Biography – finding a new angle

Richmond bridge postcardIn today’s guest post, biographer Peter Fullagar discusses the value in finding a fresh focus when writing about a well-known figure.

Virginia Woolf is an icon. There can be no doubt about it. She fits into a variety of iconic categories; writer, feminist, mental health sufferer, sexual abuse survivor, LGBTQ supporter – the list is seemingly endless. So how does one attempt to look at Virginia, or rather RE:View her, from a different standpoint when there have been such outstanding biographies and commentaries on her life already?

Virginia Woolf.MS Thr 559 (21), Houghton Library, Harvard UniversityFind a minor point and turn it major

When I was asked by Aurora Metro Books to write a book about Virginia and her life in Richmond, I was thrilled. Having studied much of her work and read her diaries, it was going to be fascinating to delve into her life again. The book accompanies Aurora Metro’s Virginia Woolf Statue campaign to erect the first life-size bronze statue of Virginia in the UK. At the time of writing, there is only a blue plaque to state that Virginia had any connection to Richmond. Even the biographies demonstrate a cursory nod to Richmond and its influence.

In contrast, Virginia is almost synonymous with the Bloomsbury area of London and for being a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a collection of writers, artists and intellectuals. To Woolf fans, it’s no secret that she loved living in the city of London and lived there for most of her life, with fifteen years of it spent at Tavistock Square. However, a quote from the film The Hours had always bothered me:

If it is a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death.

I wondered if this was really the reason why Virginia was not apparently celebrated in the town.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Do your research

During the hours of research in her letters and diaries, I could find no reference to the quote from The Hours, so I contacted the writer of the book it was adapted from, Michael Cunningham and also the screenwriter, Sir David Hare.

Sir David’s agent confirmed that the station scene, from which the quote comes from, was largely invented for the screen and in fact, Virginia had never uttered these words. This, then, was the angle which the book should explore. Richmond was integral to Virginia’s life and yet a lot of people didn’t even know that she had lived there. From 1915 to 1924, Virginia and her husband, Leonard, lived in the town, and it was here, I believe, where she truly found her career taking off and the foundation of the Hogarth Press and her short story Kew Gardens were instrumental to her success.

Find the evidence

Looking at somebody’s life from a different angle is nothing without the evidence to support your claims. Luckily for me, Virginia had been kind enough to detail the majority of her life through her diaries and letters, and, although it took a long time and a lot of post-it notes, I gradually found the evidence that she actually did like living in Richmond, contrary to the fictitious quote and popular belief. I think that one of the key things about my research is that Leonard Woolf had written volumes of autobiography, and here I was able to corroborate the evidence from what he had written.

Hogarth House B&W

Hogarth House, Richmond

Broaden your scope

It wasn’t going to be enough just to find a few quotes that basically said ‘I like living in Richmond’, I had to fully explore her life in the town, from demonstrating her feelings with what she did (such as helping to run the local Women’s Co-operative Guild), to her family and servants and the people who came to visit her. Thus, thirteen chapters were borne out of the research and a book was made.

Clinch your conclusion

Ultimately, there was one vital entry in Virginia’s diary that sealed the conclusion. On 9th January 1924, as Virginia and Leonard were preparing to leave Richmond, she wrote:

So I ought to be grateful to Richmond and Hogarth, and indeed, whether it’s my invincible optimism or not, I am grateful.

Peter FullagarAbout the author

Peter Fullagar is a former English teacher turned writer and editor. As well as Virginia Woolf in Richmond, he has a short story published in Tempest: An Anthology from Patrician Press, published March 2019 and two English language exam books with Express Publishing. He enjoys playing the piano, taking photographs and spending time with cats. He lives in Berkshire with his partner. Find Peter at www.peterjfullagar.co.uk and www.twitter.com/peterjfullagar

About the book

Drawing from Virginia Woolf’s diaries, letters and other source material, Virginia Woolf in Richmond offers a glimpse of the author and her deep affection for Richmond, as well as the early days of the Hogarth Press, named after the Woolfs’ home in Richmond, and the many influences on Virginia’s mental health and literary output.

The biography recently had a second print run. The hardback version is available from www.aurorametro.com, with ebook versions available from various online stores.

The Virginia Woolf Statue Project continues to raise money after securing planning permission.

All photos in this post were supplied by Peter Fullagar.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to JudyDarley(at)iCloud.com.

Submit your novel for the Virginia Prize For Fiction

Virginaia-woolfs-house-richmond-hogarth-press-begun-hereBlue PlaqueAurora Metro, the Twickenham-based arts organisation, is searching for the best new fiction by a woman writing in English. The winner will receive £1,000 and a conditional offer of publication by Aurora Metro Books.

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

The 5th Virginia Prize for Fiction is now open  for submissions

The prize is open to any woman (over 18) around the world, writing in English.

The novel can be of any genre but cannot have been published or self-published before.

This biennial prize was launched in 2009 as a tribute to Virginia Woolf who wrote her first novel, The Voyage Out, while living an Hogarth House on Paradise Road in Richmond, where she and her husband Leonard also founded the Hogarth Press in 1917.

The prize’s founder, publisher Cheryl Robson, hopes that “by naming this prize in Virginia Woolf’s memory we will inspire women to find their voice and contribute to the pantheon of great women writers.”

The prize is open to any woman (over 18) around the world, writing in English. The novel can be of any genre but cannot have been published or self-published before. You must submit your entire completed novel to be eligible. The entry fee is £10 per manuscript.

The closing date for entries is 1st October 2017.

Previous winners include Shambala Junction by Dipika Mukherjee, which won the 4th Virginia Prize for Fiction, and The Leipzig Affair by Fiona Rintoul, which won the 3rd Virginia Prize for Fiction in 2013 and was dramatised for BBC R4’s Book At Bedtime. Read by Douglas Henshall and Indira Varma, it was broadcast in March 2015.

Kipling and Trix by Mary HamerMary Hamer, who won in the 2nd Virginia Prize for Fiction in 2011 with her novel Kipling & Trix, is the current Chair of the Kipling Society, and is giving a host of talks across the country about her novel and his life.

Louise Soraya Black who won the inaugural prize in 2009 for her novel Pomegranate Sky, which Fay Weldon described as “vividly written, fresh and eloquent”, has given up her law career to pursue writing full-time.

Could you be next?  For more information about the prize and to enter, go to aurorametro.com/the-virginia-prize-for-fiction.

Find out more about Virginia Woolf’s time in Richmond.

Under the gaze of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is one of those literary legends it’s easy to feel you know, thanks to her crisp, taut prose and thoroughly frank diary entries. Now you can get to know the great author in a whole new way, with an exhibition to be held at Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell 1912 © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett cr National Trust, Charles Thomas

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell 1912 © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett cr National Trust, Charles Thomas.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision will feature painted portraits, photographs, drawings and rare archival material, including a letter from Virginia to her sister, Vanessa Bell, written shortly before her suicide.

Guest curated by biographer Frances Spalding, the exhibition promises to explore Woolf’s many facets, novelist to public figure, intellectual to campaigner, as well as offering vivid glimpses of her private life. Via an array of archival material, including letters to and from her friends and acquaintances, extracts from her personal diaries, and original books that were first printed through the Virginia’s beloved Hogarth Press you’ll get to meander through Woolf’s early life, literary interests and remarkable achievements, absorb her fascination with London, awareness of modernity, and her developing feminist and political views.

Virginia Woolf in an Armchair by Vanessa Bell, 1912 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Virginia Woolf in an Armchair by Vanessa Bell, 1912 © National Portrait Gallery, London

For me, these two portrait of Woolf by her sister seems to offer a glimpse the great writer in a moment’s introversion.

I wholeheartedly intend to find the time to go along, but can’t promise I won’t be pretending to myself that I’m actually spending the afternoon with the literary lady. Wouldn’t it be fab to discover her take on today’s political, feminist and cultural issues?

VIRGINIA WOOLF: ART, LIFE AND VISION runs from 10 July until 26 October 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery, London.