Virginia Woolf was 'part-Bengali', says great-nephew

The English author is one of the 20th century’s literary giants, renowned for the pioneering stream-of-consciousness style

Delhi-based Scottish writer-historian William Dalrymple has said that his great aunt and noted English author Virginia Woolf was ‘part Bengali’. 

“I can share something about Virginia Woolf that no one knows much about— the fact that she was part-Bengali,” he told an Indian literary magazine earlier this year.  

“We both have Bengali ancestors and much like her I am half Bengali too. We have a mutual great grandmother who was born in Chandannagar (a city in the Hooghly district in the Indian state of West Bengal),” he added.

Considered one of the most important modernist 20th-century authors and a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device, her original name in full is Adeline Virginia Stephen.

She is renowned for the pioneering stream-of-consciousness style she immortalized in the novels: “To the Lighthouse”, “Mrs Dalloway” and “Orlando”.

Born into a privileged English household in 1882, Virginia Woolf was raised by free-thinking parents. She began writing as a young girl and published her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. 

Her pioneering feminist works are “A Room of One's Own” and “Three Guineas”. In her personal life, she suffered bouts of deep depression. She committed suicide in 1941, at the age of 59.

Mentionable, William in an article published by BBC in April 2016 wrote: “My Kolkata (formerly Calcutta)-born, part-Bengali great great aunt was Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the greatest photographers of the 19th Century.”

Virginia, her great-nephew said, came from Franco-Bengali origins and "we have the marriage certificate of her Bengali grandmother and a Frenchman in the family." 

Her grandmother was very aware of her Bengali and Hindu origin even when she was living abroad, William maintained. 

They were seven sisters who were looked upon like Hindu exotica when they landed in London or even travelled to Paris with the kind of Indian jewellery they wore and the textile heritage that they introduced in the West, according to him.

“If you look at Virginia’s face, she has a very Bengali face. That is an Indian face. I am two generations down, so I have never really met her. But Virginia Woolf was quite a Bengali,” the writer who bagged several awards for his works. 

Also an acclaimed photographer, William demanded that Virginia Woolf be celebrated as “a daughter of the soil just as Rabindranath Tagore is. 

“Maybe someday I will write a book about the Bengali heritage of Virginia Woolf. Some of her works are very lyrical, especially her poems which are very influenced by Bengali literary styles of that era,” he said.