A beguiling look at the many women who helped shape the temperament, talents and art of Virginia Woolf
Modernist trailblazer and feminist icon Virginia Woolf not only helped change the course of literature but also significantly altered the way we think about women writers and their work. In Gillian Gill’s captivating and incisive new study, Virginia Woolf: And the Women Who Shaped Her World, she refracts Woolf’s life, as the title suggests, through the facets of a distaff prism. Detailing Woolf’s fascinating maternal lineage as well as her intimate relationships with female family and friends, Gill explores the ways that young Virginia Stephen became the formidable Virginia Woolf.
Woolf’s maternal line (the source of her wealth) was Anglo-Indian, and Gill shares the long-hidden probability that Woolf’s great-great-grandmother was of Bengali descent. Woolf was never aware of this extraordinary fact, but it underscores the unconventionality of her clan. There were seven accomplished women in Woolf’s grandmother’s generation, including her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, the Victorian-age photographer whose exquisite images are now preserved and revered—in no small part due to Woolf’s resurrecting efforts.
All of the women in Woolf’s maternal line were renowned for their grace, beauty and spirit—not least of all Woolf’s mother, Julia Jackson, who was named after Cameron and became one of the photographer’s favorite models. Woolf’s sometimes-fraught relationship with her Victorian-minded mother, who died when Woolf was 13, would be central to the writer’s emotional development, as much for what it lacked as for what it possessed.
Woolf’s immediate family was complicated, with two brothers, a sister and four half-siblings. Her father, the scholar and writer Leslie Stephen, had been previously married to the daughter of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, and Woolf gained a beloved aunt and a half-sister, Laura, from that earlier union. Laura spent most of her life in an asylum, and other relatives, including Leslie himself, exhibited signs of mental illness, as would Woolf. Her half-sister Stella, from Julia’s first marriage to Herbert Duckworth, was a stabilizing influence after their mother’s premature death. Most significant was Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, who was her closest spiritual confidante. Together they were at the center of the Bloomsbury group that revolutionized the arts and intellectual thought of the day.
Gill persuades us that, for Woolf—who grew up in a male-dominated household and, later, navigated a male-centric world—it was the women in her life who played a consummate role in shaping her revolutionary perceptions and art. This embracing and often sharp-witted study of the peripheries of a great writer’s life makes for compulsive reading.