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Virginia Woolf: And the Women Who Shaped Her World

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An insightful, witty look at Virginia Woolf through the lens of the extraordinary women closest to her. How did Adeline Virginia Stephen become the great writer Virginia Woolf? Acclaimed biographer Gillian Gill tells the stories of the women whose legacies—of strength, style, and creativity—shaped Woolf’s path to the radical writing that inspires so many today.    Gill cas An insightful, witty look at Virginia Woolf through the lens of the extraordinary women closest to her. How did Adeline Virginia Stephen become the great writer Virginia Woolf? Acclaimed biographer Gillian Gill tells the stories of the women whose legacies—of strength, style, and creativity—shaped Woolf’s path to the radical writing that inspires so many today.    Gill casts back to Woolf’s French-Anglo-Indian maternal great-grandmother Thérèse de L’Etang, an outsider to English culture whose beauty passed powerfully down the female line; and to Woolf’s aunt Anne Thackeray Ritchie, who gave Woolf her first vision of a successful female writer.  Yet it was the women in her own family circle who had the most complex and lasting effect on Woolf.  Her mother, Julia, and sisters Stella, Laura, and Vanessa were all, like Woolf herself, but in markedly different ways, warped by the male-dominated household they lived in.  Finally, Gill shifts the lens onto the famous Bloomsbury group.  This, Gill convinces, is where Woolf called upon the legacy of the women who shaped her to transform a group of men--united in their love for one another and their disregard for women--into a society in which Woolf ultimately found her freedom and her voice.    


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An insightful, witty look at Virginia Woolf through the lens of the extraordinary women closest to her. How did Adeline Virginia Stephen become the great writer Virginia Woolf? Acclaimed biographer Gillian Gill tells the stories of the women whose legacies—of strength, style, and creativity—shaped Woolf’s path to the radical writing that inspires so many today.    Gill cas An insightful, witty look at Virginia Woolf through the lens of the extraordinary women closest to her. How did Adeline Virginia Stephen become the great writer Virginia Woolf? Acclaimed biographer Gillian Gill tells the stories of the women whose legacies—of strength, style, and creativity—shaped Woolf’s path to the radical writing that inspires so many today.    Gill casts back to Woolf’s French-Anglo-Indian maternal great-grandmother Thérèse de L’Etang, an outsider to English culture whose beauty passed powerfully down the female line; and to Woolf’s aunt Anne Thackeray Ritchie, who gave Woolf her first vision of a successful female writer.  Yet it was the women in her own family circle who had the most complex and lasting effect on Woolf.  Her mother, Julia, and sisters Stella, Laura, and Vanessa were all, like Woolf herself, but in markedly different ways, warped by the male-dominated household they lived in.  Finally, Gill shifts the lens onto the famous Bloomsbury group.  This, Gill convinces, is where Woolf called upon the legacy of the women who shaped her to transform a group of men--united in their love for one another and their disregard for women--into a society in which Woolf ultimately found her freedom and her voice.    

30 review for Virginia Woolf: And the Women Who Shaped Her World

  1. 4 out of 5

    Linden

    Gillian Gill presents an extensively researched life of Virginia Woolf, including her ancestors and early influences in addition to the Bloomsbury Group. There was a fair amount of unpleasantness discussed; the Bloomsbury members were a rather licentious lot. Virginia and Leonard Woolf weren’t sleeping around, but apparently everyone else was. Virginia, Vanessa, and their mentally disabled half-sister were said to have been sexually abused by a creepy older half-brother, and a man who admired Va Gillian Gill presents an extensively researched life of Virginia Woolf, including her ancestors and early influences in addition to the Bloomsbury Group. There was a fair amount of unpleasantness discussed; the Bloomsbury members were a rather licentious lot. Virginia and Leonard Woolf weren’t sleeping around, but apparently everyone else was. Virginia, Vanessa, and their mentally disabled half-sister were said to have been sexually abused by a creepy older half-brother, and a man who admired Vanessa’s baby daughter decided he’d marry her when she grew up. He did, and unsurprisingly was a terrible husband. Recommended for anyone who has read and enjoyed Woolf’s writing.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Elisa

    An uneasy mixture of gossip and fact-finding, insufficiently scholarly to stand as a contribution to Woolf Studies but more detailed than the common reader is likely to want or need. While it is useful to have all this info on the various women in Woolf's life collected in one place, there is not much new here, especially in terms of Woolf's late relationships with Vanessa, Vita, and Ethyl Smythe. Book is best on Pattledom and the women who influenced the young Virginia Stephen, but I felt there An uneasy mixture of gossip and fact-finding, insufficiently scholarly to stand as a contribution to Woolf Studies but more detailed than the common reader is likely to want or need. While it is useful to have all this info on the various women in Woolf's life collected in one place, there is not much new here, especially in terms of Woolf's late relationships with Vanessa, Vita, and Ethyl Smythe. Book is best on Pattledom and the women who influenced the young Virginia Stephen, but I felt there was a chapter missing on Violet Dickinson. Chief problem was the sureness with which the author asserted deductions and conclusions about complex, ambiguous matters, like the idea that Woolf disliked and distrusted Clive Bell or that Vita was in anyway responsible for the surge of genius that produced To the Lighthouse. This appearance of certainty is accompanied by small carelessness that undercut such judgements. For instance, the statement that Vita was "furious" at how Woolf portrayed her in Orlando is not supported, and the somewhat contradictory additional comment that Vita knew the book was one "supreme love letter," puts the words of Vita's son Nigel into Vita's mouth without attribution. Trekki Parson's was NOT Leonard's "second wife"; she remained married to Ian Parsons until the end of her life. Some biographies of Woolf (such as Hermione Lee's masterwork and Alexandra Harris's more recent and shorter overview) strike one as having done justice to the available evidence and taken the most reasonable stance. This one seems in turn both opinionated and careless.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jo

    4.5 stars I can count on one hand the number of biographies I’ve read in my lifetime so I’m certainly not an expert but I really enjoyed Gillian Gill’s study of the women in Virginia Woolf’s life. Gill begins with Woolf’s great great grand-mother who was born in India and probably half-Bengali and then moves through the generations to the beautiful and intelligent Pattle sisters and her own mother Julia. These chapters were all fascinating and although Virginia herself didn’t spend much time with 4.5 stars I can count on one hand the number of biographies I’ve read in my lifetime so I’m certainly not an expert but I really enjoyed Gillian Gill’s study of the women in Virginia Woolf’s life. Gill begins with Woolf’s great great grand-mother who was born in India and probably half-Bengali and then moves through the generations to the beautiful and intelligent Pattle sisters and her own mother Julia. These chapters were all fascinating and although Virginia herself didn’t spend much time with most of these women it was still interesting to see the interactions and personalities of these close relations. The middle sections focus primarily on the wonderful Anne Thackeray Ritchie and Leslie Stephens’ first marriage to her sister and then Julia Stephen, Virginia's mother and Virginia’s brothers and sisters. Again this was detailed and eye opening, I had no idea for example that Woolf had a step sister who spent thirty years in an asylum despite probably not being ‘mad’. The final sections, and the one reviewers seem to have focused on, are about Bloomsbury and Virginia’s sister Vanessa. Although the book is about the women who shaped her world, Gill shows that many of the Bloomsbury set and indeed Virginia's husband Leslie had a great influence on her but that the relationship between Virginia and Vanessa was integral to her life. There are a few instances where I felt Gillian Gill might be inferring a little too much as to how people felt or what they thought, although most of the time there are copious notes to support her suppositions and having written several books on figures of this era she has certainly done her research. The epilogue too ends on a slightly strange note with an emphasis that perhaps goes beyond the remit of the book. However, this book had me enthralled the entire way through and sent me down copious rabbit holes; figures such as Anne Thackeray Ritchie, Ethel Smyth, Lytton Strachey the Bloomsbury set as a whole, Leonard Woolf, these are all people I would like to know more about. Gill also shows how family members feature in most of Woolf’s novels and writes about her work just enough to intrigue without spoiling. She has made me want to read those Woolf novels I haven’t got to yet and reread those I have which I would say is part of the success of this fascinating book.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Nicolas Lontel

    Cette biographie couvre très largement la famille élargie et les ami·es de Virginia Woolf. J'avoue que le sous-titre n'a pas particulièrement ressorti à me lecture au point où, en refermant le livre après l'avoir fini, je trouvais qu'on parlait pas mal plus de la famille de Woolf (ainsi que du groupe Bloomsbury) que d'autres choses ; j'ai relu le sous-titre et été un peu surpris· que c'était apparemment autour de femmes que l'essai s'articulait. Honnêtement, ce n'est pas le genre de biographie qu Cette biographie couvre très largement la famille élargie et les ami·es de Virginia Woolf. J'avoue que le sous-titre n'a pas particulièrement ressorti à me lecture au point où, en refermant le livre après l'avoir fini, je trouvais qu'on parlait pas mal plus de la famille de Woolf (ainsi que du groupe Bloomsbury) que d'autres choses ; j'ai relu le sous-titre et été un peu surpris· que c'était apparemment autour de femmes que l'essai s'articulait. Honnêtement, ce n'est pas le genre de biographie qui m'intéresse, ça parle en long et en large de la vie privée de la famille, de Vanessa Bell surtout, de Woolf, des gens qu'elle côtoyait, on parle à peine de ses livres (probablement une cinquantaine de page max.) sinon qu'à part quelques clef de lecture sous la forme de personnages inspirés par tel ou telle personne ou encore des inspirations ça et là. Je ne pense pas que ça parle tant que ça des femmes qui ont inspiré son monde pour être honnête, on parle certainement de sa maladie mentale (en refusant de la définir exactement ce qui ne m'a pas déplu), des événements de jeunesse qui auront influencé le restant de sa vie, ses cercles artistiques (bien que juste vers la fin et plutôt brièvement). Le tout est basé sur une large lecture de ses correspondances ainsi que des correspondances d'autres personnes autour de la vie de Woolf, ce n'est donc pas une analyse littéraire ou des thèmes de son oeuvre. On parle vraiment de la personne privée qu'était Virginia Woolf et des affaires privées qui la prenait. L'autrice tente aussi de mettre de l'avant des faits moins connus (comme son arrière grand-mère indienne), des histoires d'agressions et de trucs assez limite incestueux, du groupe Bloomsbury et de l'homosexualité masculine. À peine évoque-t-on rapidement à la fin les lesbiennes qui l'ont influencé, presque de manière anecdotique alors qu'on parle très longuement de l'homosexualité masculine. Bref, pour les fans absolus de VW, ça peut être intéressant, pour les gens qui s'intéressent plus à son oeuvre et à ses thèmes, je pense que ce n'est pas un passage obligé.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Z. Weinman

    I'm not sure that biography is quite the right way to categorize this book, at least not in the strictest sense of the term. Nor, in my opinion, does the title convey the full scope of what this volume is trying to achieve. I have just finished it, and so these are my first impressions: I agree with other reviews that the book too often strays into conjecture, which, in fairness, Gill often acknowledges, but other times you are left wondering if what she is describing actually occurred or if Gil I'm not sure that biography is quite the right way to categorize this book, at least not in the strictest sense of the term. Nor, in my opinion, does the title convey the full scope of what this volume is trying to achieve. I have just finished it, and so these are my first impressions: I agree with other reviews that the book too often strays into conjecture, which, in fairness, Gill often acknowledges, but other times you are left wondering if what she is describing actually occurred or if Gill is giving the reader a bit of her own literary flair. My preference for biographies (and non-fiction books in general) are those which are loaded with quotations and footnotes, and in which moments of factual ambiguity are presented as such, and the author presents the possibilities and the supporting evidence for each and leaves the reader to come to their own conclusions. This is not that book. I think it was the New York Times review that described Gill's voice as "conspiratorial" and I think that is an accurate description. In reading you feel you are privy to the famous Bloomsbury gossip wheel that Gill brings to our attention more than once. It makes for enjoyable reading, but at the same time you feel you are not always being given the full picture. The book is at its strongest when discussing Woolf's forebears; the Thackeray family, Pattledom, etc. The most moving section, though itself full of conjecture, was the section on Virginia Woolf's mentally ill half-sister Laura, who was generally poorly treated by her family and institutionalized at a relatively young age, thereafter mostly ignored by her extended family, Woolf included. In the sections about Bloomsbury proper the book is at its most salacious, as Gill seems to revel in the sex lives of Woolf's bohemian compatriots. Though enjoyable reading, how this supports the book's supposed thesis of women who were influential on Woolf is never made quite clear, other than in contrasting her sister Vanessa's robust sexuality with Woolf's apparently frigid nature. Childhood sexual abuse and its effects seem to be one of the hearts of this book, and much of it is spent discussing the alleged sexual abuse suffered by Virginia and Vanessa at the hands of their half-brothers (who, Gill posits, could have possibly abused the aforementioned Laura as well). The infamous marriage of Angelica Bell, Woolf's niece, to her father's one-time lover Bunny Garnett, over twenty years her senior, also gets an extended exploration. Abuses of this nature, though certainly an important topic of discussion, particularly in the age of #MeToo, seemed an odd locus of inquiry for, again, a book ostensibly about how certain women shaped Woolf's world. For much of the book these matters are presented as they relate to certain women close to Woolf, but at the very end of the book, in the epilogue, Gill concludes her work by trying to posit Virginia Woolf as some sort of champion and protector of children against potential abuse, particularly her niece and nephews. This is a lovely thought, but the evidence Gill presents is scant, and Gill even tells us earlier that in the saga of the Angelia Bell/Bunny Garnett affair Woolf wasn't particularly present, working, as she was at the time, on Roger Fry's biography and a new novel (Between the Acts). Overall, I found Gill's book to be an enjoyable but odd beast. As a long-time admirer of Virginia Woolf's writing and of her world, learning more about the forebears that almost certainly shaped her life, both in word and action, was enlightening, while the rehashing of Bloomsbury gossip was less so. Those new to Virginia Woolf and her social context may find the book somewhat confusing, as it assumes the reader has at least a passing biographical knowledge of its subject.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Laurie

    I’ve read two or three biographies of Virginia Woolf, but this one went at telling her story from a very different angle than usual. Gill goes back in time, and tells us about Woolf’s female predecessors. The women aren’t just her foremothers; Gill includes Anne Thackeray Ritchie, who while not well known now showed Woolf that a woman could be a successful writer, her siblings including half –sister Laura, who got called an ‘idiot’ and was put away in an asylum when she was in her 20s. Of course I’ve read two or three biographies of Virginia Woolf, but this one went at telling her story from a very different angle than usual. Gill goes back in time, and tells us about Woolf’s female predecessors. The women aren’t just her foremothers; Gill includes Anne Thackeray Ritchie, who while not well known now showed Woolf that a woman could be a successful writer, her siblings including half –sister Laura, who got called an ‘idiot’ and was put away in an asylum when she was in her 20s. Of course, her family also included men. Most were good, but her two half-brothers were nasty characters who sexually abused both Virginia and her sister Vanessa- and possibly Laura and Stella. It’s odd that Gill stresses that it was the women who shaped Woolf’s life, when she and her siblings (and her mother, Julia) were shaped very strongly by the male-dominated times in general and their family in particular. Later, Woolf became part of the influential (in intellectual terms) Bloomsbury group. This group was composed of mainly gay and bi men who had little use for women, but changed their minds when it came to Virginia, and her sister Vanessa, who both married into the group. Woolf and her sister transformed the group; the group transformed the women. It was here that Woolf found her literary voice. Gill has a great enthusiasm for her subject. She sometimes writes in a breathless manner, as if she were a teenager writing about her heartthrob. It’s a somewhat odd choice of style, given how much scholarly research she put into the book, but it works. At times it’s like listening in on gossip; the Bloomsbury group seems to have put as much energy into their sex lives as they did into their art; a discussion of the grooming and marriage of Woolf’s niece to the former lover of the girl’s father is had. The only thing I found annoying was the author’s habit of jumping around in time- it made it even more difficult to sort out the large cast of characters. Four stars.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kay

    Virginia Woolf is one of those names people know even if they wonder why they should be afraid of her. I admit that I haven't read any of Virginia Woolf's works yet, but this book now makes me want to do this. This book, primarily about the women who shaped her world as titled, also includes a lot about the men who were just as influential. For example, she wouldn't have that catchy last name of Woolf if she had not married Leonard Woolf who I find equally as interesting. I was delighted to lear Virginia Woolf is one of those names people know even if they wonder why they should be afraid of her. I admit that I haven't read any of Virginia Woolf's works yet, but this book now makes me want to do this. This book, primarily about the women who shaped her world as titled, also includes a lot about the men who were just as influential. For example, she wouldn't have that catchy last name of Woolf if she had not married Leonard Woolf who I find equally as interesting. I was delighted to learn more about the 19th century photographer, Julia Cameron, whose work I admire without knowing her connection to Virginia Woolf. For me, this book is a fascinating look at Victorian and Edwardian England among an affluent segment of society who still felt, as affluent people do today, that they are struggling while still actively pursuing social climbing. The women portrayed in this book are shown as an amazing group of women, doing the best they could often under challenging circumstances. I found this book very engaging and found myself choosing to read this over other activities. This book shows a lot of the societal restrictions for women, and actually everybody in Victorian times, as well as the deplorable state of health care of the era. This book made me a lot more sympathetic to Virginia Woolf's essentially life-long suffering from serious bouts of mental illness. It made how her life ended more understandable. As I read this in Dec. 2019, The Hours is currently on Amazon Prime. I started watching it as soon as I finished the book for reading this makes The Hours so much more meaningful and brings Virginia Woolf and her family to life for me. (I watched The Hours many years ago when it came out but it just seemed a sad movie - now I understand it so much more.)

  8. 5 out of 5

    Caroline

    This was really sort of two books mashed together. Gill starts out with chapters on the female ancestors of Woolf's mother Julia Jackson, which were full of information that was new to me and helped put all those cousins into context. I did not know that France had a toehold in India in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Apparently Woolf's great-great-great-grandmother was half French and half Bengali - I wish Gill had spent a page explaining how that is known instead of just citing a source and leav This was really sort of two books mashed together. Gill starts out with chapters on the female ancestors of Woolf's mother Julia Jackson, which were full of information that was new to me and helped put all those cousins into context. I did not know that France had a toehold in India in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Apparently Woolf's great-great-great-grandmother was half French and half Bengali - I wish Gill had spent a page explaining how that is known instead of just citing a source and leaving it alone.) Then we get a very moving chapter on her mother, shedding surprising light on who in the Stephen household was the merciless one, and another on her half sister Stella Duckworth. This part of the book ends with section about Virginia's relationship with her sister Vanessa. At that point the second book begins, a sort of compare-and-contrast of the adult lives of the two sisters. Gill gives Woolf her due and takes some of the shine off of Vanessa Bell, and this was of course all interesting. However, I feel like the premise of the title was somewhat lost here. The names of very important friends of Woolf are tossed about in passing, but we already know so much about Vanessa, in this book I would have liked more about other women who helped form Virginia's life. And you could almost believe that there were no women at all in her father's family as they do not figure here. Altogether, many fresh takes and new angles here, and I want to go back to the letters and journals I haven't read in 30 years.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Rhonda Hicks

    To be honest, the only thing I ever knew or heard about the name "Virginia Woolf" was a movie that came out when I was a child called "Who's Afraid o Virginia Woolf" with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. It was quite an intense motion picture, to say the least. After reading Gillian Gill's recount about the actual woman's life, I know have a better understanding and point of reference of things. It was an interesting read that kept me interested, appalled at her life, and left me somewhat s To be honest, the only thing I ever knew or heard about the name "Virginia Woolf" was a movie that came out when I was a child called "Who's Afraid o Virginia Woolf" with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. It was quite an intense motion picture, to say the least. After reading Gillian Gill's recount about the actual woman's life, I know have a better understanding and point of reference of things. It was an interesting read that kept me interested, appalled at her life, and left me somewhat sad for all she'd gone through. It was a great biography that filled in blanks I didn't realize I had.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Karrie

    I was surprised how much I really enjoyed this book. Gill handles the women's lives adroitly and with insightful analysis, with sympathy to Virginia Woolf's trajectory, her social privileges and insight into how those victorian expectations shaped Bloomsbury and her writing.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Marlies

    Someone else here wrote the perfect review of this book. Very disappointing overall.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sharyn Berg

    This book left me feeling like I knew everyone in Virginia Woolf’s extended family and all their drama and issues. Apparently the Victorian age was not quite as Victorian as we like to think in this day and time. From what I read here, it appears that everybody was having sex with everybody else regardless of male or female, married or single, old or young! Some of it was very open, some of it was clandestine, and some of it was known but never spoken of. Virginia came from a troubled time and a This book left me feeling like I knew everyone in Virginia Woolf’s extended family and all their drama and issues. Apparently the Victorian age was not quite as Victorian as we like to think in this day and time. From what I read here, it appears that everybody was having sex with everybody else regardless of male or female, married or single, old or young! Some of it was very open, some of it was clandestine, and some of it was known but never spoken of. Virginia came from a troubled time and a troubled family and used her writing to try to work through it all. Most of the characters in her books were people that she knew, sometimes disguised, and sometimes not at all. I suppose her writing was cathartic for her,though apparently not healing enough, as per her tragic, untimely death. Thank you to NetGalley for this advanced read copy, I enjoyed the book and learned a lot.

  13. 4 out of 5

    J.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Dee

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jola Cora

  16. 4 out of 5

    George

  17. 4 out of 5

    Christine

  18. 4 out of 5

    Miranda

  19. 4 out of 5

    Whitnee Ramos

  20. 4 out of 5

    Miguel

  21. 4 out of 5

    Olivia

  22. 5 out of 5

    Beth Trela

  23. 4 out of 5

    Bri

  24. 4 out of 5

    rose

  25. 5 out of 5

    Pilar Alvarez

  26. 5 out of 5

    Mary

  27. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie H.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Annie Garvey

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kimberly

  30. 4 out of 5

    Sadie

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