Author interview with Marion Dell discussing her latest book, Virginia Woolf's Influential Forebears Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie, Julia Prinsep Stephen

I am so thrilled and deeply honored to bring you an interview I conducted with Marion Dell. Thanks to  Pan Macmillan UK, I was able to reach out to her, introduce myself, tell her how much I enjoyed, 'Influential Forebears'. She could not have been more gracious and kind. Later on, to my delight, she also agreed to an interview. I sent her my questions concerning her focus on the novels of Virginia Woolf, and those related to and closely engaged in her circle. For instance, Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie, and Virginia Woolf's mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen.

<----Julia Margaret Cameron in 1860s

 ===> Anny Thackeray Ritchie in 1867 a photograph taken by Julia Margaret Cameron.

Center below is the most recognizable face of the beautiful woman, Julia Prinsep Stephen. A photograph taken by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1867.

 1) I love how your focus is on the family and the family connection. Can you explain why those three women: Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie, and Julia Prinsep Stephen? What makes them Influential Forebears?

They were all influential in helping to form Woolf as a woman and as a writer. Of course they were not the only influences. I chose them because they were strong influences right from her birth and because they were linked to her genealogically. They were part of her matrilineage.

2) You write about Virginia Woolf as creative spirit, as writer and author focusing on aspects of her two novels Night and Day and The Years. I was fascinated about your chapter on her worry of ‘the black Stephen madness’.  What surprised you most about this aspect of her life?

I think that she experienced periods of ‘blackness’ throughout her life. I think she was what would now be diagnosed as bi-polar. But of course the term did not exist then. In her opinion, and in her youth, any mental illness or disorder was considered something to be ashamed of and hidden. We no longer regard it this way. I think that for her, although it caused her heartache and sadness, it was predominantly a positive condition. In the manic phases she was at her most productive and creative. She would not have been the great writer she was without this energy and ambivalence in her personality.

3) We both share a love of researching family connections within nineteenth-century poets and artists. Again, in this book, your research is incredible. Please describe a bit of your research process when writing a book. How do you go about it?  Also, when is research enough before you say, ‘now I can write the book’? Or do you write and research at the same time as you go along in the process?

I do most of the research first. Then as I write I might find gaps which need to be plugged. It takes a long time. I have been researching the life of Julia Stephen, Woolf’s mother, for about ten years already, while also researching and writing other things. It is difficult because she left so little of herself in her own voice; no diary, no photograph album, few extant letters. But it is the part I most enjoy – especially going to relevant places and meeting people who are involved and interested. I also need time to try to make connections between things and to collect archive material such as photographs, magazine articles, or letters and diaries. Often the most interesting insights, and amazing pieces of information, come from serendipity; from chance meetings, from unexpected sources, or when I am looking for something else entirely.

4) Was there any aspect of these Influential Forebears: Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie and Julia Prinsep Stephen that surprised you when conducting your research? Have you learned new things about them that you didn’t perhaps know before? Any stories about them you could share? Funny anecdotes perhaps?

What I discovered, which I didn’t really know before I started this, was how inter-connected these three women were. I began with their individual connections with Woolf, but then found that the three of them formed a strong, mutually supportive, collaborative sisterhood of professional women. I like all the stories of how Cameron browbeat her subjects in order to make them sit for her. Virginia Woolf took lots of the funny anecdotes for her play Freshwater, which is hilarious, as well as somewhat unkind.

5) Has your opinion of Virginia Woolf changed in any way since writing a few books about her and her family now? In what way?

The more I read of Woolf’s work, both fiction and non-fiction, the more I am confirmed in my opinion that she is a great writer. Since doing my research I have become more aware of the sheer range of her work. Also of her strong sense of humour and of close observation.

6) Julia Prinsep Stephen is a fascinating woman with not much known about her life. Anything you could share that you love most about her or something that fascinated you perhaps?

This is still a work in progress, but I am finding a fun loving, vivacious, gossipy, lively woman, very much at odds with the image usually presented of her, dressed in black, in the gloomy photographs towards the end of her life.

Julia Stephen with Virginia on her lap, 1884
                                                                                                       by Henry H.H. Cameron, Smith College.

About the Author
Marion Dell is an Independent writer and lecturer based in the U.K. and has previously taught at the Open University. She is the co-author with (Marion Whybrow) of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: Remembering St. Ives (2003), and she is currently writing a biography of Julia Stephen.  

To purchase, Amazon US  and to purchase  Amazon UK


Kevin Marsh said…
Hello Kimberly,

Very interesting.

Marion really does spend a lot of her time researching. It must be hugely interesting and satisfying looking into the lives of such wonderful and distinguished people.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Kevin,

Its so good to know that you can spend as much time as you need researching. As you know it is hugely rewarding when you have that 'aha moment' of discovery!

Thanks so much for visiting!
WoofWoof said…
Yes, very interesting! It makes me want to read the book and the two VW novels referred to. Do you think to get the most out of the book you need to be familiar with the two novels? I am afraid I have never really got to grips with Virginia Woolf as I find her writing style a little soporific! I did like Orlando but even there I gave up when she reaches the 19th century. The film with Tilda Swinton, is very good...
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi WoofWoof,
So glad you are back again. No, you do not need to read both VW novels to read this book at all. Perhaps have them handy in case you want to check any references Marion Dell makes. It will give you a much clearer picture. Thanks so much for stopping by!