My review of Virginia Woolf's Influential Forebears by Marion Dell

In Virginia Woolf's Influential Forebears, Marion Dell reveals nineteenth-century legacies which inform Woolf's work and shape her as a writing woman, pre-eminent in twentieth-century literary modernism. She identifies specific lines of descent from three of Woolf's forebears: her great-aunt, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, the writer she called aunt, Anny Thackeray Ritchie, and her mother Julia Prinsep Stephen. Dell shows how the work and influence of these three women is textually, artistically, biographically and genealogically embedded in Woolf's own. Woolf's response to them was ambivalent, revealing her conflicted relationship with her past. But ambivalence was also one of their legacies to her and a positive aesthetic in her work. Though she frequently obscures their influence she recognises them as invisible presences. Close reading of the novels which frame this book, Night and Day and The Years, shows Woolf's lifelong engagement with the lives and works of Cameron, Ritchie, and Stephen.
Hardcover, 222 pages
Published October 13th 2015 by Palgrave Macmillan

Thank you to Palgrave Macmillan for my review copy.

I happen to adore Virginia Woolf's novels. Her writing is beautiful. For me, the words come alive on the page; her characters seem real, the events feel as if they have occurred regardless of whether it be a war, a death or a love affair. However, I am no expert on her I just hope to understand where her insecurities and fears come from. To do that one must inevitably research the family line. One must find out all there is to know from recorded documentation.

In Virginia Woolf's case, I urge every person who loves her novels as I do to make a space on your bookshelf for this very special critical analysis of Virginia Woolf's Influential Forebears. For at the heart of it Dell traces the influence of the lives of Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie and her mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen. In a chapter by chapter overview two of Woolf's novels are focused upon, e.g. Night and Day and The Years. Characters are culled out from novel chapters and they seem to re-emerge almost in a reincarnated state, thus rexamined by Dell herself as she juxtaposes each forbearing woman.

What stands out most to me is the expert and thorough research Marion Dell has done. Having researched the personal lives of these 'Influential Forebears' a bit myself, I was fascinated to read of the fear of 'the black Stephen madness' that worried Virginia Woolf as genetically linked between The Stephen Family and The Ritchie Family.  This was a light bulb moment for me, I must say!  Dell's research is magnificent. Immediately, I was turning page after page, smiling in recognition of especially Julia Margaret Cameron's descriptions in mention of stories by Virginia Woolf's The Searchlight and photographic descriptions of some of Cameron's sitters as well.  Understandably, some of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking chapters focused on Woolf's memories of her mother, the acclaimed beauty, Julia Prinsep Stephen. The maternal bond between mother and daughter does not end or perish as a result of paternal death. Instead, Julia Prinsep Stephen's is resurrected, lovingly lifted out of her aunt Cameron's albumen prints and placed back into the loving childhood arms of her troubled and talented daughter, Adeline Stephen better known as Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf's Influential Forebears by Marion Dell is dense, complicated reading but the familial bonds of love and pride transcend time and Dell has captured it.

For more information or to order directly, Palgrave Macmillan

If you prefer, Amazon US  or if you live overseas, Amazon UK


Hels said…
Excellent. If you were going to be an ambitious woman at a time when women were not valued for their special talents, you could not do better than having talented and ambitious women in the family. Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie and Julia Prinsep Stephen came from great families themselves and, in turn, provided great role models for young Virginia and her sister.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hels,

I couldn't agree with you more. Thank goodness there were more than enough female role models for Virginia Woolf. I'm so glad you stopped by to leave a comment. Thank you!
WoofWoof said…
Interesting the links between Virginia Woolf / the Bloomsbury set and the earlier Freshwater / Little Holland House group - JMC being her great aunt and her mum being a member of the famous Prinsep/Pattle family. Anne Thackeray - was she WM Thackeray's daughter or granddaughter? Thanks for a brilliant review. I will add it to my list...
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi WoofWoof,
I know isn't it just fascinating to find those Bloomsbury / Freshwater links!
Anny Thackeray was William Makepeace Thackeray's daughter.
I really hope you enjoy Marion Dell's book. It is so full of wondrous beauty.
Thanks for stopping by :)