Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography
by Zena Alkayat & Nina Cosford

Chronicle Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-452-15022-2.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 05/17/2016

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: Creative Life

I've been enjoying children's books recently, particularly for their illustrations. Now here's a book, illustrated, for adults, about author Virginia Woolf.

Zena Alkayat acknowledges Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf, for information and inspiration to help celebrate Woolf's life and work in this small, beautifully illustrated volume. Quotations throughout are from Woolf's diaries, essays, letters and a few of her novels. The quote that begins the book seems like an apt one to describe Woolf's writing life: "She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on." (Mrs. Dalloway published in 1925)

There were many deaths in Woolf's family and many moves. At one time, she and her brother Adrian shared a house with two other men including Woolf's future husband Leonard Woolf. Leonard called Virginia "Mandrill" and she called him "Mongoose." Along with the progress of Virginia Woolf's publishing history, it's details like that which make the book so delightful. Woolf's book, Mrs. Dalloway, paid for a new bathroom at Monk's House where the Woolfs lived and Orlando paid for Virginia's new bedroom. While readers may have read the work of Woolf along with her diaries and essays, it's specifics like that we may have forgotten.

Nina Cosford's illustrations enhance the work and add further information to the biography. She has drawn the Stephen Family Tree, for instance, illustrating Virginia's parents and their children, including those from previous marriages.

A two-page spread shows Virginia and her sister Vanessa outside writing and painting at easels.

The Bloomsbury Group of which Virginia, Leonard and Vanessa were members, retreated to Charleston where Vanessa lived with her children and Duncan Grant and his lover, David "Bunny" Garnett. (She was separated from her husband Clive Bell.) There's a charming drawing of Charleston, the house in Sussex, referred to as a cottage even though it had a walled garden, studios and spare rooms for the Bloomsbury guests.

The garden is illustrated and one of the rooms decorated with murals and painted furniture "and a chaos of color" as the author says. Small drawings show what was on Virginia's desk such as a photo of her mother Julia, a pen pot, hairgrips, a diary, pen and ink.

It was such a treat to read about Virginia Woolf, her family, and her writing life. Now I'm wanting to go back to Virginia Woolf's novels and read them again. In the meantime, flipping through the colorful illustrations of the book is like a walk through the English countryside.

Zena Alkayat is a bestselling author, book editor, and journalist from London. With many years of experience in media and publishing, she has covered subjects from tea and cake to concrete, cocktails, and Coco Chanel. Nina Cosford is a freelance illustrator based in the southeast of England. Visit her website.

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