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Virginia Woolf (2000)

de Nigel Nicolson

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Nigel Nicolson is the son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, one of Virginia Woolf's closest friends. He combines personal reminiscences with a narrative of Woolf's life to draw new connections between the woman and the literary genius.
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Phase four of #Woolfalong is all about biographies – either biographies about or written by Virginia Woolf. Orlando and Flush immediately come to mind – as does Woolf’s biography of Roger Fry – which I initially overlooked when I put the list together.
Having already read Orlando – last year, and Flush last month I wanted to read a biography about Virginia Woolf. I am not however always very good with non-fiction, I read less and less of it and I have to be in the in the right frame of mind, so I opted for Nigel Nicolson’s short biography. This was actually a re-read – but I had remembered very little about it. I had remembered how I had enjoyed it before, finding it an engaging and readable little biography. I enjoyed it all over again, it is very readable, and Nigel Nicolson provides at times a wonderfully honest and intimate portrait of Virginia Woolf. He tells us of butterfly hunting and conversation with a woman not much used to children.
“One summer’s afternoon when we were sweeping the tall grass with our nets and catching nothing, she suddenly paused, leaning on her bamboo cane as a savage might lean on his assegai, and said to me: ‘What’s it like to be a child?’ I, taken aback, replied, ‘Well, Virginia, you know what it is like. You’ve been a child yourself. I don’t know what it’s like to be you because I have never been grown-up.’ It was the only occasion when I got the better of her, dialectically.”
Nigel Nicolson was the younger son of Vita Sackville West who was Virginia Woolf’s long-time friend and lover. During his childhood Virginia Woolf was a frequent visitor to the Nicolson family home, and it is Nigel Nicolson’s reminiscences of these childhood encounters that make this such a little gem. This edition also includes some wonderful photographs.
There were however things I certainly hadn’t remembered about this book, and which if I am honest I think makes it a slightly weaker work than I had remembered. Nicolson is very dismissive about Virginia Woolf’s feminism. His view of her famous A Room of One’s Own was that VW was referring only to the women of her own class (well yes possibly) – and says of it that it…
“…was in part a polemic, in part a fantasy. The mood of Orlando was still upon her. She was having fun, but the fun was soured by a note of real bitterness. ‘Why did men drink wine and women water?’, she asked again. In Bloomsbury both sexes drank wine. And was it not Virginia herself, by her conduct and achievements, proof that women of her class were already emancipated?”
I’m sorry, but I was a little disappointed in Nigel Nicolson for that. I was further disappointed by his approach to the sexual assault which Virginia Woolf claimed to have been subjected to by her step-brothers. His attitude seems to have been that VW made a big fuss about nothing. His evidence – to me scant – that the surviving family of the step-brothers dispute it (well yes, they would) and that VW continued to have dealings with them in adulthood – (families are odd complicated things – who can say what one person may or may not do).
I don’t want to dwell too heavily on these two points – I still overall very much enjoyed the book. While these opinions can only add to the myriad which exist about many aspects of Virginia Woolf – I felt them to be rather short sighted.
Still there are many things that I liked about this book. Certainly Nicolson doesn’t allow his family connections with VW to prevent him being objective. He discusses her work without bias, providing an interesting viewpoint on her work.
The majority of this slim biography concerns the woman Nigel Nicolson and his mother knew during the years they knew her. Therefore, there is only a little background given about Virginia Woolf’s own family – the Stephens, and her childhood. What Nigel Nicolson does give us is as well as those delicious childhood reminiscences are details about the Bloomsbury group. He explores the relationships which existed between the members of that group, showing us how the group lived and were viewed by others.
“It was an abrasive society, highly stimulating. It was said that the difference between Bloomsbury and Cambridge was that at Cambridge nothing witty was said unless it was also profound and in Bloomsbury nothing profound was said unless it was also witty. Virginia was largely responsible for this change in mood”
We meet VW the writer and publisher. A writer who was her own worst critic, doubting herself terribly, and putting herself under enormous pressure, working long hours, her mind never far from the book she was writing. She would write in longhand all morning, and type up her writings in the afternoon, in the evening Virginia wrote several letters, each letter unique no phrase ever repeated. As a publisher Virginia would spend hours setting the type – (it must have been an immensely tedious activity) for the Hogarth Press she ran with her husband Leonard.
Through Nicolson’s memory of her we meet Virginia the friend and lover, he acknowledges her love for his mother. Alongside that he shows his own very real affection for the woman he first met as a young boy. Nicolson also clearly shows some very real sympathy for the crippling depression from which VW suffered at various points of her life. In fact Nicolson portrays VW’s suicide in 1941 with tenderness and understanding.
So while I enjoyed Nicolson’s reminiscences of VW – and appreciated his objectivity and the warmth with which this biography is written, I think I probably need to read some other biographies to get a fully rounded picture of this remarkable woman. ( )
1 vota Heaven-Ali | Oct 14, 2016 |
I should have just read Hermione Lee's biography. Nicolson is a son of Vita Sackville-West, as he never tires of telling us, and milks his moments with Woolf, and his mother's connection, for all they're worth. He spends far more time on Vita than Woolf's husband Leonard or sister Vanessa, which I felt a rather poor choice.

Nicolson provides a good deal of information about her inner life--his time spent editing her letters was well spent. But he clearly disagrees with Woolf's opinions, and spends several pages telling us so every time her pacifism or feminism comes up. His reasons for disagreeing are poorly thought out and not well supported (apparently "women...had little cause for complaint" in Woolf's era, because after all, did not Woolf herself become something of a success? So how bad could the sexism possibly be? Ridonkulous.), but he nevertheless quotes HIS OWN PIECE from 1979 to show how silly Woolf's feminism was. Excuse you, Nicolson, you who have spent your whole life riding on your mother's literary and social successes. He's pretty awful about Woolf's possible childhood sexual assault, as well. Nicolson is in a huff that her half-brothers are accused by modern biographers to have assaulted Woolf, even though Woolf herself has said they did. Here's Nicolson in his own words, "In recollection, Virginia made more of a drama of the affair than the facts justify." For fucks sake!

My rage at Nicolson's constant inclusion of Sackville-West and his own uncertain claims aside, I did enjoy this book for its descriptions of the Bloomsbury group and for the tidbits of Woolf's writing. She was a true genius. ( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
A balanced biography written by the son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, Woolf's one-time lover, this slim book covers a lot of ground without wandering around in the region of speculation. Nicolson writes knowledgeably, without idealizing the person he admits to admiring. As he knew her and her family and contemporaries personally, he was an ideal person to write Virginia Woolf's story, which he accomplished with grace and eloquence. ( )
  VivienneR | Jan 5, 2016 |
This was the second Penguin Lives book I've checked out of the library. The other was about Proust. Both seem poorly edited with some typos and repeats of information between chapters and even within. Even though this is a rather short book it took me several days because I find Nicolson's writing slow and unsure of itself, something to be done rather than flowing out of inspiration. ( )
  leonardbast | Jul 8, 2013 |
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is considered by some to be one of the foremost literary figures of the 20th century. She was the author of nine novels, numerous short stories, a semi-biography (of art critic Robert Fry), and numerous essays, including the famous A Room of One's Own.. She also has been the subject of numerous biographies (including at least two psycho-sexual analyses).

The British writer and publisher Nigel Nicolson (1917-2004) was uniquely positioned to write a biography of Woolf for the Penguin Lives series. He knew Virgina from boyhood on, and his mother Vita Sackville-West (who enjoyed an open marriage) had an intimate affair with her throughout the 1920s. (In fact, this relationship was the basis for Woolf's Orlando, described by Nicolson as "the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.") Further, Nicolson edited a 6 volume collection of Woolf's letters (1975)-1980).

In this concise biography (186 pages), Nicolson gives a broad overview of Woolf's life and career. He traces her childhood and adolescence (when she bore the surname Stephen), her participation in the famous "Bloomsbury group" of intellectuals, her (largely chaste) marriage to Leonard Woolf (whom she described to friends as "a pennniless Jew"), her career as an author and publisher, her growing fame, and her personal relationships; he also touches on her episodes of mental illness, depression, and her suicide.

Nicolson's portrayal is informative and affectionate, but by no means uncritical. He recounts a lecture that he gave in the US in 1982 in which he warned his audience that England's Virginia and their Woolf were not the same person (meaning that academics in the US had molded her and her milieu into their preconceived notions). Thus, to Nicholson, the "Bloomsbury group" (which included Woolf, EM Forster, John Maynard Keynes, and Lytton Strachey) were not the brave forerunners of modern progressive views; their socialism was "tepid" and even Virginia's championship of women's rights was restricted to those of her own social class.

Indeed, the feminist views Woolf published in her later works are deemed by Nicolson as "vastly overstated". In A Room of One's Own "she was speaking only of women of her own class and cultural background, a tiny minority who had little cause for complaint." Her political views were simplistic and out of step with the times; she blamed the existence of war entirely on men, and by the Second World War, her pacificist inclinations had become irrelevant. Germany's bombardment of England destroyed the Woolf's own home, and they fled the coast, knowing that upon invasion, they would be in grave danger given Leonard's Jewish ancestory. Nicolson also casts a skeptical eye on another author's claims about rampant sexual abuse in Virginia's early life.

Nigel Nicolson's book is a biography, not a hagiography, and he seeks neither to construct nor destroy a literary icon. Those who want to view Ms Woolf as an unblemished heroine will not find this book easy to dismiss, unless on the entirely unfair grounds of the author's own gender. However, those interested in seeing Virginia Woolf as a full-scale human being, and a product of her times and social class, will gain a deeper understanding from this sympathetic but honest appraisal of her life and career. ( )
8 vota danielx | Jul 5, 2009 |
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Nigel Nicolson is the son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, one of Virginia Woolf's closest friends. He combines personal reminiscences with a narrative of Woolf's life to draw new connections between the woman and the literary genius.

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