Monday, November 2, 2015

VIRGINIA WOOLF: A PORTRAIT by Vivianne Forrester (non-fic)

Originally published in French, this biography was translated by Jody Gladding.  It won the Prix Goncourt for biography in France before Vivianne Forrester died in 2013.  This is an intensely researched book and Forrester turns around some well entrenched perspectives of Virginia Woolf.  What Forrester does is to intensely scrutinize Virginia's relationships with her family, her husband, Leonard Woolf, and her nephew Quentin Bell.  Most of the accepted scholarship of Woolf up to this writing was largely based on memoirs written by Bell and accepted as gospel.  He portrayed Virginia as frigid and emotionally fragile.  A good example is the recently reviewed fiction book "Vanessa and Her Sister."

Forrester begins her study with Virginia's traumatic youth and her strange relationship with her overbearing father, Leslie Stephen.  What a dramatic fierce upbringing Virgina and her sister Vanessa had, along with her step-siblings, the Duckworths and their mother, Julia.  All of Virginia's work is influenced by her childhood experiences which were filled with secrets and lies.  According to Forrester the most tragic lie was the myth fostered by her family of "Poor Virginia," who can't help herself as she is touched with madness.  Even Quentin Bell's mother, Vanessa who was closest to Virginia comes in for her share of the blame.  This infantilization of Virginia has slipped in to all her previous biographies.  It was further nurtured by Leonard, her husband, who fussed and over-protected her.

Leonard Woolf is really hit hard by Forrester.  What she accuses him of doing is taking his own compulsive weaknesses and fostering them in Virginia and then bullying her into helplessness.  Problems that Leonard had with his own sexuality and anxieties became the very problems that he accused Virginia of possessing.  Virginia indeed had bouts of mania which the author believes could have been managed in a way that would lead to a more wholesome view of her illness.  Typical of the family's handling of Virginia is a quote from Vanessa to her sister at the height of fears of the German invasion during World War II.
"You must not go and get ill just now.  What shall we do when we're invaded if you are a helpless invalid?"  Such cruel misunderstanding of Virginia's condition, Forrester claims eventually pushed Virginia over the edge to her suicide.

I found this book difficult to read.  There was a great deal of material at times presented with complicated sentence structure.  I am not sure if this was the interpretation of the translator or the author's style.  At times it was almost a Woolfian stream of consciousness.  Since the author takes a different approach and viewpoint of Virginia Woolf's tragic life, it is best read as a comparative study.  It is certainly a book of great importance in the study of Woolf and her literature.

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