Looking for a good Virginia Woolf biography to read? A handful of good books have been written about Virginia Woolf beginning in the 1970s when the second wave of feminism led to a renewed interest in her work.
Since then, not only have there been a number of great biographies written about her but there have also been many great books about the Bloomsbury Group as well.
The following is a list of the best Virginia Woolf biographies:
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1. Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Quentin Bell
Published in 1972, this two-volume biography by Quentin Bell is the only biography written by someone who personally knew Virginia and it was also the first full scale biography of Virginia Woolf ever published.
The book covers Virginia’s childhood, marriage, her multiple mental breakdowns, her literary success as well as her death.
Bell, who died in 1996, was Virginia’s nephew and spent a lot of time with Virginia during his childhood and early adulthood and undoubtedly knew her well.
The book received positive reviews when it was published. The New York Times Book Review described it as “quite simply the best biography of Virginia Woolf extant” while the Saturday Review said it was a “work of radiance and delight.”
Book World called it a “masterpiece of intimate history” while the Atlantic Monthly described it as “fascinating” and “enlightening.”
The book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in Biography, the Duff Cooper Prize and the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Award.
Quentin Bell was an art historian, professor and author who also wrote the book On Human Finery, Ruskin, Bloomsbury.
2. Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
Published in 1996, this book by Hermione Lee is considered one of the best biographies of Virginia Woolf.
The book explores the many layers and complexities of Virginia Woolf’s life and personality. It attempts to answer crucial questions about her such as the impact of her childhood, the cause of her mental illness, her marriage to Leonard Woolf and her sexuality.
The book received positive reviews when it was published. The New York Times described it as a “remarkable new book” and “a book worthy of its subject — graceful, astonishingly well researched, yet imbued with a sense of flow that is rarely achieved at this level of scholarship” while the Paris Review called it “an original and sensitive account of a complex life” and the New York Time’s Book Review named it one of the best books of 1997.
Hermione Lee is a literary critic, author and professorial fellow at New College in England. She is a fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature.
In 2003, Lee was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to literature and was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2013 for service to literary scholarship.
Lee is the author of numerous book about Virginia Woolf as well as other women writers, including The Novels of Virginia Woolf; Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography; Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation; and a biography on Edith Wharton.
3. Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World by Gillian Gill
Published in 2019, this book by Gillian Gill is about how the women in Virginia Woolf’s life influenced her.
The book traces the various female influences in her life, from her friends and family to other women writers, and explores the effect they had on her life and work.
The book received mostly positive reviews mixed with some criticism when it was published. Publisher’s Weekly referred to it as an “often overly speculative book” but praised Gill’s writing as “lively, pinpointing the amusing, sometimes salacious…”
The New York Times said the book’s “chatty, often conspiratorial tone” helps offset the anguish of the more difficult topics discussed in the book but it also criticized the “unsettling stance toward so-called healthy sexuality at the core of Gill’s book that limits its usefulness as a biography.”
Gillian Gill is an author who has written numerous biographies about women, including Agatha Christie: The Woman and Her Mysteries; Mary Baker Eddy; Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing; and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale.
4. Virginia Woolf Art Life and Vision by Francis Spalding
Published in 2014, this book by Francis Spalding is a short, illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf.
The book provides an overview of Virginia Woolf’s life, discussing the various milestones of her life such as how her parents met, her literary achievements, her love affairs, her struggles with mental illness and her suicide, along with photos and paintings that illustrate these moments and bring them to life.
The book serves as an accompaniment to an exhibit of the same name that was held at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2014.
Francis Spalding is an art historian, critic and biographer who has written numerous biographies on the Bloomsbury Group members such as Roger Fry: Art and Life; Vanessa Bell; and Duncan Grant: A Biography.
Spalding was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1984, was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2005 for services to literature and is a trustee of the Charleston Trust.
5. Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life by Lyndall Gordon
Published in 1984, this book by Lyndall Gordon is about the experiences that shaped Virginia Woolf’s life and art, such as her childhood, her family relationships, her marriage and her struggles with mental illness.
Gordon argues that there were important turning points in Woolf’s life that helped her become the writer that she was, such as when she first invented the unconventional form of her novels and her decision to write about the lives of women.
The book received positive reviews when it was published. The New York Times Book Review said “Mrs. Gordon has given us a ‘writer’s life’ that is measured, and brave in its imaginative interpretations” while the New Yorker called it an “original, intuitive, and even exciting study” and the London Time Higher Education Supplement called it a “very readable and lively book.”
The book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography.
Lyndall Gordon is an author who has written many biographies about writers such as Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life; Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft; Eliot’s Early Years.
If you want to learn more about Virginia Woolf, check out this article on the best movies and TV shows about Virginia Woolf.
Heilbrun, Carolyn. “What She Was Silent About.” The New York Times, 10 Feb. 1985, nytimes.com/1985/02/10/books/what-she-was-silent-about.html
“Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World.” Publisher’s Weekly, publishersweekly.com/9781328683953?permamore
Haynes, Suyin. “‘It Had a Lifelong Effect on Her.’ A New Virginia Woolf Biography Deals With the Author’s Experience of Childhood Sexual Abuse.” Time Magazine, 17 Dec. 2019, time.com/5750614/virginia-woolf-biography/
Jarvis, Claire. “Beholding Virginia Woolf Through the Women in her Life.” New York Times, 2- Dec. 2019, nytimes.com/2019/12/20/books/review/virginia-woolf-and-the-women-who-shaped-her-world-gillian-gill.html
“Quentin Bell.” Penguin Books, penguin.co.uk/authors/165456/quentin-bell
“Best Sellers in Author Biographies.” Amazon, amazon.com/gp/bestsellers/books/2330/ref=pd_zg_hrsr_books
Thomas, Louisa. “Hermoine Lee, The Art of Biography No. 4.” The Paris Review, theparisreview.org/interviews/6231/the-art-of-biography-no-4-hermione-lee
Merkin, Daphne. “This Loose, Drifting Material of Life.” New York Times, 8 June. 1997, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/06/08/reviews/970608.08merkint.html
Rosenthal, Michael. “The High Priestess of Bloomsbury.” The New York Times, 5 Nov. 1972, nytimes.com/1972/11/05/archives/virginia-woolf-a-biography-by-quentin-bell-illustrated-530-pp-new.html