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.