Sunday, January 20, 2008

Book Report/Remembering St Ives

Virginia Woolf & Vanessa Bell
Remembering St Ives
by Marion Dell and Marion Whybrow
Nonfiction, 2003

My January Celebrate The Author Challenge choice was an easy one. For the past few years now I've been reading books either by or about Virginia Woolf in January, her birthday month. I read about this book at Mary's Library a few months ago, and knew I must own it.

The concept is an interesting one. The authors set out to show how the artistic lives of sisters Virginia Woolf, a writer, and Vanessa Bell, a painter, were influenced by their summer years spent at St Ives, Cornwall. I felt the book to be basically a success. I did enjoy it. But as I neared the end, I began to feel that it wasn't quite the unified piece I would have liked. That could be simply because it was written by two women, who split up the writing. One wrote chapters on Julia Stephen (their mother) and Virginia, while the other wrote chapters on Leslie Stephen (their father) and Vanessa.

I prefer facts over conjecture. I read too many phrases such as these:

probably more conscious of her mother's caring ways
It must have been a time of great adjustment
Virginia Woolf seems to have had an ambivalent attitude
Vanessa would have noticed

This is a small gripe, yet I found it jarring. Another problem I had with the book was keeping track of the many artists' names. Once in a while a name was mentioned as if I was supposed to know about him, but I didn't. And it sometimes felt as if there was too much information when the emphasis was supposed to be on the Stephen girls.

However, the wonders of the book abound: Virginia's writings as a child, the family photographs, the work of the artists who painted at St Ives, examples of Vanessa's paintings and excerpts from Virginia's books. And mostly, I was happy reading it because I am so fond of Virginia Woolf, the woman and the writer. I enjoyed reading about Vanessa, and I do own a biography of her waiting on the shelf, but mostly my interest in her is because she is Virginia's sister.

You may recall a book report on Recollections of Virginia Woolf in which I wrote:

She made her own bread, and taught the cook to do so. Can you imagine it? Virginia in the kitchen kneading bread. It makes me ache with affection for her.

Well, I felt that same ache often while in the pages of this book, mostly when I saw the old photographs, and read her ten year old words in her own handwriting.

In conclusion, even with my criticisms, I am so glad I read the book. It is one I will open often, particularly to look upon those pictures. Putting together the lives of Virginia and Vanessa in conjunction with their childhood years spent at St Ives broadened my knowledge of both women. There was a great contrast between their constricted London lives in a dark, gloomy house with the freedom and light of the Cornish coast. That freedom to run, to play outside, and to walk about the town which was an important artist colony had a profound influence on both girls in their chosen careers.


  1. This is a lovely review of what sounds like a lovely book (even with its irritations). I'm going to put it on my list.

  2. "I prefer facts over conjecture. I read too many phrases such as these:"

    I can see your point perfectly.

    Come now, authors... Let's put down what one knows. Anyone can speculate. But not in a book...


  3. And thank you much, for posting and replying to my question. Now, I don't have to be "wondering," any more. :-))))


  4. I would like to read this book, although I do agree that I don't like the assumptions some biographers make. I'm reading Virginia Woolf's 'Death of a Moth and other Essays' just now for the Celebrate the Author Challenge. It's very thought provoking.

  5. There's another one for my wishlist. Thankyou Nan!

  6. I can't hardly read Virginia when it is just her. I don't know why I can't seem to get into her writing. Obviously it is me since she is so popular. I might try this book though. I like the idea of it.

  7. Thank you for such a comprehensive review of this book -- another one for the Wish List.

  8. Robin, I'm so glad that the positive came through in my book report. It's always hard for me to be critical, especially when I like the book overall. It is well worth reading.

    Mari-Nanci, it's quite amazing how many biographers do conjecture. And you are welcome for my answer on the other posting.

    Margaret, I have had this book for ages, and I'm quite sure I've never read it. Maybe this will have to be a 2009 book.:<)
    I'll be interested in what you have to say. I do love essays. I saw that Leonard W. said she had not revised some of them, and I wonder what she would have thought of them being published.

    Karen, it is a good addition to anyone's library who has an interest in Virginia. I learned she was nicknamed Ginia when she was little. I found this so touching.

    Lisa, it is most definitely not you. There are many, many people who don't enjoy her writing, and others who don't understand it. I don't think because someone is famous or a "classic" it necessarily follows that everyone will enjoy that writer. There are a whole slew of renowned authors that I can't read at all. I think as readers, we like what we like.

  9. Thanks, Nancy. I think you'll like it.

  10. Terrific book report Nan! I completely agree with what you said about preferring facts over conjecture - I do too, and I also notice this in books. What you wrote about the contrast of the sister's lives in London vs. the country reminded me of Beatrix Potter.

  11. Nan, this is a marvellous recommendation. I am just reading The Waves and loving it ... and this book is so appealing to me. Thank you for writing about it. Hope you are staying warm ... it's so cold these days.

  12. Did you know that the only copies of this book on Amazon are $98/each? And they are all used ... did you find your copy somewhere else?

  13. Tara, I hadn't thought of that, but you are right. The country really freed Beatrix to be who she really was.

    Becca, I haven't read The Waves in too long. I'll be interested to hear what you think.

    I got my copy of this book from:

    And paid about £11 for it, with no shipping costs. I just checked and they still have it.

  14. Alas, I am poorly informed as to Virginia Woolf's writings...I did, however, enjoy your review. Especially the part about affection for her working in the kitchen.

  15. I think I may have to read this book. I have been to St. Ives and enjoyed it very much and I would like to know more about Virginia Woolf.

  16. Your book reports are always so informative and well-written!

    Have you read The Measure of Life: Virginia Woolf's Last Years by Herbert Marder? I picked up a lovely copy that was set to go out on the bargain table at work. It's a trade paperback in absolutely perfect condition. I got it for $3.49 (originally priced at $20.95, reduced to $4.98, plus my discount). I hope it's good. I plan to read it sometime this year.

  17. Bellezza, it's just a matter of time and interest. This book would be quite a nice starting off place. Information, photos, a bit from the books.

    Violet Lady, I think you'd really enjoy it.

    Les, I have never heard of it. I'll be most interested in what you think.


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