Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Review of 'Virginia Woolf's Influential Forebears' and Q&A with Marion Dell

As you will probably know, I had the great pleasure of giving a paper at this summer's conference on Julia Margaret Cameron.  Whilst there, wearing my Julia Stephen tshirt from Mrs Middleton's Shop, I made the friendship of the very lovely Marion Dell, author of the recently published Virginia Woolf's Influential Forebears, a brilliant book about the influence on Woolf from Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie and Julia Stephen, Woolf's mother.

Julia Stephen by her aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron

The Red Dress (1929) Vanessa Bell
(daughter of Julia Stephen and sister of Virginia Woolf)
What interested me about this aspect of Julia Margaret Cameron studies is how her influence and reputation was used and abused (and ignored) by one of the foremost figures in twentieth century literary and cultural history.  I had studied Woolf as part of my degrees, and her writing is obviously extremely perceptive and meaningful, but this was a new side to her, one which very openly revealed a struggle to come to terms with where she had come from and what the work of other women in her family meant to her.

Virginia Woolf, wearing her mother's dress
in 1924 Vanity Fair photoshoot by Maurice Beck and Helen Macgregor
Marion's book is split into different sections examining in detail Woolf's responses to each of her female relatives and the influence they have had upon her, both acknowledged and very often unacknowledged.  This web that seems to hang above Woolf, of clever, talented, groundbreaking women, begins to loom like a cloud rather than act as inspiration and I found the many instances of Woolf seeming to fight against the pressure of apparent expectation (of success or failure) in turns shocking, defiant, humorous and contradictory. While I had never previously warmed to Woolf, despite her obvious importance, this side of her made me far more curious about her than any number of her essays and I thank Marion for making me want to read more of Woolf's work to see if I can follow the threads further.
The Annucuation mural at Berwick Church, Sussex by Vanessa Bell
Note motif of the red dress again.

The Annucuation (1876) Edward Burne-Jones
Julia Stephen was the model for the Virgin

Whilst in no way a quick read, Marion's book is both accessible and thought-provoking (mine is full of post-it notes now with stuff to follow up) and a excellent book for scholars of either Woolf or Cameron (and obviously a must-read for fans of both). Having read her book, I had lots of questions for Marion which she very kindly answered for me...

Q. Your previous book was about Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, what drew you to explore Woolf's matrilineal line and the influence on her work?

My interest in Virginia Woof’s family background and its influence on her work, really began one memorable holiday when I was sitting on the balcony at Talland House reading To the Lighthouse. I looked across the Bay to Godrevy Lighthouse and realised just how many of her memories of her own holiday home, of St Ives, and of her childhood summers there with her family Woolf had put into that novel and her other work. In particular I was fascinated by the mother figure, the complex and enigmatic, Mrs Ramsay. Then I read Julia Stephen’s own stories, newly retrieved and published for the first time by Diane Gillespie and Elizabeth Steele in Stories for Children. I realised that Woolf was following in her mother’s footsteps in fictionalising St Ives, Talland House and family memories of their Cornish summers. For the last ten years I have been finding out more about the elusive Julia Stephen and discovering just how much she, and other forebears, influenced Woolf’s work. My quest continues.

Q. Before reading around Julia Margaret Cameron I had never heard of Anny Ritchie (and I had a decent Open University literature education!).  How far do you think Woolf has influenced her disappearance from reading today?  I was especially surprised by your reference to 'Flush' and Woolf not mentioning Ritchie as a source.

In their day Victorian writers such as Anny Ritchie, Margaret Oliphant, Mrs Humphrey Ward, William Thackeray, Grant Allen and many others were best-selling and acclaimed. Now most have dropped off popular reading lists and the academic canon because their topics, style and sheer length are no longer fashionable. Even Dickens and the Brontës are now better known through films rather than through reading their novels. So I don’t think Ritchie’s disappearance can be attributed to Woolf. But Woolf did have many opportunities to celebrate and retrieve Ritchie’s work, and that of many other earlier writers, and she failed to do this.

Q. Julia Margaret Cameron offered support to Ritchie after the death of her father and was rewarded by fond reminiscence.  When Ritchie extended the same to Woolf, why do you think it wasn't acknowledged the same way?

As I show in my book, Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie and Julia Prinsep Stephen were part of a collaborative sisterhood who supported each other in both their domestic lives and their working lives. Ritchie, and other maternal figures such as Madge Vaughan, extended this support to Woolf as a young apprentice. Woolf’s obscuring of Ritchie’s influence and support was part of her obscuring of any influence from her past, as I try to explore in my final chapter. Her response to her past was ambivalent and complex. It changed through her life and was never fully resolved.

Q. It feels like too big a question to ask what Woolf's problem with Cameron was, so I'll start with Julia Stephen - do you think Woolf felt jealous that Cameron had managed to capture and fix an idea of Julia that possibly her young daughter could not match or better?

This is a difficult question and the answer is partly covered by my previous one. Woolf’s responses to all three women were part of her ambivalence about influences from her past in general. I have no evidence that she felt jealous of Cameron’s relationship with her mother, but I speculate that she did feel excluded. She was excluded from the Freshwater and Little Holland House Circles, of which they were so much a part. Given her age of course, this was inevitable, but such feelings are not logical.

Q. Woolf literally scratches out Cameron's name from her work and replaces it with 'the photographer' who is someone to escape from.  On the face of it you would think Woolf would have been proud to herald such a pioneer artist and business woman yet belittles her. What do you think is at the root or is it impossible to pin to one thing?

I think this is all part of Woolf’s cycle of rejection and affiliation for her past, including all three of the forebears in this study, which I identify in my final chapter. As you say – on the face of it is incomprehensible and it is very difficult to account for.

Q. The book 'Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women' fascinates me not least because the title doesn't mention Cameron at all and it seems to imply women can only be noticed for their looks.  Fry obviously admires Cameron and her work, so do you think the book is Woolf's conflict in action?

This is a really good question. Yes – I think that this celebrity album absolutely exemplifies Woolf’s ambivalence and rejection/affiliation. Woolf’s introductory essay belittles and mocks Cameron as a figure of fun, while that of Fry celebrates her as a great pioneering artistic photographer. Yet throughout her life Woolf did celebrate Cameron’s work by taking it with her from 22, Hyde Park Gate to Bloomsbury and by giving this album as a special present to impress friends

Q. And finally, what are you working on next?

I have two projects. I am writing a biography of Julia Stephen which I plan to publish this coming year. I am also researching the literary history of my own area around Haslemere and Hindhead which at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was a flourishing, bohemian, artistic colony in a beautiful area known as The English Switzerland. Tennyson, Conan Doyle, George Eliot and many other lesser known writers lived and worked here at this time. This is for an exhibition at the Haslemere Educational Museum in April 2016 and an accompanying illustrated book.
Julia Duckworth (later Stephen)
(1867) Julia Margaret Cameron
Virginia Stephen (later Woolf)
 (1902) George Charles Beresford

Many thanks to Marion for her time and for writing this really smashing book and I await her next book with eager anticipation (not to mention the exhibition which coincides with my birthday next year!).
Virginia Wool's Influential Forebears:Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie and Julia Prinsep Stephen is available now from Amazon UK (here) or USA (here) or from all splendid bookshops.


  1. Hello,

    I am an assistant of a Virginia Woolf researcher here in California. We are wondering how to email Marion Dell. We have been dissecting her novel and would like to connect with her as she has come the closest to helping our research. Thank you, Marina for Dr. Joseph Abrahams

  2. Hi Marina, if you drop me an email at stonellwalker@googlemail.com, I'll send it over to her :)


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