Roger Fry: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

I’m a bit behind with reviewing, to put it mildly, but I did read Roger Fry (1940) for the biography phase of Heavenali’s Woolfalong. She suggested a biography of Woolf, or Orlando or Flush, but I piped up with this one – the only actual biography that Woolf wrote, as opposed to those novels she tagged ‘a biography’ onto the end of. Sorry that it’s come so long after the months in question, but I promise I read it during the relevant period!

roger-fryIt feels quite odd, to read a biography by a woman who has been so very biographied – particularly one that was published only a year before she died. How would she write about someone? What precedent would she leave for those who would write about her? Well, it wasn’t quite what I expected. And I’m not quite sure how to write about it.

Firstly – who was Roger Fry? In some ways, he would have made an excellent character in a Woolf novel. He was a painter whose paintings never quite lived up to his hopes – and certainly never got the acclaim he sought. On the other hand, he was an art critic of great repute, whose writings of criticism were popular and respected by many – while also being castigated with horror by the old guard. Indeed, Kenneth Clark said that Fry was ‘incomparably the greatest influence on taste since Ruskin … In so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry’. Alongside this, his personal life was fraught. His wife Helen became mentally ill not long into their marriage, and moved to an asylum for the rest of her life. Fry had affairs with several women, including Virginia Woolf’s sister, but Woolf does not spend much time on these – perhaps unsurprisingly. He was a kind, damaged man, not content with his lot or his achievements – but seems to have been warmer, less difficult to love, than some of the Bloomsbury Group.

My favourite section, I think, was the chapter on the Post-Impressionists. This was mostly fun in the oh-so-subtle pleasure Woolf takes in showing the people who railed against the ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ exhibition that Fry organised in 1910 (it is argued that Woolf’s famous words ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed’ refers, at least in part, to this exhibition). Fry apparently coined the term post-impressionist, and he was the first to introduce Manet, Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and more to the British public – and most of them did not take well to it. It is astonishing, reading this chapter, to see how much vitriol there was in the press, in essays, even in letters to Fry; it damaged his standing in academic circles. It is difficult to imagine anybody caring that much about art today. But even by the time Woolf was writing, in 1940, these artists had become accepted parts of the European artistic landscape.

I went into the book expecting him to appear as something like a character in a Woolf novel, built up piece by piece, description by description, until the complex composite appeared. It wasn’t quite like that. She is fairly linear in her depiction of Fry, concentrating chiefly (in his later life) on his professional successes and failures, but Woolf does describe some of the less concrete elements of Fry’s life. I think what surprised me was her style in doing so. Here, for example, she is writing about Helen’s illness:

The end of his work in America coincided with a far more terrible conclusion. When, three years before, Sir George Savage had told him that in his opinion Helen Fry’s illness was hopeless, he had refused to believe him. He had gone from doctor to doctor; he had tried every method that held out the least chance of success. It is a splendid record of courage, patience and devotion. In the hope that his wife could still live with him he had built a house from his own design near Guildford. In 1910 the house was ready, and he brought her there. But the illness increased, and in that year he was forced, for the children’s sake, to give up the battle. It had lasted, with intervals of rare happiness, since 1898. “You have certainly fought hard to help your wife, and shown a devotion I have never seen equalled”, Dr Head wrote to him in November 1910. “Unfortunately the disease has beaten us.”

She is not quite the impersonal biographer, but she is very far from the novelist here. You can’t imagine a sentence as prosaic as ‘In 1910 the house was ready, and he brought her there’ appearing in her fiction. Yet you can’t imagine ‘It is a splendid record of courage, patience and devotion’ being found in the work of a modern day biographer. Throughout Roger Fry, Woolf’s writing falls a little between two stools. It is never bad writing, of course – she would be incapable of that – but it feels rather held back. Woolf wears the hat of the biographer a little uneasily, if she is not aping or exaggerating it in her fiction.

Woolf also makes no mention of her personal relationship with Fry. Stranger still, she refers to Leonard Woolf and Vanessa Bell throughout without acknowledging her connection with them – and at one point even refers to ‘Virginia Woolf’ as though it were a different person. She is trying on a persona which cannot find its reflection in the cast of characters she is depicting – awkwardly, when those characters are real and include herself.

So, is this a good biography? Yes – rich and informative and sensitive. And normally I don’t much care about the style of the biographer – indeed, I don’t want it to intrude on the reading experience, or get in the way of the subject. But any reader of Roger Fry today is likely to be more interested in Woolf than Fry, and this is a strange piece of that jigsaw puzzle. Yes, a good biography – but not quite what one expects from Woolf, and disconcerting to see her talent hide in the shadows of her own book. A fascinating read, and a curious footnote to my understanding of Woolf’s life and style.

6 thoughts on “Roger Fry: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

  • October 4, 2016 at 12:03 am
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    It´s so good that you´ve read this book, Simon, and wrote about it!
    Talking about biographies, and the edwardian period, problably my next Persephone will be “Julian Grenfell”, by Nicholas Mosley. Because when Persephone says “we believe, one of the best biographies of recent times”, I don´t even care who is Julian Grenfell!!!

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  • October 4, 2016 at 4:56 am
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    I did not know about the book or the character so I enjoyed this very interesting post.

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  • October 4, 2016 at 8:59 am
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    That is a VW book which I have not read – it sounds like she was trying very hard to be objective and detached.

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  • October 4, 2016 at 9:55 am
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    I’ve not read this one and do mean to – I like Roger Fry and his art, for one. Nice review.

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  • October 4, 2016 at 4:07 pm
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    I read this soooooo long ago that I can remember little about it – apart from the fact that I read that she struggled with it because of her sister’s relationship with Fry and the impossibility of writing about that. But as you say, anything she writes is worth reading!

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  • October 7, 2016 at 12:55 am
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    Oh how weird that she talks about her sister like she doesn’t know her! I guess it would be tricky to write a biography like this without mentioning the personal connection. As a person who really never gets into the Bloomsbury group (sorry Virginia Woolf!), most of what I remember about Roger Fry is that I loved him the best of the characters in that Priya Parmar book Vanessa and Her Sister. Just really not a jerk at all, as I recall.

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