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Quentin Bell, the Chronicler Of Bloomsbury, Dies at 86

By Mel Gussow

  • Dec. 19, 1996

Quentin Bell, author, artist, critic and biographer of his aunt Virginia Woolf, died on Monday at his home in Firle in East Sussex, England, near the Charleston farmhouse where he grew up at the center of the Bloomsbury group. He was 86.

The son of Virginia Woolf's older sister, Vanessa Bell, and Clive Bell, Mr. Bell was born into Bloomsbury, that legendary gathering of variously talented artists and writers, friends and lovers who were to have such an important impact on English letters, art and society and on generations that followed.

His aunt once told him, ''You will always be ignorant and illiterate,'' a remark he remembered with a curious kind of affection. Contrary to that prediction, he proved to be polymathic in his creative contributions. With the publication of his highly acclaimed book ''Virginia Woolf: A Biography'' in 1972, and his other works, he became Bloomsbury's most painstaking and sensitive chronicler and eventually the guardian of the family legacy.

In common with other members of this celebrated circle, he did not limit himself to one occupation. He was a sculptor as well as a painter, a teacher as well as an art critic, and a potter. Relatively late in life, he also published a novel. One of the astonishments of his life was that, surrounded by flamboyance and bizarre behavior, he seemed to survive intact and eventually became a grand old man of Bloomsbury lore.

''I loved my parents,'' he once said, ''and I had more than the usual number to love.'' He was referring to Clive and Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry (both of whom had affairs with his mother). But he could also have been speaking about the entire wide extended family that filled his childhood and his adult life. These included Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, David Garnett, Ottoline Morrell, Vita Sackville-West and Dora Carrington.

When he published his 1996 memoir ''Bloomsbury Recalled,'' Mr. Bell confessed his inability to write about his own life and instead devoted the main body of the work ''not to me, but to my elders and betters, a term I have used to describe my parents, their friends and acquaintances.''

In contrast to others, who wrote about the people of the Bloomsbury set with recriminations and bitterness, Mr. Bell remained fair-minded. Reviewing ''Bloomsbury Recalled'' in The New York Times Book Review, Janet Malcolm said that ''Mr. Bell evidently could not change the habits of a lifetime of literary self-effacement; he continues to feel comfortable in the position of the observer and uncomfortable as the observed.'' Those observations remain a fascinating reader's guide to the intricate web of Bloomsbury.

At the same time, he could be extraordinarily candid. In his biography of Virginia Woolf, he revealed for the first time that his aunt had been sexually molested by her half brothers Gerald and George Duckworth. In ''Bloomsbury Recalled,'' he expressed his anger at his father's Fascist leanings and at other aspects of the life around him.

He was born in London in 1910. His father was an art critic, his mother a painter. His parents separated when he was 6. After studying art in Paris in the 1930's, he had his first art exhibition. In 1937, his older brother, Julian, was killed in the Spanish Civil War. In 1947 Mr. Bell published his first book, ''On Human Finery,'' about fashion. That was followed by ''Those Impossible English'' (written with Helmut and Alison Gernsheim), ''The Schools of Design,'' ''Ruskin'' and ''Victorian Artists.''

Then, encouraged by his uncle Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf's husband, he embarked on his biography of his aunt. The two-volume ''Virginia Woolf'' became a cornerstone of Bloomsbury scholarship. In the book he described a visit from his aunt as ''a warm capricious breeze blowing in from the southwest and bringing with it a kind of amazed joy.'' In this and other works, Mr. Bell succeeded in demystifying the people in the Bloomsbury set, humanizing them and, at least by indirection, criticizing their lives and life styles.

He also wrote ''A New and Noble School: The Pre-Raphaelites,'' ''Techniques of Terra Cotta'' and ''The Brandon Papers,'' a novel.

He was a lecturer in art education at King's College, Newcastle, and professor of fine art at Oxford and the University of Leeds. He also held the chair of history and theory of art at the University of Sussex.

Mr. Bell is survived by his wife, Anne Olivier Bell, who edited ''The Diary of Virginia Woolf''; a son, Julian; two daughters, Virginia and Cressida, and a sister, Angelica Garnett of Forcalquier, France.

As the Bloomsbury industry expanded, and as biographies and memoirs proliferated, the Charleston farmhouse reopened to the public. A country house (and garden) filled with art and memorabilia, it quickly became a popular tourist site and a sacred place to admirers of the Bloomsbury group. In later years, Mr. Bell lived close to Charleston, but seldom revisited it.

''One feels rather like a ghost at Charleston,'' he said in an interview last year. Asked which Bloomsbury people he would like to see again, he said Roger Fry, who was ''one of the wisest and one of the kindest.'' Then he added that it might be amusing to see Virginia Woolf again, to remind her of her disparagement of him and to say, ''Well now, look what I've written about you.''

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Hardcover Virginia Woolf; A Biography Book

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Virginia Woolf; A Biography

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Virginia Woolf and Quentin Bell: Biographical Reflections

This  lecture makes Quentin Bell’s 1972 biography of Virginia Woolf a starting point for a brief discussion of personal and social forces at play in her life.

Born in 1882, Virginia Woolf came to adulthood at the turn of the twentieth century. She stands therefore near the beginning of the Modernist movement and modern women’s writing in English. Her novel-length essay,  A Room of One’s Own was based on lectures that she gave at Cambridge University in October 1928. These coincided with the writing and publication of  To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928), when Woolf’s creative powers were at their height. Her biographer, her nephew Quentin Bell, perceptively described the book’s style , as follows:

[ A Room of One’s Own ] is that rare thing—a lively but good-tempered polemic, and a book that, like Orlando , is of particular interest to the student of her life. For in A Room of One’s Own one hears Virginia speaking. In her novels she is thinking. In her critical works one can sometimes hear her voice, but it is always a little formal, a little editorial. In A Room of One’s Own she gets very close to her conversational style. ( Virginia Woolf: A Biography Vol. 2: 144)

A Room of One’s Own  provides insights into the historical disadvantaging of women as creators of literature and the other arts. It suggests some simple ways of countering disadvantage, and encourages modern women to strive for excellence in these fields. Partly on the basis of this book, the revitalised feminist movement of the 1970s (Second-Wave Feminism) adopted Woolf as an intellectual mentor and prototype for change. Claiming that earlier interpretations of Woolf’s life and writings had suffered from a masculinist bias, feminists proceeded to reconceptualise them in as a struggle with patriarchy. 

Well-written, frank and detailed,  Virginia Woolf: A Biography invites reading as an accomplished example of the biographer’s craft. Its publication in 1972 coincided with the rise of Second Wave Feminism, but most of the research, thinking and writing was carried out before women’s liberation and equality had resurfaced into political prominence.  Bell  makes little of Woolf’s feminism, and, unlike Woolf, does not connect the difficulties and crises of her life with patriarchy. His premises are clear in his summary of the content of Woolf’s argument in  A Room of One’s Own (Vol.2:144):

… the key to emancipation is to be found in the door of a room which a woman may call her own and which she can inhabit with the same freedom and independence as her brothers. The lack of this economic freedom breeds resentment, the noisy assertive resentment of the male, who insists on claiming his superiority, and the shrill nagging resentment of the female who clamours for her rights. Both produce bad literature, for literature – fiction, that is – demands a comprehensive sympathy which transcends and comprehends the feelings of both sexes. The great artist is Androgynous. [my italics]

Bell’s closing sentences summarising Woolf’s argument about androgyny and the artist are penetrating if brief, but some of his other claims are problematic. A Room of One’s Own  doesn’t equate women’s “emancipation” with owning a room of her own. Instead Woolf claims modestly and simply that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction ” (p. 4). Far from discussing male economic deprivation–“lack of economic freedom breeds resentment,”  A Room of One’s Own discusses patriarchal wealth –seen for example in the dinner that the Woolf persona attends at the Oxbridge men’s college–and points to the part played by this wealth in furthering men’s literary creativity and academic success. Far from measuring up to the androgyny ideal, Bell’s way of thinking is binary and oppositional, and his vocabulary is heavily gendered: ‘noisy’, ‘assertive’, ‘superiority’ associated with the male; ‘shrill nagging’ associated with the female. Nowhere in A Room of One’s Own does Woolf suggest that the woman artist’s protests are “shrill nagging”: her own argument is coolly logical and measured in tone. Its purpose is to prove the justice of the woman writer’s cause. She argues that undigested passion produces bad literature, and praises especially the cool clarity of Jane Austen’s novels. Woolf strove for and attained the same clarity in her own novels. Readers’ con tinuing appreciation of her many writings, especially her novels, testifies to her outstanding talent and to her determination in overcoming the disadvantages of growing up and living in a patriarchy. Woolf ends by encouraging her present listeners and future readers to “work for,” and in fact to be midwives assisting at the rebirth of “the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister” (p. 149).

Woolf grew up in a large Victorian family. Her father was Leslie Stephen, the distinguished compiler of the Dictionary of National Biography. Stephen was both dominant and dependent; he considered himself as the ruler of the family, and yet depended on wife and daughters for creature comforts and emotional support. He was unlucky in the women he depended upon, since they tended to die or leave. In succession his first wife, Minny Thackeray and his second wife, Julia Duckworth (Virginia’s mother) died. When his stepdaughter Stella Duckworth moved away after her marriage, Stephen turned for support to Vanessa, Virginia’s elder sister. Bell gives a graphic account of Stephen’s manipulation of his housekeeper-daughter, including the scene he would act out before approving the housekeeping accounts. (The Stephen family was comfortably middle class.):

“The scene would begin with groans and sighs, then expressions of rage, then really terrible outbursts of bellowing fury in which Leslie would quite literally beat his breast, sob, and declare that he, a poor, broken bereaved old man was being callously hounded to ruin…..The row was, almost, a weekly event. It ended when Leslie, with a piteously trembling hand, signed the cheque, all the time acting, and acting superbly, the part of the ruined and injured father.” (Vol.1, p.63).

Other features of Virginia’s childhood explain why she developed insights into the unequal power relationships between men and women.

(a) Her disappointment at being denied the education given as a matter of course to her brothers, Thoby and Adrian. The girls in the Stephen household spent much of their time socialising with relations, a duty from which the boys were free. Virginia was however fortunate in that Stephen encouraged her to read widely in the books in his library. She thus achieved an excellent informal education, but always felt her lack of formal instruction as a disadvantage. This attitude can be detected in the opening chapter of A Room of One’s Own , which contrasts the long history and wealth of the men’s college with the recent founding of the much poorer women’s college.

(b) As a child, Virginia was sexually molested at different times by her half-brothers Gerald and George Duckworth, who were Julia’s sons by an earlier marriage. 

2. Friendships with Women

The sisters Virginia and Vanessa had a close and loving relationship. In addition, Virginia cultivated close relationships with women, some openly erotic. Bell states that Virginia was unconsciously in love with Violet Dickinson, a much older woman who supported her in her second breakdown in 1904. Aged forty-three,  she had an affair with the openly gay Vita Sackville-West, and  four years later began a loving but stormy and non-physical relationship with Ethel Smyth.  For Second Wave feminists in the 1970s, Woolf’s adventurous emotional life provided an example of sisterhood and of Platonic and erotic love between women. The overriding purpose of  A Room of One’s Own is to explain women’s economic and social disempowerment and to encourage women to take steps to overcome these disadvantages. 

3. Instability

 Virginia Woolf’s breakdowns and suicide have been interpreted as the response of a sensitive woman to damage inflicted by patriarchy. S exual molestation by her half-brothers was no doubt one of the causes. The death of Virginia’s mother created further family i nstability. Virginia’s first breakdown at the age of thirteen closely followed her mother’s death. Leslie Stephen’s temperament  likewise contributed to his family’s unhappiness.

Insanity, the expression of deep internal divisions in the psyche, is a common theme in writing by women. Woolf writes of it herself in Mrs Dalloway , where she projects her experience of madness on to a male character, who prophetically commits suicide. 

Leonard was by no means a second Leslie Stephen ― he wore himself out in the feminine role of nurse and comforter in Virginia’s illnesses, and encouraged and aided her writing. Furthermore, Virginia had many friends, to whom she related with charm and humour. When she was well, most of her energy was focused on her writing—a great achievement, partly because it fulfils her ideal enunciated in A Room of Ones Own : it does not promote a cause or divert into resentment. If her novels are feminist, this element must be looked for in the way they express a woman’s mind, in their reliance on suggestiveness rather than statement, on their lightness of touch and their subtlety, and on their deep and perceptive interest in people and in human relationships. 

Bibliography

Quentin Bell.  Virginia Woolf: A Biography . 2 vols. 1972. Frogmore, St Albans: Triad/Paladin, 1976.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Three Guineas . Ed.  and Intro. Morag Shiach. The World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.

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  1. Virginia Woolf : a biography : Bell, Quentin : Free Download, Borrow

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  2. Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Quentin Bell (1974)

    Quentin Bell (1910-1996), the author of Virginia Woolf: A Biography, was the son of Virginia Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell. He was an artist like his mother, working across several media, and like his father Clive Bell, he was a writer and art critic.

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  4. Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Quentin Bell

    Virginia Woolf: A Biography Quentin Bell, سهیلا بسکی (Translator) 4.17 2,937 ratings111 reviews The first full-scale biography of the eminent British writer, written by her nephew. Index; photographs. Genres BiographyNonfictionBiography MemoirHistory British LiteratureLiterature 20th Century ...more 576 pages, Paperback

  5. Virginia Woolf: A Biography

    About the author (2017) Quentin Bell, the younger son of Vanessa and Clive Bell, was born in 1910. He was a painter, sculptor, potter, author and art critic, and was Professor of Fine Art at...

  6. Virginia Woolf; a biography : Bell, Quentin : Free Download, Borrow

    Virginia Woolf; a biography by Bell, Quentin. Publication date 1972 Topics Woolf, Virginia, 1882-1941, Novelists, English Publisher New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Collection inlibrary; printdisabled; internetarchivebooks Contributor Internet Archive Language English. Bibliography: p. 282-284 Access-restricted-item true

  7. Virginia Woolf: A Biography

    Quentin Bell Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1972 - Authors, English - 530 pages Using excerpts from family journals as well as pieces of Virginia's own correspondence and diaries, Bell has...

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  10. Quentin Bell

    Early life Bell was born in London, the second and younger son of the art critic and writer Clive Bell and the painter and interior designer Vanessa Bell (née Stephen). He was a nephew of Virginia Woolf (née Stephen). [1] He was educated at the Quaker Leighton Park School and at Cambridge. [2] [3]

  11. Virginia Woolf

    Virginia Woolf, English writer whose novels, through their nonlinear approaches to narrative, exerted a major influence on the genre. ... Julian and Quentin Bell; a daughter, Angelica, would be born to Vanessa and Grant at the end of 1918. Charleston soon became an extravagantly decorated, unorthodox retreat for artists and writers, especially ...

  12. Virginia Woolf: A Biography

    Nephew of Virginia Woolf, Quentin Bell enjoyed an intimacy with his subject granted to few biographers. Originally published in two volumes in 1972, and revised for this new edition, his acclaimed biography describes Virginia Woolf's family and childhood, her earliest writings; the formation of the Bloomsbury Group; her marriage to Leonard Woolf; the mental breakdowns of the years 1912-15; the ...

  13. Virginia Woolf : a biography. Vol. 1, Virginia Stephen 1882-1912 : Bell

    Vol. 1, Virginia Stephen 1882-1912 by Bell, Quentin, 1910-Publication date 1982 Topics Woolf, Virginia, 1882-1941 -- Biography, Authors, English -- 20th century -- Biography, Authors, English, Fiction in English Woolf, Virginia 1882-1941 Publisher London : Triad Collection inlibrary; printdisabled; internetarchivebooks

  14. Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Bell, Quentin

    Virginia Woolf: A Biography. Paperback - 26 April 1996. The standard life of Virginia Woolf, as fresh and exciting now as it was when it was first published in 1972. 'A work of art, evoking by his frankness and outstanding skill the vivid personality that cast a spell upon almost everyone lucky enough to know Mrs Woolf. ' Raymond Mortimer.

  15. Virginia Woolf: a Biography: Virginia Stephen, 1882-1912

    Virginia Woolf: a Biography: Virginia Stephen, 1882-1912. Quentin Bell. Hogarth Press, 1972 - Authors, English - 230 pages. The author's biography of his famous aunt from early childhood, through marriage, mental break-downs, foundation of the famous Bloomsbury Group and final tragic death.

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  17. Virginia Woolf: A Biography: Amazon.co.uk: Bell, Quentin: 9780701204617

    `Virginia Woolf' by Quentin Bell, a nephew of the great writer, his father being the art critic Clive Bell (1881-1964) who married Virginia's sister Vanessa, is an excellent work which ascends to the highest standards in the art of biography. Originally published as two volumes in 1972, Bell takes us through all the major stages of Virginia's ...

  18. Virginia Woolf a Biography: Bell, Quentin: 9781199863003: Amazon.com: Books

    Virginia Woolf: A Biography By now, it is the most chronologically complete biography of Virginia Woolf, also giving interesting details about her ancestors. Some data of the family life might have been omitted in the book but in general it is a pretty objective and accurate work showing a lot of academic research.

  19. Quentin Bell, the Chronicler Of Bloomsbury, Dies at 86

    Quentin Bell, author, artist, critic and biographer of his aunt Virginia Woolf, died on Monday at his home in Firle in East Sussex, England, near the Charleston farmhouse where he grew up at the ...

  20. Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Quentin Bell

    As the nephew of Viginia Woolf, Quentin Bell enjoyed an initimacy with his subject granted to few biographers. Originally published in two volumes in 1972, his acclaimed biography describes Virginia Woolf's family and childhood; her earliest writings; the formation of the Bloomsbury Group; her marriage to Leonard Woolf; the mental breakdown of the years 1912-15; the origins and growth of the ...

  21. Virginia Woolf: A Biography book by Quentin Bell

    Virginia Woolf: A Biography book by Quentin Bell Biography Books > Women's Biographies ISBN: 9953373477 ISBN13: 9789953373478 Anahid's Gourmet Cookbook by Quentin Bell See Customer Reviews Select Format Hardcover $5.29 - $11.49 Paperback $4.89 - $30.97 Select Condition Like New Unavailable Very Good $11.49 Good $5.59 Acceptable $5.29 New --

  22. Virginia Woolf and Quentin Bell: Biographical Reflections

    This lecture makes Quentin Bell's 1972 biography of Virginia Woolf a starting point for a brief discussion of personal and social forces at play in her life. ... Well-written, frank and detailed, Virginia Woolf: A Biography invites reading as an accomplished example of the biographer's craft. Its publication in 1972 coincided with the rise ...

  23. Virginia Woolf; a biography : Bell, Quentin : Free Download, Borrow

    Virginia Woolf; a biography by Bell, Quentin. Publication date 1972 Topics Woolf, Virginia, 1882-1941, Novelists, English Publisher New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Collection inlibrary; printdisabled; internetarchivebooks; americana Contributor Internet Archive Language English. Bibliography: p. 282-284