Sunday, 17 May 2009

Reminiscences - 1908

I have been struggling with what to say about Reminiscences for several weeks now. On the one hand it is an autobiography, detailing the lives of Virginia’s sister and mother, but on the other it was written as a biography of Vanessa for her son Julian Bell, so it is not an ordinary biography.

I am currently reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf and at 750 odd pages it is long but incredibly comprehensive. It is proving very insightful and revealing about the family history of Virginia Woolf and what some of her motivation to write may have been. Hermione Lee also wrote the introduction to Reminiscences in the edition I am reading (Virginia Woolf - Moments of Being edited by Jeanne Schulkind published by Pimlico 2002) and again her insight into why Virginia Woolf may have written these pieces is very interesting. I am trying not to read too far ahead into Virginia Woolf’s life as this can change the way that I will look at the earlier pieces, but it is fascinating to know how important biography and autobiography as a style of writing were to Virginia Woolf, from her fathers editing of the Dictionary of National Biography to her own autobiographical writing. There was also a tradition in her family for each generation to write their memoirs of the family to be passed on to the next generation.

To put this piece of writing into context you need to look back to 1906. Shortly after the Stephen siblings holiday in Greece where they climbed Mount Pentelicus, both Thoby and Vanessa became unwell. Once back in England Thoby was thought to be recovering but he in fact died of Typhoid Fever in November of 1906.

The move from Hyde Park Gate to Bloomsbury a few years earlier had been a big change for the Stephen siblings, not only was the location physically removed from their past, but it also allowed them to break with the conventions of the previous generation. The introduction of Thoby’s Cambridge friends opened up a whole new world to Virginia and Vanessa and this would continue after his death. Many of his close friends rallied round the sisters after his death and were there to support them. Shortly after Thoby’s death Vanessa accepted the proposal of Thoby’s friend Clive Bell, so not only did Virginia loose her brother, but in very quick succession she also lost her sister. Vanessa and Clive moved in together and Adrian and Virginia continued to live together.

Clive Bell would be very influential in encouraging Virginia to write but there also seems to have been some jealousy and rivalry for Vanessa’s attention. Virginia often showed her work to Clive Bell and welcomed his feedback. Reminiscences was written for Virginia Woolf’s nephew Julian Bell who was born 1908 but it may have been begun before sometime before his birth. Hermione Lee suggests that

“It is written out of Virginia’s equally intense feelings about Vanessa, …jealousy, competitiveness, bereavement, a sense of having been displaced.”

Reminiscences begins with the birth of Vanessa and a description of how she was as a child. It reads partly as a conventional biography with a formal tone and structure, but it is supplemented with personal anecdotes and accounts of Vanessa’s life from Virginia. The piece deals with the death of their mother and sister, the impact that this had on the remaining children and it finishes shortly after the death of Stella.

I think I will want to read this piece again as I read Virginia’s fictional accounts that are drawn from her family life. The book contains several autobiographical pieces written at different times in her life and I think it will make sense to come back to the pieces as a whole and look at how she treats her autobiographical writing as her fictional writing develops.


  1. How intriguing: the idea of writing family memoir to pass on to the next generation. Thank you for that, Flo and Virginia.
    Sylvia Hohri

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  3. Must be an enjoyable read The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.