow, he a widower, she had two sons and a daughter from her first marriage. She and Leslie had four more children. She was not a feminist, but believed in doing good works, and nursed the sick, an activity that took her away from her household. Her daughter, Stella Duckworth, managed the home and cared for the four young Stephen children, when she was out. Absent physically and emotionally, she preferred her sons to her daughters. Her Duckworth sons bullied her Stephen daughters and sexually abused them.  Julia died, worn out, at 49.

Later, in an essay on women and writing, Virginia Woolf wrote about “the angel in the house”, the voice in the back of a woman writer’s mind, urging her to be charming, self-sacrificing and domestic. It is clear to Gillian Gill that Woolf had her mother in mind.  The character “Mrs. Ramsay” in To the Lighthouse is based on Julia Stephen, with another character, “Lily Briscoe”, a single artist, as her opposite.

Stella, Virginia’s half-sister, was raised by Julia  to be the spinster daughter who would look after her and Leslie in their old age. After their mother’s death, however, Stella fell in love with a suitor, Jack Hills. Virginia later wrote that love had transformed Stella and made her glow.  When Stella died from complications of pregnancy shortly after her marriage, Virginia saw  a worst case example of the consequences of marriage and sexuality. Stella’s fate, combined with the sexual abuse Virginia suffered, had a profound effect on her.

Another problematic woman in Virginia’s life was her elder sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. Throughout Virginia’s early bouts of mental illness, Vanessa was her comfort and support. After their father’s death, she was instrumental in liberating herself and her siblings, then between the ages of twenty and twenty-four, from the old family home  in Kensington to the less expensive district of Bloomsbury to live a freer, more bohemian life.

Virginia relied on Vanessa for psychological support, and felt bereft when Vanessa married Clive Bell. Knowing of Clive’s rakish past, Virginia suspected, correctly, that he wouldn’t be a faithful husband. According to Gill, Virginia flirted with Clive to expose him as unworthy. But Vanessa, upset over Clive’s resumption of an affair with an old mistress, yet needing Clive’s financial support, focussed her blame on Virginia. From then on they were never as close as they had been.  Her remarks about Virginia in subsequent letters were often unhelpful and cruel. To keep Vanessa in her life to some extent, Virginia never questioned or criticized her directly. Meanwhile, Vanessa’s  household was liberated and avant garde but dysfunctional for children, particularly her daughter Angelica.

Gillian Gill devotes considerable space to analysing “Bloomsbury”,  that coterie of Cambridge friends who gathered on Thursday evenings for refreshments and conversation at the young Stephens’ home. With the exception of Thoby Stephen, Clive Bell and Leonard Woolf, the group was homosexual, an informal network of artists, art critics, writers and an economist who became influential and promoted each other’s work. At first, Virginia and Vanessa were co-hosts of the group, along with their brother Thoby, but Gill says the men, disdainful of women, tolerated and accepted them only as Thoby’s sisters.  Nevertheless, Virginia learned a lot about life from the group and also learned how to debate and discuss in a group.

Later, says Gill, “Bloomsbury” diverged into two paths. One, based at Vanessa’s farmhouse in Charleston, was sexually adventurous. It included the artist Duncan Grant and the writer, David “Bunny” Garnett. The other, centred around Virginia and Leonard Woolf, was a broader group that included  authors and left-wing political people, and welcomed women. The Woolfs visited Charleston, but Leonard Woolf was uncomfortable among Vanessa’s Charleston set, and Virginia wrote critically in her diaries about everyone in that milieu except Vanessa. Any  reservations as to  how Vanessa was raising her children were expressed cautiously and obliquely.

While the beliefs,  dramas and antics of the male “Bloomsberries” make interesting reading in a gossipy prurient way, the Woolfs were not directly or consistently involved. Since Gill’s book is about the women who shaped Virginia Woolf’s world, one would have expected more information about the women friends Virginia made as an adult and less about her female ancestors and the friends of her youth.  Since other writers have written extensively about Virginia’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West,  perhaps Gill decided it was unnecessary to re-explore that territory. She says that Vita “sparked Virginia’s period of greatest creativity” and that by publishing with the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press, she made money for Virginia and Leonard.  Gill says  that Vita was no more able than Leonard was to make Virginia “feel comfortable in her body.”

In the same chapter, “Virginia’s Way, Part II”, Gill writes of Virginia’s expanding world of women friends which included the writer Katherine Mansfield, who was married to John Middleton-Murry, and the composer Ethel Smyth, who influenced Woolf’s final novel, Between the Acts. Still, one chapter covering all the friends of Virginia Woolf’s mature years seems too little.

It is an author’s prerogative, however, to decide what to delve into. Gill’s book is a tour de force in bringing together information about Virginia Woolf’s Pattle ancestors and the Thackeray connection; in showing the damaging patriarchal milieu out of which she fought her way,  and in highlighting her use of autobiographical material in her novels. Readers unfamiliar with Virginia Woolf’s story and writing should probably choose a simpler introductory biography (perhaps Phyllis Rose’s, Virginia Woolf, 1980) but millions of Virginia Woolf fans worldwide will be delighted that Gill has found a new slant on this great author’s life and work.

For more information on Ruth Latta’s novels, including Votes, Love and War (2019), visit http://ruthlatta.blogspot.com and http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com