Art and Affection
The lives of Virginia Woolf, her family, and her friends have been extensively documented. The letters and diaries of Leonard and Virginia Woolf have been published, Leonard’s five-volume autobiography appeared in print in the 1960’s, Regina Marler has edited a generous selection of Vanessa Bell’s letters, Roger Fry’s letters were published in 1972, the year Quentin Bell’s definitive biography of his aunt Virginia appeared, Angelica Garnett and Clive Bell have written memoirs, and Woolf is one of the top ten subjects of literary investigation. Despite this vast amount of material, new interpretations and even new facts continue to emerge, and Reid has written an important addition to Virginia Woolf scholarship.
One of the themes that underlies this biography is Virginia’s use of public writing to pursue private friendships. Other scholars such as Jane Dunn (A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, 1990) and James King (Virginia Woolf, 1994) have noted, as Reid does, how Virginia as a child used writing to win parental approval. Her father, the eminent Victorian author Leslie Stephen, was more impressed with his daughter’s literary talents than was her generally aloof mother, but Julia Stephen, too, at least once praised her daughter’s efforts. Virginia reported that this recognition made her feel “like being a violin and being played upon.” Reid observes that Woolf repeatedly used her talents to win attention and affection. In the early 1900’s, Woolf’s letters served to secure the fondness of Violet Dickinson, and Virginia wrote a biography of her friend in violet ink and bound it in violet leather.
After the birth of Julian Bell, Vanessa’s first child, on February 4, 1908, Virginia began a biography of her sister, supposedly for Julian but actually as an attempt to recover Vanessa’s attention. Virginia also wrote loving letters to her sister, letters more passionate, according to Vanessa, than any her own husband had ever addressed to her. Throughout her life Virginia used letters to keep her sister’s (and other correspondents’) love. In 1908, Virginia even contemplated a biography of Clive as a way of bringing her sister and brother-in- law closer to her. Night and Day (1919), Virginia’s second novel, was dedicated to Vanessa, to whom Virginia wrote, “I think I’d rather please you than anyone, if only because I feel that its all your doing if I have any wits at all.” Vanessa illustrated her sister’s “Kew Gardens” (1919) and Monday or Tuesday (1921); Virginia’s writing thus again brought the two women together. In response to Vanessa’s praise of The Waves (1931), Virginia once more indicated how through her fiction she sought to keep Vanessa close: “Nobody except Leonard matters to me as you matter, and nothing would ever make up for it if you didn’t like what I did. So its an amazing relief—I always feel I’m writing more for you than for anybody.”
Roger Fry was another whom Woolf attempted to keep close through her pen. She had intended to dedicate To the Lighthouse (1927) to Fry, but he objected to the middle (“Time Passes”) section. The work appeared without any dedication at all. Fry praised the novel once it was published, and Virginia wrote to thank him. She offered him an inscribed copy of the book and promised to compose a memoir of the artist. Woolf did not act on this promise until after Fry’s death on September 9, 1934. The biography took six years, but its completion brought Fry back to her. As she recorded in her diary, “I feel very much in his presence at the moment: as if I were intimately connected with him; as if we together had given birth to this vision of him: a child born of us.”
Orlando (1928), a fictionalized life of Vita Sackville- West, was a love letter of sorts undertaken to win back the affections of the book’s subject. Virginia began the work as a response to suspicions—correct, as they proved to be—that Vita was having an affair with Mary Campbell. The book gave Virginia an excuse to probe Vita’s life and to be with her. As Reid observes, “Virginia equated regaining Vita with writing Orlando.”
Just as in Roger Fry Virginia used the written word to recover a dead friend, so she attempted to resurrect her nephew Julian Bell after he was killed in the Spanish Civil War in July, 1937. In 1936, the Woolfs had refused to publish Julian’s memoir of Roger Fry, but in 1938 their Hogarth Press brought out Julian Bell: Essays, Poems and Letters, including the previously rejected biography. This volume was also another offering to Vanessa.
At the same time that Virginia was wooing her sister with letters and books, the two were rivals. Their contest began in childhood and persisted throughout Virginia’s life. One way this conflict manifested itself was in an ongoing debate between the sisters over the relative merits of writing and painting. According to Reid, Virginia thought that if painting was important, then writing was not. Virginia...
(The entire section is 2089 words.)