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While a biography may be free in some ways to break certain narrative rules—one can always begin with the subject's death, for instance—in general it must follow a chronology, introduce its subject to readers unfamiliar with the material, and situate its subject in a historical context. Such rules may not apply to literary portraiture, a form that can show its subject at skewed angles, in odd colors, and with clearly visible brushstrokes. The late Viviane Forrester has produced something much in the latter vein in Virginia Woolf: A Portrait. First published in France, it won the 2009 Goncourt Prize for biography and appears now in an English translation by Jody Gladding. Based almost entirely on primary sources, the book assumes a certain degree of knowledge of Virginia Woolf on the reader's part and proposes to delve deeply into Woolf's psyche to rescue her from what Forrester sees as the unsavory influences of the people who surrounded her. But, as with any portrait, the book reveals perhaps more about its author than its subject.
Arranged in five parts, Forrester's book argues for the concept of Virginia "alone" and aims to present her as a gallant, misunderstood figure in need of a much more focused depiction (3). But then Forrester somewhat oddly examines Woolf in light of the major figures and events in her life: her husband Leonard; her family and her childhood in Hyde Park Gate, Kensington; her sister Vanessa Bell; the other members of the Bloomsbury Group and the writers Katherine Mansfield and Vita Sackville-West; and, finally, death itself. Forrester's writing attempts to follow the model set by Woolf in some of the autobiographical writings that appear in Moments of Being as well as the witty, urbane, conversational tone set by Woolf in her best essays and in A Room of One's Own. There are many rhetorical questions scattered throughout the text, most of which ask the reader to ponder how Woolf herself fits into the swirling mix of personalities and often unpleasant events. "What is the weight of a life?" and "What entangled Virginia?" (3), Forrester asks; she provides a running commentary on the length of time it will take before Woolf drowns herself in the River Ouse. While there are moments of elegance—indeed, of poetry—in Forrester's prose, at times the sentences appear clotted and dense and verb tenses often shift from past to present for no discernible reason; sentence fragments and single words stand alone, as if to shock the reader into stillness. One assumes that Gladding reproduced this as accurately as possible from Forrester's original French. The effect, while sometimes beautiful, quickly becomes tiring and cloying. [End Page 597]
More problematic than style is Forrester's stance on the other figures in Woolf's life and, ultimately, on Woolf herself. By the fourth page of the book, Forrester launches into an attack on both Leonard Woolf and Quentin Bell; the former is accused of marrying Virginia solely for personal gain (he hated life in colonial Ceylon, and Virginia, requiring much care, could serve as a reason to return to Britain) and the latter is attacked for having produced a two-volume biography of his aunt that simply perpetuated the myths of sexual coldness put forth by Leonard. Bell in particular is attacked relentlessly; he is mentioned over twenty times in the text, typically with condescension if not outright contempt. (Forrester appears to have had issues with Bell since their joint 1973 appearance on a radio program she was producing on—as she puts it—"guess who?" .) Troublingly, many of Forrester's arguments about Bell were current in the mid-to late 1970s, and many of the same points were made much more clearly and effectively by Ellen Hawkes Rogat in her 1974 essay "The Virgin in the Bell Biography." Many of Forrester's contentions about Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Quentin Bell, Leslie and Julia Stephen, the Duckworth brothers and their sexual misconduct, and the other members of the Bloomsbury Group...