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Women Who Run With Virginia Woolf : A rich, frank appraisal of the writer and her eclectic circle : VIRGINIA WOOLF, By James King (W.W. Norton & Co.: $35; 720 pp.)

June 11, 1995|Lucinda Irwin Smith | Lucinda Irwin Smith is the author of "Women Who Write," Volumes I & II (Simon & Schuster)

Biography is not a polite business. Any pretense of biographical etiquette was done away with long ago. Beware then, the writer who aspires fame. Heed the confidential letter, the diary confession, the hidden photograph, the discreet friend and the whispered remark. There are no secrets.

Virginia Woolf was a noted biographer and critic herself. She was famous for her notorious wit and dry humor. Although she was successful and well-known, she nevertheless dodged celebrity, loathed being interviewed, was hyper-sensitive to criticism and hated having her photograph taken. She was shy and very private.

This penetrating new biography by Canadian scholar James King bursts into the world of this reclusive woman and illuminates the real and imagined characters that come together so vividly in her work.

The last comprehensive biography of Virginia Woolf was written in 1972 by her nephew Quentin Bell. In the forward to his book, Bell explains his purpose is "purely historical." He claims to be only about the business of facts. By avoiding psychological conclusions, he could be somewhat protective of his aunt. This "polite" approach was the accepted mode 20 years ago. A biographer could scurry past sensitive issues and minimize potentially explosive revelations under the guise of privacy or respect.

In scrutinizing his subject, King capitalizes on today's openness as well as on 20 years of research devoted not only to Woolf, but to her eclectic circle of colleagues, lovers, family and friends.

The study of Virginia Woolf is so far reaching that most biographies tend to specialize on either her writing or her life. King labels his work a "literary biography" and thoroughly examines both themes. He maintains the connection between Woolf's life and art is unavoidable. Her writing formed the core of her existence, and therefore her novels are intrinsically autobiographical. Not only does he develop this thesis but he takes on almost every other aspect of her life as well. Consequently, it's remarkable how many facts, anecdotes, quotations, theories and conclusions he can squeeze into a single paragraph. For the Woolf-phile, the book is a wonderfully rich read. Because of the enormous amount of information, the book is also, at times, a somewhat disjointed feast.

Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on Jan. 25, 1882, into a family that was dysfunctional at best. Virginia's father, Sir Leslie Stephen was a lonely, self-pitying widower with one child when he married Julia Duckworth, a 31-year-old widow with three children. Together they produced Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian. Virginia was 13 when her mother died. She experienced her first breakdown that same year.

As if this trauma was not enough to unhinge a young life, Virginia was also sexually abused by her half-brothers, Gerald and George Duckworth. The abuse began when Virginia was 6. She was devastated by this violation and her delicate temperament never recovered. Throughout her life she considered herself ugly, and she regarded sexuality as an alien and hostile aspect of her self. Not surprisingly, she was uncomfortable when Gerald later became her publisher. She recognized the horrifying irony of her book being fondled by Gerald. "His commercial view of every possible subject depressed me, especially when I thought of my novel destined to be pawed and snored over by him." (The abuse, and Virginia's recounting of it in conversations and in numerous writings is fully explored in Louise DeSalvo's excellent book, "Virginia Woolf--The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work," 1989, Beacon Press.)

Although Quentin Bell briefly discusses the abuse in his biography, the statement "I do not know enough about Virginia's mental illnesses to say whether this adolescent trauma was in any way connected with them," not only dates his book, but underscores his timid approach to the subject.

Portraits of key individuals are dealt with more honestly in this biography. For example, the relationship between Virginia and her sister Vanessa Bell is often idealized. King reveals a complicated and at times stormy bond between these creative siblings. Beneath these tensions was a great love however, and a dependency upon one another. King suggests the relationship was also physical. As the women approached middle age. Virginia wrote to her sister: "With you I am deeply, passionately, unrequitedly in love--and thank goodness your beauty is ruined, for my incestuous feeling may then be cooled."

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