I have a collection of author biographies. In fact, I have biographies of authors where I haven’t even read their work. I like life stories and it appears that I enjoy reading about the writing and publishing experience as well. For this month’s 12 in 12 Challenge we are looking at books about words, books and writing so an author biography very much fits the criteria.
The book I have read is called Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf : A Very Close Conspiracy by Jane Dunn. Obviously, this is a biography of two people, only one of whom was a writer, but I am happy enough that it is suitable to be book 5 in May’s challenge reading.
Vanessa and Virginia were sisters and this book concentrates specifically on that aspect of their lives. Although their lovers and companions are part of the story, the emphasis is on their shared lives, and how what they experienced and their relationship with one another added to their art. It is, therefore, not a full biography but it is an interesting one. We also know so much about them because they wrote copious letters and kept diaries – some of the letters are quoted in To the Letter which was book 4 of this month’s challenge.
The sisters grew up in a very writing based home. They effectively lost their father to his work on creating the Dictionary of National Biography and their mother was always distant. Their close relationship came about because they lost their parents, then the half-sister who took her place and eventually their much loved brother in a very short period of time. It also appears that they were both sexually abused by their half-brothers. They clung together and forged their own way in a world which had certain expectations for them that they didn’t mean to fulfil.
The author shows how this relationship, their competition and the circumstances of their lives affected Virginia’s writing. I’ve read a couple of Virginia Woolf’s books and enjoyed them well enough but I am not her greatest fan and I hadn’t realised how autobiographical they are.
I liked the way that the author shows the different approaches that the two sisters had to their lives. Virginia sacrificed a family for her work and Vanessa sacrificed her work for her family life – the book shows how they ended up in a position where they had to make these choices and also comments on the reduced life choices for women of their time. They broke through a lot of barriers – Virginia ran a publishing business, Vanessa lived with a man who was not her husband, they both shared a lover who was also Vanessa’s husband. The author also doesn’t dwell too much on Virginia’s shaky mental health but shows how their relationship strengthened her and helped her recover.
This is an enjoyable book told from a very different angle. I have read a fictional account of some of this story in Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar which I also recommend.