Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Marriage of True Minds

Remember this book?   "A Marriage of True Minds," published in 1977,  is about the relationship and marriage of Virginia and Leonard Woolf.  It was one of the first books of its kind on Bloomsbury, and specifically the Woolfs.  The other one that comes to mind is "Portrait of a Marriage" by Nigel Nicolson about the marriage of his parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.  This first edition of one of my favorite books was a birthday present from a very dear friend.

The back of the dust jacket

This book was part of  an explosion of books on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group in the 1970's.  I have always thought that the intense interest in Virginia Woolf at that time was a result of Women's Studies departments that originated at colleges and universities in the early 1970's. 

During the 1970's Quentin Bell wrote his excellent biography of Virginia Woolf, and Nigel Nicholson  edited all six volumes of "The Letters of Virginia Woolf." Critical studies were coming out as well as additional biographical materials.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

What made "A Marriage of True Minds" stand apart was that it was about Leonard, Virginia, and their relationship. Recently I reread some of the book.  There were three topics that fascinated me about the story of the courtship and marriage of Virginia and Leonard Woolf.

The role of the "Apostles" --
This was the famous undergraduate society at Cambridge that Leonard Woolf belonged to.  It generated the friendships and relationships that led to Virginia meeting Leonard.  Other members of this intellectual group included Saxon Sydney-Turner, John Maynard Keynes,  Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, Roger Fry and Desmond MacCarthy.   Virginia's brother Thoby Stephen was at Cambridge at the same time, though he was not a member.  But he was friends with many of the "Apostles" and  introduced them to Virginia and her sister Vanessa. The Bloomsbury Group was born out of these friendships.  Virginia married Leonard and Vanessa married Clive Bell, who was also part of this circle of friends.

Lytton Strachey as matchmaker --
He was very instrumental in bringing together Virginia and Leonard.  He planted the seed in Leonard's mind and wrote Leonard, who was in India at the time, many letters encouraging him to marry Virginia.  Lytton proposed to Virginia also, but changed his mind almost immediately.

Leonard as caretaker --
He really held Virginia together in terms of her mental stability.  After their marriage in 1912, Virginia had a mental breakdown that lasted for two years.  After this she experienced fairly good mental health for the next 25 years.  This was due to Leonard's care and protection.   He  insisted on rest, a good diet,  a limited amount of socializing and healthy activities, such as learning how to print books on the printing press he bought her, to provide distraction from the intensity of the writing of her novels.  This printing press was the beginning of the Hogarth Press, the publishing company that Virginia and Leonard Woolf founded.  


These two as a couple and individually had an enormous impact on early twentieth-century British literature.  Virginia wrote her famous novels, including "Mrs. Dalloway," "To the Lighthouse," and "Orlando."  Leonard wrote fiction (short stories and novels) and non-fiction, including his autobiography and frequent articles on politics for many different newspapers and magazines.   His reports for the Fabian Society in 1916 on international government became part of the basis for the League of Nations.  And together they published many important and groundbreaking works at the Hogarth Press, including T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland."

It makes you wonder if the two of them would have been as productive were they not married.  They provided support, inspiration, and caring for each other and also shared an impressive work ethic.  Perhaps that was the secret to their relationship.  They had mutual respect and regard for each other as people and for the enormously important work they both were doing.


  1. I must look for this book. She remains my favourite author. I get lost, deliciously lost, in her words.

  2. I share this with you, she remains my favorite author as well. My favorite book that she wrote is "To the Lighthouse." If you ever want to dip into something delicious, read her letters. Years ago I read all six volumes, but if I had to pick one or two volumes, it would be those written during the years of her most vibrant literary production, in the 1920's and 1930's. The letters are small literary gems, conveying all kinds of fun, gossip, literary insights, and beautiful descriptions of her experiences. She was very witty!

  3. I'm curious to read the book, as my husband and I are both artists, and do support each other tremendously. However, at times it can feel a little too tangled up together also.
    I admire your love of Virginia Woolf. I loved "Mrs. Dalloway" and found it easy to read, but "To the Lighthouse" - difficult, and I didn't make it past a few pages. The lack of structure and direct narrative irritated me at that time. I'm going to give it another try, when I'm relaxed and can just flow with it. Love your new header. Makes me so excited about our upcoming trip to Italy!

  4. I wanted to add another thought. I always have a hard time with a book when it has a "Look Ma, I'm writing" feel to it - do you know what I mean?
    Do you feel that "To the Lighthouse" had any of that feel to it?

  5. Kathy, I think the book can be difficult. But I do love it and her writing is just intensely beautiful. I'm so glad you like the header. I hope you have a fabulous time in Italy!

  6. This is a wonderful post that brought back such good memories of reading each of their work and learning, over many years, their inspiring story. I don't remember if I read this book or just the Clive Bell. However, I've always thought that they each flourished because of the other. It's such an interesting period, I'm always fascinated to read or watch about it in film and books. And thank God for Hogarth!

  7. About reading her letters from 20's and 30's...I believe that was the time period she would have been writing to a young Nigel Nicolson away at school. I heard him speak years ago and he broke our hearts when he revealed that after reading them, he had regrettably and shamefully thrown all her letters away. I've never fully recovered from hearing that story because in the telling it was clear he hadn't either! Lovely post.

  8. I'd love to read this book. Have you read Victoria Glendinning's biography of Leonard Woolf? The impression that I got from that was that Leonard did give things up to look after Virginia. For instance he would've liked to stand for Parliament. But he adored her and felt that any sacrifice he made was well worth it. Loved the post.

  9. I need to READ MORE!!! Hi, Mom: love you!

  10. I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read either - clearly must be added to my ridiculously long list of books to be read - after the large accumulated pile by my bed!

  11. I am adding A Marriage of True Minds to my Amazon list! I love learning more about the Bloomsbury Group, what an amazing bunch of individuals. Another lovely and fascinating post, thank you.

  12. Joanne, I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed the biography of Leonard Woolf. I have it and want to read it. I can't resist buying anything on the topic of Bloomsbury and this one looks especially good. I am not surprised he gave up his political ambitions for Virginia. He put her health and her writing career ahead of his own needs.

    Sarah, if you want to learn more, I would read Quentin Bell's biography of Virginia Woolf. It will give you a lot of information on Woolf as well as the Bloomsbury Group. But there are also many books on the aesthetics of the Bloomsbury artists, which you would also love. Look for books on Charleston and Bloomsbury art. There are many!