Sunday, October 3, 2010

Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicolson

I had just finished A Room of One's Own (second time around) when I picked up a pristine copy of Nigel Nicolson's short biography at a library sale. It's a Penguin Lives edition, and might be a little difficult to track down online. By the way I won't be reviewing A Room of One's Own here, because I'm saving it for a post on my blog. Besides, reviewing a revered classic is a bit like painting an elephant: you never know where to begin, and perhaps it's better never to start.

Virginia Woolf is a very intimate portrait of the writer, and for that reason I felt obliged to suspect Nigel Nicolson of bias; but then, all biographers are biased one way or the other. Nicolson had the huge advantage of knowing Woolf well as a child, when she was one of his mother Vita Sackville-West's string of lovers--how strange it must have been to grow up as a child of Bloomsbury!

Maybe it's the lapse of time between Woolf's death (1941) and the writing of this biography (1999) or maybe Nicolson was simply an extremely kind man (he died in 2004)--in any case, I found the overall tone of this book to be one of deep affection and respect for Woolf, her friends, her work and indeed the whole Bloomsbury milieu. Nicolson deals dismissively with some of the theories about Woolf--that she was traumatized by childhood sexual abuse, that she was frigid and so on--but he doesn't ignore them; in a very English way he tells us that everything was really quite all right, and that all the theories are rather exaggerated.

Nicolson obviously referred extensively to some or all of the Woof biographies while writing his own, which in some ways is a fairly conventional account. But the moments I loved were, of course, the private recollections and the little details. All in all, this is a good short introduction to Woolf's life and to the leading characters of the Bloomsbury Group, and I recommend it as a pleasant read. It has whetted my appetite for a chunkier biography; a few minutes' research on the internet suggests that Hermione Lee's 944-page tome might be the one.

1 comment:

Nilu said...

I am a big fan of Virginia Woolf. Especially interested in her biographies.

Great to see a review here!