Biography

I was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1955. My father was the art historian and writer Quentin Bell, acclaimed for his biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf. My mother Anne Olivier Bell – the best of role models - edited the five volumes of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries.

When I was four I was devouring fairy tales faster than they could be supplied to me, and my mother asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. “I want to do something where I can read all day” I replied. When I was six I wrote my own compilation of stories, pompously entitled ‘The Collected Works of Virginia Bell’. 

Virginia reading, Duncan Grant, 1961

Virginia reading, Duncan Grant, 1961

My childhood in the 1960s was spent in the suburbs of Leeds, though every summer we decamped south to my grandparents’ home, Charleston. When I was in my teens we moved to Sussex. My school was Lewes Priory School (comprehensive). After a gap year working in Paris I went on to study English Literature at King’s College Cambridge. In 1978 I spent a year living in Italy (Venice), where I taught English and learnt Italian. Returning to the UK in 1979 I re-visited my northern childhood while working for Yorkshire Television as a researcher for children’s programmes, and in 1983 I joined the Documentary department of BBC Television. TV work taught me about other lives, and other worlds. It also taught me teamwork and persistence: ‘I don’t know. But I can and will find out.’ 

 In 1988 I got married to author and screenwriter William Nicholson. Following the birth of our son in 1989, I left the BBC and shortly afterwards we moved to East Sussex, where both of us had grown up. We then had two daughters, born in 1991 and 1993. Living in Sussex, I became increasingly involved with the Trust that administered Charleston, home of my grandmother the painter Vanessa Bell, and in due course I became Deputy Chairman. My first book (co-authored with my father) Charleston - A Bloomsbury House and Garden was published by Frances Lincoln in 1997. In 1999/2000 I made a ten-city tour of the USA to promote the book and Charleston itself.

Virginia in her study, 2016

Virginia in her study, 2016

In November 2002 Viking published Among the Bohemians - Experiments in Living 1900-1939 to critical acclaim. Singled Out - How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War, was published in August 2007. My fourth book Millions Like Us - Women’s Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949 was published in May 2011, followed in 2015 by Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes – The Story of Women in the 1950s. The books I write are the kind of books I like to read. They tell stories, full of emotion and character, domestic detail and observation. But they are also true, and open a window on to our shared past. 

The work on all these books was combined with my continuing commitment to the Charleston Trust.

My childhood dream of reading all day has – almost – come true. Social history is seventy per cent research, and research is largely reading.  But I’m also an enthusiastic cook and eater, who loves walking, skiing, art galleries, shopping, ceramics; Italy; Wagner, Bach and the Beatles; Tolstoy, George Eliot and Nancy Mitford; The Archers; long-distance train journeys, embroidery, word games – and friends and family.