How did Adeline Virginia Stephen become the great writer Virginia Woolf? Gill tells the stories of the women whose legacies—of strength, style, and creativity—shaped Woolf’s path to the radical writing that inspires so many today.
... captivating and incisive ... Gill persuades us that, for Woolf—who grew up in a male-dominated household and, later, navigated a male-centric world—it was the women in her life who played a consummate role in shaping her revolutionary perceptions and art. This embracing and often sharp-witted study of the peripheries of a great writer’s life makes for compulsive reading.
Throughout the biography, seemingly simple choices—ending sentences with exclamations, or leaving readers with hypothetical questions—insert Gill’s enthusiasm and passion for Woolf and her oeuvre. Oftentimes, Gill even writes about herself in the first person; she includes the reader in her adventures learning about Woolf: '…my Woolf-loving readers will be exclaiming!' Yet underlying this intimacy with her reader is a breadth of research that perhaps affords Gill such intimacy with Woolf, even when readers are left to wonder at moments that appear more conjecture than fact ... The tragedy of Woolf’s death is not overlooked, nor is her struggle with episodes of mania and depression. Such details, however, are an occasion for Virginia Woolf: And The Women Who Shaped Her World to celebrate Woolf’s strength and her ability to champion her voice for the sake of other women. There are salacious details to be discovered in Gill’s book, sure. Love triangles, mad fantasies. Gill’s discoveries about Woolf’s experiences in the Bloomsbury Group will prickle readers’ spines ... For fans of Woolf, the more tender moments will subsist longer ... Gill’s twenty-first century readers, keen to recognize and support movements that challenge those who abuse power, will find in this book not just a kindred spirit, but as in one of Woolf’s novels, a heroine.
The aim seems to be to investigate various women’s impact on Woolf’s life from broad quarters, but the effect is to disrupt the chronological logic of biographical coherence ... Despite this, Gill’s chatty, often conspiratorial tone helps mitigate some of the anguished hand-wringing that often accompanies discussions of Woolf’s life ... Gill brings to this potentially grim picture an ear for the playful undercurrent — a sense of the world’s splendid possibility — that also ran through Woolf’s life, countering much of the darkness. While she does not downplay the writer’s difficulties, Gill’s portrait shows Woolf’s character to have been complicated not just by difficulty but by pleasure, too ... Gill’s biography is especially good in delineating Vanessa’s charismatic appeal for her sister, whose adoration was never quite reciprocated ... There is an unsettling stance toward so-called healthy sexuality at the core of Gill’s book that limits its usefulness as a biography. The patterns of intellectual striving are plain throughout the first half, but when Gill turns to Vanessa’s and Virginia’s sexual and emotional exploits, the combination of speculation and prurience becomes difficult to manage ... Vanessa’s sexual boldness and Virginia’s sexual angst are well documented; it seems unnecessary to consider the frequency or fact of orgasms, as though these are the only arbiters of pleasure or satisfaction in a relationship ... by shoehorning them into versions of sexuality that make sense to a contemporary reader, Gill misses the ways both women were deeply interested in the work that pleasure does in a life.