Exploring the palimpsest of a literary life.
Forrester (The Economic Horror, 1999, etc.), a French journalist, novelist, critic, and translator who died in 2013, has created a nuanced, impassioned portrait of Woolf (1882-1941) refracted through her most intimate relationships: notably, with her parents, Julia Duckworth and Leslie Stephen; her husband, Leonard; and her sister, Vanessa. Noting that there are many detailed studies of Woolf, Forrester is interested not in reprising the trajectory of her subject’s life and work but rather in rescuing her from “countertruths” perpetuated by “all the entangled lives, the secrets, the lies, the dramatic misunderstandings” that emerged from memoirs, letters, diaries, and some of her biographers. She particularly excoriates Quentin Bell, Woolf’s nephew and first biographer, for his “condescending tone, speaking of his aunt while scotomizing the writing, whose work, as he was fond of admitting coyly, he did not know very well.” In the “quasi-official account of her life,” Bell portrayed Woolf as sexually frigid, emotionally fragile, and often mad. Forrester, however, reads wild sensuality in her work, and she blames Leonard for quashing her desires. As Forrester sees him, Leonard was obsessive and neurotic, projecting onto his wife “what worried him about himself.” He insisted that she was an invalid needing rest and isolation; he forced upon her a daily glass of milk, which Virginia despised. He also took her to many doctors, eliciting their opinions about whether she should have a child. There was no consensus, but he and Vanessa decided it would be better if she did not. Forrester convincingly argues that calling Woolf “mad” is “a dangerous simplification”; instead, the author sees her anguish and rage precipitated by “clearly definable causes” such as “the despotic brutality with which she has…been denied children.”
An engrossing, intimate, and deeply empathetic portrayal of a brilliant and enigmatic woman. The book won the 2009 Prix Goncourt in France.