Virginia Woolf: And the Women Who Shaped Her World

by Gillian Gill and Nicola Barber

An insightful, witty look at Virginia Woolf through the lens of the extraordinary women closest to her.

  • Format: Audiobook
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780358172215
  • ISBN-10: 0358172217
  • Publication Date: 12/03/2019

About the book

An insightful, witty look at Virginia Woolf through the lens of the extraordinary women closest to her. 


How did Adeline Virginia Stephen become the great writer Virginia Woolf? Acclaimed biographer Gillian 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. 


   Gill casts back to Woolf’s French-Anglo-Indian maternal great-grandmother Thérèse de L’Etang, an outsider to English culture whose beauty passed powerfully down the female line; and to Woolf’s aunt Anne Thackeray Ritchie, who gave Woolf her first vision of a successful female writer.  Yet it was the women in her own family circle who had the most complex and lasting effect on Woolf.  Her mother, Julia, and sisters Stella, Laura, and Vanessa were all, like Woolf herself, but in markedly different ways, warped by the male-dominated household they lived in.  Finally, Gill shifts the lens onto the famous Bloomsbury group.  This, Gill convinces, is where Woolf called upon the legacy of the women who shaped her to transform a group of men--united in their love for one another and their disregard for women--into a society in which Woolf ultimately found her freedom and her voice.   


Read by Nicola Barber-Nicola Barber’s voice can be heard on television shows and radio commercials, popular video games such as World of Warcraft, and even in talking toys. But her true passion lies in bringing to life the characters and scenes in novels, a talent for which she has received multiple Earphones and Audie Awards. Nicola is also an Audie nominee in the prestigious “Solo Female Narration” category for her work on Murphy’s Law (Rhys Bowen) and Call the Midwife (Jennifer Worth).

About the author
Gillian Gill

GILLIAN GILL holds a Ph.D. in modern French literature from Cambridge University, and has taught at Northeastern, Wellesley, Yale, and Harvard. She is the New York Times best-selling author of We Too, Nightingales, Agatha Christie, and Mary Baker Eddy. She lives in suburban Boston.


A TRADITION in the family of Virginia Woolf had it that the aristocratic beauty of the women on her mother’s side could be traced back to her great-great-grandmother Thérèse Blin de Grincourt. She was a late-eighteenth-century heiress who married the Chevalier Ambroise-Pierre-Antoine de l’Etang. That Virginia Woolf had a touch of the French aristocracy is one of the little themes that come up in her own letters and in those of her sister Vanessa Bell. To her composer friend Ethel Smyth, for example, Woolf wrote, “If you want to know where I get my (ahem!) charm, read Herbert Fisher’s [her politician first cousin’s] autobiography. Marie Antoinette loved my ancestor; hence he was exiled; hence the Pattles, the barrel that burst and finally Virginia.” We shall be finding out about that barrel later in this chapter.

A few stories about her great-great-grandparents Thérèse and Antoine de l’Etang came down to Virginia Woolf, wrapped in gossamer and giving off a faint but intoxicating scent of palaces—the apple blossom and lavender of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon, the jasmine and frangipani of the Nawab of Oudh’s palace at Lucknow. Thus, in her introductory essay to the Hogarth Press’s volume of the photographs of her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron—one of Thérèse de l’Etang’s granddaughters—Virginia Woolf wrote, “Antoine de l’Etang was one of Marie Antoinette’s pages, who had been with the Queen in prison till her death and was only saved by his own youth from the guillotine. With his wife, who had been one of the Queen’s ladies, he was exiled to India and it is at Ghazipur, with the miniature that Marie Antoinette gave him laid upon his breast, that he lies buried.”

Note how, in this version, perhaps recounted to Virginia by her mother, Julia Jackson Stephen, or her maternal grandmother, Maria Pattle Jackson, the beautiful ancestress is a French aristocrat whom misfortune brings to India.

In his groundbreaking 1972 biography of his aunt Virginia, Quentin Bell gives a different but equally colorful version of the family story about the Chevalier de l’Etang: “His person was pleasing, his manners courtly, his tastes extravagant, and his horsemanship admirable. He was attached to the household of Marie Antoinette, too much attached, it is said, and for this he was exiled to Pondicherry.”

Both stories are delightful and full of novelistic flair. Neither, unfortunately, was quite accurate. Tristram Powell, who reedited the Hogarth Press book on Cameron in 1973 and had new research to go on, felt obliged to correct the record. “The Chevalier de l’Etang was banished by the King before the Revolution, when he was an officer of the King’s bodyguard and superintendent of the Royal Stud, he had written a book on horse management for the French army. Mme. de l’Etang was not one of the Queen’s ladies. She was born in Pondicherry, India, the daughter of the Captain of the Port, and she did not go to France until she took her granddaughter there to be educated, probably in the 1820s.”

In Powell’s new account, Thérèse is at least placed firmly on the subcontinent for her birth and formative years, but the tacit assumption remains that she was European on both sides. Thérèse’s very names seemed gratifying proof that she had been a French aristocrat, and so her reputation as the original family beauty could be proudly passed down to Virginia Woolf and Thérèse’s many other descendants. What Virginia Woolf apparently never knew, because the nineteenth century had chosen to forget it, was that Thérèse was part Bengali.

That fact was uncovered only around the year 2000 by one of Virginia Woolf’s distant cousins, William Dalrymple, a prominent historian of the British in the Indian subcontinent. His book White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India documents how some Englishmen serving the East India Company became part of Indian society, speaking the local languages, dressing in the local clothes, and marrying the local women. This “early promiscuous mingling of races and ideas,” Dalrymple realized, had escaped both nationalist historians and postcolonialist critics because it was “on no one’s agenda and fitted nobody’s version of events.” In his introduction, Dalrymple writes,

This was something I became increasingly sensitive to when . . . I discovered that I was myself the product of a similar inter-racial liaison of the period, and that I thus had Indian blood in my veins. No one in my family seemed to know about this, though it should not have been a surprise: we had all heard stories of how our beautiful, dark-eyed Calcutta-born great-great-grandmother [that is, Sophia Pattle Dalrymple] . . . used to speak Hindustani with her sisters and was painted by Watts with a rakhi—a Hindu sacred thread—tied around her wrist.



“Companionable and piquant, Gillian Gill’s bold reading of the lives of Virginia Woolf’s female exemplars yields a kaleidoscopic view of her subject, whirling across the centuries and enabling Woolf to be seen from new and unexpected angles.  The most refreshing take on Bloomsbury in many years.”—Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life.   


"Gillian Gill has written a bold, incisive book—vividly conceived, impeccably researched, always questioning and ever original. By shedding light upon the gutsy, powerful women who shaped Virginia Woolf’s life and work, Gill makes a compelling argument about legacy, inheritance, and our female forebears’ enduring influence." —Katharine Smyth, author of All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf 

 “A delicious—and disturbing—account of a time when men made all the rules, and a few unusual and talented women in Virginia Woolf’s orbit found ways to subvert them.  Gillian Gill weaves this story of Virginia Woolf’s world in her own irresistible style—irreverent, unconstrained, and deeply informed. Gill has a voice all her own, uniquely suited to recreating the no-holds-barred climate of Bloomsbury.”—Susan Quinn, author of Eleanor and Hick:  The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady 


"An engaging, fully persuasive account of the women who stirred Virginia Woolf’s imagination. Gillian Gill’s broad-minded reading of Woolf’s relations with her womenfolk recontextualizes the legends of Bloomsbury."—Carolyn Burke, author of Foursome:  Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury 


"Gill’s writing is lively, pinpointing the amusing, sometimes salacious, and ultimately damaging aspects of Woolf’s multiple worlds...Woolf fans will be entertained."—Publishers Weekly 


"This volume will be welcomed by readers and students curious about the cultural aspects of Woolf’s development as a writer."--Library Journal