Virginia Woolf | Nigel Nicolson #UKbio

In her childhood Virginia Woolf was a keen hunter of butterflies and moths.

I first attempted to read Virginia Woolf in my early twenties – To the Lighthouse – I couldn’t get into it, even though I really wanted to. There was something about Virginia that fascinated me, but her writing was too dense for me, too different to what I was used to. At the time, I felt she would be a writer that I could only read as I got older. To do Virginia justice, I would need more life experience and more book experience.

So I’ve been saving myself.

A few years back I created my Virginia list (see Author Challenge page in menu tab) with the intention of reading her fiction in chronological order. I read The Voyage Out in 2016 with a great deal of pleasure, but other than dabbling in some of her non-fiction, my VW journey has essentially been stalled by time, work, family life.

But then along came Square Haunting by Francesca Wade earlier this year, and I realised that I may not have the time or energy to tackle my VW fiction project right now, but I can prepare myself by reading as many biographies about her as I can!

Which is how Nigel Nicolson’s biography, Virginia Woolf came into my life. In May, W&N republished the bios of four rather famous artists in their Great Lives series – VW, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Andy Warhol. The timing was perfect to feed my growing obsession interest in all things Virginia.

So much of the detail about Virginia’s life and death is already in the public arena, so I won’t replicate it here.

This post is for me to note down things of interest to me, to explore connections and look into the sections that intrigue me the most.

First a little about the author of this biography.

Nigel Nicolson (19 January 1917, London – 23 September 2004, Sissinghurst Castle, Kent) was the second son of Vita Sackville-West and Sir Harold Nicholson. Vita and Virginia were friends and lovers from 1925 – 1935. He wrote a famous biography about his parents in 1973, Portrait of a Marriage.

In 1924 I was seven years old, and my brother Ben was nine. She [Virginia] often came to Long Barn for a night or two, and we greatly looked forward to her visits, being ignorant of their cause….We did not think of her as famous: indeed, when we first knew her, she wasn’t. She was more like a favourite aunt who brightened our simple lives with unexpected questions.

Nicolson and George Weidenfeld co-founded the publishing house Weidenfeld & Nicolson (W&N) in 1949. He was the editor of the six volumes of VW’s letters between 1975 and 1980.

On her letter writing (to her brother, Thoby at school and later to a schoolboy Nigel):

She acquired a gift for self-mockery and the mocking of others, akin to the juvenile burlesques of Jane Austen, for she found disapproval more amusing than approval, but without malice.

On step brother George’s ‘nasty erotic fumblings:

“In recollection, Virginia made more of a drama of the affair than the facts justify.”

Only a man of a certain age and time could say something so grotesque and unsympathetic! Honestly, I nearly gave up on the book at this point.

I’m no psychologist or VW expert, but the timing of V’s first ‘mad’ attack was just after the death of her mother when she was only 13 which also coincided with the time that George apparently started to interfere with her, ‘following the death of her mother, Virginia had acted very strangely, fainting without reason, blushing when spoken to, and subject to bouts of insomnia and headache.’

To my mind none of these behaviours were strange or mad or made up or exaggerated – V’s pubescent stage of life, grief-stricken at the loss of a parent combined with fear and disgust and powerlessness about being a victim of abuse are all more than enough to unmoor anyone.

Nigel’s unsympathetic and dismissive take on this significant episode in VW’s life was very much a case of an old white guy taking sides with the male members of the family. I figured, as a close family connection and as a man of a certain age, he was bound to reduce the stigma of an incest allegation on the family members still living. As a close family connection, I decided that Nigel might still have some more personal stories to tell, so I continued. But I’m obviously going to need to read more bio’s about VW by less biased, less defensive researchers.

On Italy:

She thought the country beautiful but its people degenerates.

On Thoby’s death, age 26 from typhoid:

She reserved the expression of her grief for Jacob’s Room, where Jacob is a recognizable portrait of Thoby, and his journey through Greece was almost mile by mile the one they had taken together.

On Feminism:

Virginia’s championship of women’s rights did not extend far down the social scale.

On Bloomsbury:

Their society was exclusive and alarming….There was an undercurrent of competitiveness, as if everyone had to justify their presence each time afresh….Bloomsbury demanded that you catch the ball when it was thrown in your direction and if you missed it, you were not invited again, and didn’t wish to be.

On the First Post-Impressionist Exhibition 1910:

Virginia had little to do with mounting the exhibition, and supported it hesitantly from the sidelines, but it affected her strongly. What the artists were doing in paint…she intended to pioneer in prose, giving the essence of a person or a place without describing it precisely.

On her Portrait by Vanessa Bell 1911-12:

Her left eye is entirely missing, but she made no protest.

On Vanessa Bell’s portrait of Leonard Sidney Woolf 1940:

To think of this gaunt man in his ill-fitting suit as an ardent lover strains the imagination, but he was.

On WWI:

To her the greatest war in history which killed ten million young men was an irrelevance. It simply confirmed her suspicion of a man-dominated society. It was a ‘preposterous masculine fiction’; patriotism was ‘a base emotion’.

On Leonard on Virginia’s Writing Habits:

I have never known anyone work with more intense, more indefatigable , concentration than Virginia. This was particularly the case when she writing a novel. The novel became part of her, and she herself was absorbed into the novel. She wrote only in the morning from 10 till 1, and usually she typed out in the afternoon what she had written by hand in the morning, but all day long, when she was walking through London streets or the Sussex Downs, the book would be moving subconsciously in her mind, or she herself would be moving in a dreamlike was through the book. It was this intense absorption which made writing so mentally exhausting for her.

On Publishing T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

Virginia set the whole poem with her own hands, and Leonard printed it.

On Writing Jacob’s Room:

In April 1920 she began to write her third novel, Jacob’s Room, her first truly experimental book. It was ‘the things one doesn’t say’, the art of suggesting important truths be deviousness, that she now began to explore, the delineation of character not be direct description but by the behaviour of other people around them.

On Virginia on her Writing Habits:

The method of writing smooth narrative can’t be right. Things don’t happen in one’s mind like that. We experience, all the time, an overlapping of images and ideas, and modern novels should convey our mental confusion instead of rearranging it. The reader must sort it out.

On A Room of One’s Own:

As Quentin Bell said of it, ‘In A Room one can hear her speaking. In her novels she is thinking.’

On The Waves:

‘It’s the only one of my books that I can sometimes read with pleasure. Not that I wrote it with pleasure, but in a kind of trance into which I suppose I shall never sink again.’

On Hermione Lee on Nigel Nicolson:

Hermione Lee in her biography of Virginia said that I and others like me, including Quentin Bell, misunderstood and undervalued Virginia’s attitude. She was tapping a deep well of feminine grievance in a profound and vivid way.

Some older white men who do not like the truths women write about their lives, call their arguments ‘strident’ or lacking in reason! Nigel is one of those men. I’m dead keen to read my copy of Lee’s biography, except it is a true brick of a book with tiny, tiny print. It will be a long term commitment to read it through. But after this self-serving vanity-piece, I really want a female interpretation of Virginia, her life and work, rather than any more of Nigel’s pompous, patronising, old man conceits.

I started off feeling a bit put off by Nigel’s vainglorious style. I quickly moved to peeved, then really pissed off. His boy’s club manner, the way he continually inserted himself into the narrative and the way he invalidated so many of Virginia’s feelings and opinions was truly annoying. This is an example of a biographer completely unable to approach his subject with any objectivity or to acknowledge his own subjectivity, even to himself, especially to himself.

Thankfully the book only had 165 pages!

Book: Virginia Woolf
Author: Nigel Nicolson
ISBN: 9781474619820
Publisher: W&N
Date: 25 May 2021 (originally published 27 September 2000)
Format: Paperback
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin.

12 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf | Nigel Nicolson #UKbio

  1. I was really interested in the Bloomsbury group back in my 20s/30s, and read quite a bit about and by them, including Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a marriage, but that was back in the 1980s. I love To the lighthouse and A room of one’s own.

    I didn’t know – or, if I did, I’ve forgotten – about the Woolfs and The wasteland.

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    1. The Bloomsbury group are fascinating and the incredibly number of well-known artists who passed through their group at various times is impressive. Nicolson’s bio about his parents may be more generous and sympathetic. It felt like he had a bit of a grudge against VW by the end.

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  2. I’m not sure why you persisted. Why go on when the old white guy approach was so obvious? I’ve read The Voyage Out recently and a couple of others in the distant past. I love the modernists. But I think I should read next A Room of their own.

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    1. I persisted because the topic was fascinating and the parts that pissed me off properly, only happened in the final chapter. Up until then I was able to find his catty comments amusing. Night and Day is my next fiction (which I keep putting on my cc spin lists) but I will try to read more of her non-ficiton. Much of it is available on Gutenberg Project thankfully.

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  3. What a disappointment to start off your VW project like this!
    Can I make a suggestion? Find a copy of Flush, VW’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel. I’m serious, I loved it and not just because I love dogs. And I am not alone: check out the 5-star reviews at Goodreads.
    After that, read A Room of her Own, and then read Orlando.

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    1. Thanks for the tip, but since I’m planning on reading her work in chronological order, I have to wait until I finish The Waves before Flush, which I did learn in this bio that she wrote as a kind of antidote, or light relief, ‘to let my brain cool’, after the intensity of The Waves.

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      1. Ah, I didn’t know that. I discovered it when I was basically borrowing anything that looked vaguely interesting to listen to while on the daily commute. It was taking longer and longer as the traffic worsened (traffic, of course of which I was myself a part), and the ABC in the mornings had become unbearable. Flush turned out to be an unexpected delight.

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    1. I read about half her bio on Edith Wharton a while back, but the more I learnt about Wharton, the less I liked what I learnt! So it got harder and harder to find the enthusiasm to pick up the tome. From this I learnt that I also need more time to do such a comprehensive bio justice. Trying to read it in snatches between work reading, work tiredness and family weekends was too much!
      I’m keen to track down Lee’s book about VW’s novels as well.

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  4. Thanks to you and the VW reading event I was able to read To the Lighthouse which had always scared me & which I loved. The author sounds entitled, unsympathetic & exactly what he accuses VW about – the inability to see beyond his limited circle. I understand that family connections may make one a bit defensive but this is just ridiculous. I will pass this one I think!

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  5. Excellent post. I have not read this one, but his A Portrait of a Marriage, which I liked. I think, in cases like this, it is better to read an independent source. But, one always hope that even relatives can be honest and see it from the objects point of view. Obviously not.
    I love VW although I have only read The Lighthouse, which I loved. My review here: https://thecontentreader.blogspot.com/2017/03/to-lighthouse-by-virginia-woolf.html and Orlando, which is quite something out of the extra ordinary. My review here: https://thecontentreader.blogspot.com/2019/06/orlando-by-virginia-woolf.html
    Good luck in your quest for Virginia Wolff.

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