At the age of forty-four, when she was writing To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf was photographed wearing a Victorian dress that had belonged to her mother. Her beautifully hooded eyes downcast, Woolf was gazing with a mixture of diffidence and amusement toward an exaggerated leg o’mutton sleeve. The dress did not quite suit her—its bulk almost overwhelms Woolf’s slender frame—but the photograph, which appears on the dust jacket of Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, perfectly captures the spirit and emphasis of Lyndall Gordon’s splendid biography. At first glance there might appear to be no need for yet another book, even a splendid one, about this much-written-of novelist. In the years since 1972, when Quentin Bell published the definitive biography of his famous aunt, Woolf’s life and work have become subjects of intense literary and popular interest. Six volumes of letters, four volumes of diaries, and numerous reminiscences and scholarly treatises have fed an apparently insatiable appetite for information, interpretation, and gossip concerning one of the century’s most important writers. Nevertheless, despite the amount of material about Woolf already in print, Gordon manages to see her subject in a new way. Her Virginia Woolf is neither an insistent modernist nor a committed feminist nor a madwoman with a collection of eccentric friends; rather, she is a writer who was motivated by the impulse to preserve her Victorian past, and whose richest sources were her own earliest memories.
One of the most striking attributes of Gordon’s biography is the congeniality between Woolf’s methods and Gordon’s own. Woolf’s innovativeness as a fiction writer arose in part from her belief that what is usually considered significant in a novel—births, deaths, marriages—is not nearly as important as “the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.” Gordon tries to follow Woolf’s practice, on her long walks in the country and in London, of keeping to byways rather than main thoroughfares, of ignoring obvious markers and boundaries and finding natural paths. Drawing heavily on early drafts of The Voyage Out (1915), To the Lighthouse (1927), and The Waves (1931) and on unpublished memoirs and fictional fragments, Gordon does what Quentin Bell stopped short of doing: She examines Woolf’s life in the light of the fiction and the fiction in the light of the life. This examination has three parts. The first, “Victorian Models,” is a discussion of Woolf’s childhood. The second, “Apprenticeship,” deals with the twenty-year period between 1895, when Julia Stephen died, and 1915, when Woolf published her first novel. The long third part, which is called “The Life Composed” and which occupies half of Gordon’s book, deals with Woolf’s maturity.
Woolf’s earliest and most enduring memories, according to Gordon, were of her parents and of the sound of the waves at Talland House, the family’s summer home in Cornwall. Both these memories helped to shape To the Lighthouse, with its compelling portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, drawn from the characters of Julia and Leslie Stephen. Gordon’s discussion of Julia and Leslie is particularly illuminating in its treatment of young Virginia’s relationship to her father. Far from being a domestic tyrant like Mr. Ramsay, Leslie consistently expressed loving fondness for his children, and especially for his youngest daughter. He read aloud to his children every night, and, as Virginia grew older, he gave her the run of his vast library and guided her in becoming a voracious and perceptive reader. Gordon convincingly demonstrates that through his tastes and interests, Leslie Stephen was his daughter’s most important intellectual model; even her drafts, Gordon says, resemble his. Gordon uses correspondence to show that Leslie’s encouragement of serious work on the part of the females in his family began even before his marriage to Julia, who insisted during their courtship that she intended to continue working as a nurse among the poor. She pursued her vocation until she died in 1895, when Virginia was thirteen. This event began a “decade of deaths”: Virginia’s stepsister, Stella, died in 1897, her father in 1904, and her brother Thoby in 1906. These early losses helped to shape an adulthood haunted by Victorian ghosts whose presence Woolf invoked in her fiction, most powerfully in To the Lighthouse and The Waves.
In the “Apprenticeship” section, Gordon delicately explores the connections between these deaths and the onset of Woolf’s mental illness in early adolescence. Departing from the usual view that it was Julia’s death that precipitated Virginia’s first suicide attempt, Gordon suggests that Stella’s death, not Julia’s, triggered the illness, as well as a lifelong need for love from strong women. Gordon handles with equal delicacy the matter of Woolf’s sexual abuse by her stepbrother George Duckworth. Without underestimating either the deaths or the abuse as factors in...
(The entire section is 2076 words.)