The Indispensable Virginia Woolf

by Quentin Bell
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.50
Quentin Bell’s life of his aunt Virginia Woolf has been so widely reviewed and so justly praised that at this point in time a further summary of its contents and a tribute to the manner in which they have been set forth must seem superfluous. For students, of course, it is now and henceforth indispensable; more than that, I find it hard to imagine anyone with even the most casual interest in Virginia Woolf, or the Bloomsbury milieu in which she lived and worked, for whom the reading of this biography will not prove a fascinating, enlightening, and finally, a deeply moving experience. Bell, in both a literal and symbolic sense, is an heir of Bloomsbury, an exemplar in the second generation of the candor, clarity, and civilization that one associates with his elders. His book, quite apart from the interest and importance of its subject, is itself a splendid example of the biographer’s art. As such, it is a valued addition to the Bloomsbury canon, where, if it ranks below Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria, it is certainly superior to either E. M. Forster’s Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson or Virginia Woolfs Roger Fry. Bell, in short, has done his inheritance proud.
In a brief prefatory note he writes: “The purpose of the present volume is purely historical; and although I hope that I may assist those who attempt to explain and to assess the writing of Virginia Woolf, I can do so only by presenting facts which hitherto have not been generally known and by providing a clear and truthful account of the character and personal development of my subject. In no other way can I contribute to literary criticism. Even if I had the equipment for such a task I should not have the inclination; I have found the work of the biographer sufficiently difficult without adventuring into other directions and indeed the business of gathering and presenting the facts would hardly have been completed without help.”
The note is characteristic in its modesty; it is also, I fear, likely to mislead those who accept at face value the view that “the work of the biographer” is “gathering and presenting the facts.” The superior qualities of Bell’s own book are reminder enough that the process is a good deal more complex than this modest view of it would suggest. Obviously, facts are the basic materials upon which the biographer depends if he is to provide the truthful account of his subject that must always be his primary concern. But once the facts have been gathered, sorted out, evaluated, and sometimes discarded, he enters upon a task of an altogether different order: their presentation. The mere gathering-in of facts, no matter upon how epic and indiscriminate a scale, does not, paradoxically, ensure a truthful account—not, anyway, of the sort that distinguishes biography as a work of art from the bleak accuracy of a census record. (Bell neatly illustrates the point. He has included as appendices to his biography two detailed chronologies, crammed full of facts—thus, in 1907: “23-25 March, Virginia and Adrian sleep at Violet Dickinson’s house in Manchester Square while their move to 29 Fitzroy Square takes place; 28 March, Virginia and Adrian go to Paris with Clive and Vanessa Bell, meetings with Duncan Grant; 10 April, Virginia and Adrian return to London and take up residence in their new home, 29 Fitzroy Square, W.I.” While these facts undeniably make for a truthful account, that account stops far short of the level of art and fidelity to fife that Bell achieves in his presentation.)
Presentation brings us from research to interpretation, to subjectivity, to point of view—how the facts are given to us,’the text and style and intention of a work. Since in most biographies the author is an invisible presence—Boswell being the classic exception—it is too easy to conclude that he is not there at all, and that the biography, in effect, produced itself.
But Quentin Bell is in a special case: he is the nephew of Virginia Woolf, and this relationship between biographer and subject brings to the forefront those questions of interpretation, subjectivity, and point of view to which, generally, too little attention is paid. I hasten to add that Bell in no way takes advantage of his position to call attention to himself, nor does he presume upon it to scant the arduous work that goes into preparing a biography on this scale: there is nothing of the amateur or member of the family for whom allowances have to be made in what he has done. But he is Virginia Woolf’s nephew; his uncle Leonard chose him to be her biographer. In most instances, the people he is writing about are people he knew, or heard talked about by people who were close to him. When he refers to the Woolfs as Leonard and Virginia, or to his parents as Clive and Vanessa, or to their friends as Lytton (Strachey), Morgan (Forster), Bunny (Garnett), and Ottoline (Morrell), it is not an affectation; for him to have referred to them otherwise would have been the affectation. The advantage to him (and for us) of his position is not simply that he is already in possession of so many of the facts that “hitherto have not been generally known,” but that he is able to write about them with the ease and naturalness that come from a long familiarity—here, the familiarity of a nephew.
(Relationship in such cases inevitably has much to do with the view, or as it is sometimes called, the conception of the subject. The widow of a famous man, for example, will see him in a different way than his sister does; his brother in yet another way. Each conception in its way may be valid, though some are more valid than others: generally speaking, the length of intimacy is a reliable indicator.)
I have been unable to discover an adjective, equivalent to “avuncular,” meaning nephew-like— “neposian,” perhaps. If such a word existed, it would serve beautifully here to describe the point of view and tone of this biography. Nephew-like: affectionate, understanding, tinged ever so slightly with irony, an observant child’s fascination with and toleration of his elders, a sense and acceptance of their peculiarity.
The Woolfs had decided that they should not have children of their own—Virginia’s history of mental breakdowns made it too great a risk for her. She envied her sister Vanessa her three children, Julian, Quentin, and Angelica, and loved them almost as deeply as she loved Vanessa herself. For the three young Bells she was their beloved Aunt Virginia. David Garnett, who would eventually marry Angelica, in his volume of memoirs, The Flowers of the Forest, recalls the arrivals of Virginia at Charleston, the Bells’ house in Sussex; “. . a signal for rejoicing on the part of Julian and Quentin who had secrets to share with her. Thus she was always led aside and from the corner of the walled garden where they were ensconced came her clear hoot of laughter—like the mellow hoot of an owl—and Julian’s loud explosions of merriment, protests and explanations.” When the boys were at Charles-
ton, they brought out a family newspaper, the New Bulletin, with Julian as Editor and Quentin as Illustrator. One typewritten copy was handed round at the lunch table. In the paper for August 15, 1925, the following item appears:

The Disappearing Aunt

On Sunday the Woolves paid a visit to the Squire [John Maynard Keynes, who lived nearby at Tilton]. Virginia, unable to face a Tilton tea with Harland [the Keynes’ majordomo] in the offing, decided to walk over to Charleston. She was seen on road by Angelica and Louie [a maid] and her voice is thought to have been heard by Duncan [Grant]. She failed to appear at tea, however, and did not afterwards return to Tilton. The most widely accredited theory is that she had a sudden inspiration and sat down on the way to compose a new novel.
In the New Bulletin for the next day:
Nessa and the Illustrator visited the Woolves this afternoon and found the disappearing aunt safe and sound. It appears that for some whim she decided to eat her tea under a haystack instead of in Charleston dining-room. The difference, however, is not great, and it is even possible that she mistook the one for the other.
The mixture of affection and irony in this playful schoolboy journalism is echoed forty-seven years on in the biography Quentin Bell has now written of his aunt, thirtyone years after she drowned herself in the River Ouse, and it is one of the sources of its great strength. Her genius as an artist is taken for granted—though there is one remarkable chapter in which he attempts to “examine her mind at work”—but Bell’s major achievement is to restore the “daily-ness” of Virginia Woolfs life, from which, in accord with the unknowable laws of genius, her work sprang. Seen thus, it proves to have been a life unexpectedly rich in comedy—surely one had not anticipated that a biography of Mrs. Woolf would provide such moments of hilarious entertainment as Quentin Bell has made, for example, of the Woolfs going straight from work at the Hogarth Press, without bothering to change clothes, to an elegant dinner party given by Rose Macaulay. It was a life rich also in affection, in extraordinary closeness in marriage, in intellectual excitement, and simple domestic pleasures; and in suffering also, in periods of terrible, unimaginable anguish. Bell’s final pages, wherein he quotes in its entirety Virginia’s farewell letter to Leonard, are as moving, in their dignity and restraint, as anything I have read. I feel certain that his aunt and uncle, who were not accustomed to lower their high standards for the sake of friendship or family loyalty, would approve of this biography by their nephew.