IT SEEMS IMPORTANT to begin with a distinction: a portrait is not a biography. A portrait insists on a singular and often self-reflective view — I see my subject this way — while a biography pretends to objective distance. Both are proprietary, opinionated, and presumptuous about their subjects, but a portrait is quite frank about its narrow, intense purpose, which is, chiefly, to evoke a complex emotional presence. A biography, a more ingratiating form, does not suppose readers already know its subject and is careful about making introductions, establishing context, explaining references, looking widely at the time period, at political, economic, and cultural forces. A portrait hopes to persuade readers already familiar with a subject that they have it all wrong. Portraits belong to agitators, and Virginia Woolf: A Portrait, by the late French critic Viviane Forrester and winner of the 2009 Prix Goncourt, is the work of an enflamed agent provocateur.
Forrester has no interest in introducing Woolf to anyone who doesn’t already know her work and what has been written about her. Instead, she wants to explode the assumptions of Woolfian cognoscenti, both detractors and devotees. Her portrait is a Molotov cocktail aimed straight at the popular image of Woolf as frigid and fragile, and frequently mad, a woman whose self-sacrificing husband gave up sex and his own ambitions to keep her sane enough to write masterpieces.
The book’s opening salvo is an indignant attack on both Quentin Bell, Woolf’s nephew and first biographer, and her husband, Leonard Woolf, charging them with creating the myth of Virginia Woolf as “cold.” She may have been as much of a genius as Tolstoy and Joyce, she may have written the incomparable Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and inspired generations of women with A Room of One’s Own, she may have profoundly influenced 20th-century literature, but she couldn’t have an orgasm; also, she was crazy — that was the essence of Bell’s enormously influential portrait, approved by Leonard. “The timelessness, the power, the marvel of the work all becoming secondary,” mourns Forrester.
She implies that this simplistic vision of Woolf as brilliant, but asexual and unstable, was consoling for the men in her life, who would have liked to be geniuses themselves but weren’t. Forrester accuses Bell in particular of condescension, of reducing Woolf, whose work he admits he “did not know very well,” to a sort of freak, not “a complete woman.” She makes a persuasive case, catching him, for example, in inventing a childhood episode of madness for his Aunt Virginia and then presenting it as fact. “Separating the writer from the woman,” writes Forrester bitterly, “to avoid one and disparage the other.”
But it’s Leonard who gets dragged in front of the firing squad. Not only did he encourage Bell’s patronizing portrayal of Virginia; according to Forrester, he was also responsible for his wife’s only true psychotic episode, and probably helped usher her toward suicide. These accusations are fierce and emphatic: Leonard projected his own neuroses and his own frigidity onto Woolf (he had a horror of beginner sex and found most women’s bodies “extraordinarily ugly”). He married her strictly to get out of Ceylon, where he was in the British Foreign Service and where he had fallen into a suicidal depression. (He hated both the place and the position, though he pretended later to have thrown over a fabulous career for Virginia.) Without medical corroboration, he decreed that she was too unbalanced to have children, triggering her legendary mental breakdown immediately after their honeymoon. Then he held the threat of institutionalization over her, coercing her into a secluded country lifestyle that suited him but isolated and disheartened her, while using his marriage as entrée to an aristocratic, intellectual world that, as “a penniless Jew” from the professional class — just barely out of a shopkeeper’s apron — he could not have otherwise hoped to join.
Although Forrester does allow that Leonard was a champion of Virginia’s work, and that his dogged health regimens may have helped her writing, she believes he infantilized and undermined his wife in most other respects. Virginia adored London, but he limited her visits so she wouldn’t get overstimulated. He tacitly approved Virginia’s affair with Vita Sackville-West but carefully dampened it by instructing Vita to make sure Virginia went to bed before 11:00. He also interrupted Virginia while she was working to force her to drink milk, a transgression Forrester finds so outrageous that she mentions it at least half a dozen times.
But Leonard and Quentin Bell were not Virginia’s only oppressors, although interestingly the usual villains, her lustful half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth, are mostly passed over. In subsequent chapters Forrester indicts Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, for being a mawkish grief vampire after his wife’s death, exploiting his traumatized children — the daughters especially — filling Woolf’s childhood home with a “lascivious, poisonous fog,” and creating endless “horrid scenes, sordid hours,” and an “insidiously incestuous atmosphere.” Later, even jotting a line or two in her diary about her father would catapult Woolf into depression. In 1940, just before her death, she was writing about him, and that, along with nightly bombing raids over the house, and the cyanide pills Leonard had obtained — Leonard was convinced that the Nazis would seize them as soon as Germany invaded — seems to have given her all but the final push.
For that, there was Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s beloved older sister. Forrester charges Vanessa with being passively vengeful instead of supportive, wounded by Virginia’s flirtation with her husband, Clive, and dependent on Virginia’s envy of Vanessa’s sexual and maternal life, “a jealousy that Vanessa could not do without.” Far from encouraging Virginia to see herself as rational and resilient, Vanessa repeatedly implied she was a burden. A week before Virginia drowned herself in the River Ouse, Vanessa wrote her a scolding letter: “[Y]ou must not go and get ill just now. What shall we do when we’re invaded if you are a helpless invalid?” This, Forrester claims, was the “death blow.”
What emerges most poignantly from these congested pages is the image of “Virginia seule,” alone amid people who don’t understand her, who want to use her for their own purposes, or who believe they know her better than she knows herself. The details behind Forrester’s many theories and allegations must go unreported here, for obvious reasons. But as with her exposé of Bell’s biography, she argues credibly for most of them. Leonard’s unpublished letters from Ceylon to his friend Lytton Strachey, for example, reveal his calculated plan to woo Virginia as a “final solution” to escape the Foreign Service. (It was originally Strachey’s idea.) In addition to studying hundreds of such letters, published and unpublished, Forrester has pored over Woolf’s novels, essays, diaries, and memoirs, dissected Leonard’s chilly autobiography, brooded on photographs and reminiscences from the Bloomsbury circle. The result is indeed a portrait: Virginia Woolf as a passionate, vigorous, sensual, deeply responsive woman who desperately wanted children. A woman who was labile but not unstable — surprisingly sturdy, in fact (n.b., Virginia nursed their awful old dying father for two years, not the robust Vanessa), but rocked by tragedy after tragedy, losing her mother, a half-sister, her favorite brother, and finally her father within a cruelly short period, and driven to distraction by the self-absorbed people around her, none of whom seemed to have her best interests at heart.
Would Virginia Woolf recognize herself in Forrester’s portrait? Perhaps, in the same way a butterfly might recognize itself as a mounted specimen in a frame. But is that a fair question to put to any kind of written profile? As Woolf famously notes in Orlando, “a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may have as many thousand.” And when she set out to write one herself, of the painter Roger Fry, she was driven by frustration to characterize biography as “three or four hundred pages of compromise, evasion, understatement, overstatement, irrelevance and downright falsehood” (quoted in the first chapter of Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf).
The real question, it seems to me, is one Julian Barnes asked in his novel Flaubert’s Parrot: “Why does the writing make us chase the writer?” In Forrester’s case, she wants to pay homage to an artist whom she feels has been misunderstood and misrepresented, and to rescue her from a myth that has distorted our understanding of her as a woman. She also clearly feels an ardent affinity for Woolf, bordering on rapture, which quickly becomes the most problematic aspect of this portrait. Influenced by Woolf’s incantatory, imagistic style, Forrester writes far too many sentences like this one:
And endlessly failing in this, having failed, having admitted that “no, no, nothing is proved, nothing is known,” having rejected such proof or knowledge and retained the uncertainty of achieving the exactitude beyond the silence that surrounds words, having above all and endlessly repeated her quest: this makes it all the more real, quivering with what she does not know but senses, trembling with what cannot be written down but what she knows how to indicate.
(That this example occurs on the book’s first page is daunting. By page five, one feels like a blind person trying to read a Brillo pad. Fortunately, the prose calms down — more or less — by the end of Part I.)
So we write portraits and biographies to pay homage, to rescue, to correct, and because we feel empathy and kinship. And yet still Barnes’s question remains: Why? To the hundreds of books that have been written about Virginia Woolf, why add another? More to the point, why aren’t her own books enough?
Of course, I don’t know. My guess, however, is that behind every biographical attempt, at least when it comes to writing about writers, lies gratitude. Also yearning, anguish, awe, and a very basic desire. We believe that the writers we love understand us more intimately than anyone else. “Where do you get your ideas?” people are always asking authors they admire, which I’ve always thought was another way of asking, “How did you get my ideas, which I didn’t know I had until you put words to them?” We are known, appreciated, even cherished by our favorite writers; every word of our favorite books seems to have been written for us. Within their sentences and paragraphs, those writers are forever available, forever patient, including us in their compassionate recognition of the impossible, exhausting complexity of being human (those “many thousand” selves), never ignoring us or abandoning us or finding us dull. It’s you, they whisper, as we turn their pages, you are the one I’ve been waiting to tell everything to.
Such exquisite company. Who can blame us for wanting more?