Amazing, stellar, incredible, etc etc Has been the centre of my attention since I started reading it, to the chagrin of everyone who s had to hear me talk about the combined awesomeness of both Woolf and Lee non stop for weeks.
While Virginia Woolf One Of Our Century S Most Brilliant And Mercurial Writers Has Had No Shortage Of Biographers, None Has Seemed As Naturally Suited To The Task As Hermione Lee Subscribing To Virginia Woolf S Own Belief In The Fluidity And Elusiveness Of Identity, Lee Comes At Her Subject From A Multitude Of Perspectives, Producing A Richly Layered Portrait Of The Writer And The Woman That Leaves All Of Her Complexities And Contradictions Intact Such Issues As Sexual Abuse, Mental Illness, And Suicide Are Brought Into Balance With The Immensity Of Her Literary Achievement, Her Heroic Commitment To Her Work, Her Generosity And Wit, And Her Sanity And Strength It Is Not Often That Biography Offers The Satisfactions Of Great Fiction But This Is Clearly What Hermione Lee Has Achieved Accessible, Intelligent, And Deeply Pleasurable To Read, Her Virginia Woolf Will Undoubtedly Take Its Place As The Standard Biography For Years To Come Hermione Lee has written an excellent book about an excellent writer Her topical chapters help to unfold Woolf s life in an engaging and enlightening way.
One caveat I would offer to the reader is to be familiar with Woolf s well known novels and books Lee makes many connections between the author s work and her personal life, which given the nature of Woolf s fiction, makes perfect sense At a bare minimum, I suggest that the reader should have read To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway, and A Room of One s Own, and time permitting, also read The Waves and Orlando Woolf wrote much than that, of course, and so the you ve read, the you ll appreciate this biography.
An excellent companion read for this biography is Moments of Being, a collection of Woolf s own autobiographical writing Much shorter in length, Moments of Being gives the reader Woolf s own perspective on some of the important moments of her life Highly recommended.
While it isn t a requirement to read any of Woolf s novels before reading this biography, Lee s 900 page book will be much enjoyable after familiarizing yourself with Woolf s writing the , the better.
While I haven t read other biographies of Virginia Woolf, it s easy to believe the many who assert this volume stands head and shoulders above the rest Hermione Lee s lengthy work is clearly a labor of dedication Her intellectual investment is indisputable her rigorous research and deep rumination manifest on every page In addition, and rare to the craft of biography, is the artistry with which Ms Lee conveys this material Similar in design to jazz music, the base line of chronology is constant as its chapters break into graceful riffs of alternating theme Beautiful from the view of composition alone, it is every bit the deserved housing for the historical account of one of the most important and intriguing woman writers in our literary canon If you ve any interest in Virginia Woolf her writing, her ideas, her existence this hefty tome is assuredly the premiere foundational resource I doubt any biographer will do better Ever.
A sample decidedly apropos to this venue When she is putting her reading in order, Virginia Woolf asks a great many questions about canon formation, and insists that great books must be set in the context of inferior, ordinary, forgotten books trashy novels, obscure memoirs, especially of women s lives, dust gathering volumes of letters, mediocre biographies, minor plays A literature composed entirely of good books would soon be unread, extinct the isolation is too great We need trivial ephemeral books They are the dressing rooms, the workshops, the wings, the sculleries, the bubbling cauldrons, where life seethes and steams and is for ever on the boil They fertilize our minds and get them ready for the big masterpieces We can t always be reading Keats or Aeschylus or King Lear, so she defends the pleasures of bad books, the historical importance of the rubbish heap She argues for serendipitous random reading from the shelves of second hand bookshops and public libraries I ransack public libraries find them full of sunk treasure All her life she celebrated the democratic function of the public library as the university of the non specialist, uninstructed reader it is the reading room for the common reader.
It s substantial stuff exhaustive but frequently rewarding A few very minor provisos As with most thoroughly knowledgeable experts, Lee does her fair share of assuming her readers are aware of the basic facts I wasn t London s cultural life, Bloomsbury, the various love affairs, the plots of all the novels I came quite ignorant to the party It wasn t off putting, yet there is a certain displacing frisson for the reader in those moments.
About a third of the way through I began to feel insufferably confined by it all It took me awhile to realize Lee was doing her job so well that she d presented me with a resonance of Virginia s own creative dilemma So know going in that empathy will be extracted.
Lastly, I did take issue with the manner in which Lee denounced those who felt they could diagnose Woolf s psychological condition based upon the little information available and then proceeded to do so herself Either you can or you can t, Hermione You ve got to pick.
That said, this is a tremendous achievement and a tremendous addition to the field of literary biography.
So the making of art, in reaction to the blows of life, is both an active, controlling process, in which she orderes reality by putting it into words and a passive, self abnegating process, whereby she recognises that what she is making is part of something pre existing and universal There is no Shakespeare there is no Beethoven certainly and emphatically there is no God we are the words we are the music we are the thing itself Fear, as usual in her case, became a form of courage.
The fact that it is still considered humanly possible to write nonfiction in the 21st century is something of both a marvel and a threat Objectivity, works cited, academic credibility, demographic positioning, tone, syntax, words I m not saying that these are lies, but you ve got another thing coming if you think your chaotically spawned senses and speech are any accurately all encompassing than those of cats and dogs and marmosets The animal menagerie was a treasure trove for the writing community composed of those close to Virginia Woolf, so why distance our passive reading efforts from the origins of the truth we believe ourselves capable of creating To beat less around the bush, I certainly found this biography engagingly holistic enough to forgo Woolf bios for the next decade, but my lord Lee s agenda Painted Shadow and Secrets of the Flesh both dealt with white women in Woolf s chronological periphery, but neither felt it necessary to sanitize their focus to such a neurotypical and non bigoted degree If I wanted to be told a story, I would have picked up Flush instead She noted how everyone had a phrase, a way of speaking which made them sound in control.
What is Virginia Woolf According to this weighty 800 page packet of citations, vindications, and gossip, she is someone who has been made one thing and then another, ignored and vilified, pedestaled and coddled, set upon by a misunderstanding public that, when considering the debacle that is her posthumous publications, may still not have access to all that she ever composed Her most well known works came before her increasing dedication to politics, her wealth was derived from a colonialism never touched upon saved as the sort of metaphor that graces the rapturous end of Jane Eyre, and her insanity has been chique when neurotypicals needed inspiration and a barrier when these same neurotypicals needed to claim her as one of their own She might punch me in the face for calling her insane if she were capable of it, but as someone who s nearing two decades of inherent suicidal impulses, I don t call her anything I don t call myself It d be fine if she rejected membership in my community, but the last thing needed is the supposed writers of her life making her mental struggles anything they were not, with all the metaphors of disability afforded to authorshipHappily I m interested in depressionI ve spent two paragraphs talking about the barriers between this writing and my reading to convey how cold I had to be to get anything out of this To be quite honest, the most valuable aspect was how much my mental web of authors and authorial influence was widened around one of my most famous figures, from the expected if detested nearness of Rebecca West to the surprising burst of Silvina de Ocampo onto the scene Thinking further back, I consider such tidbits as the nitty gritty details of the Hogarth Press, the honest for once portrayal of public and private confusion over Virginia Woolf being sexually assaulted as a child by her stepbrothers, and just what it meant to have Hitler hovering over the horizon that fucking list the Nazis drew up of targets including the Woolfs and Zweig is the stuff of nightmares , but that s some dry stuff, cause thanks to Lee s insistence on smoothing over some of Woolf s horrid moments, I ve no idea what the real difference is between the censorship that interfered with Orlando and that which created Virginia Woolf Sure, there s talk about rape jokes and blackface and lifelong classicism, but the shooting herself in the foot stunt Lee pulled with Woolf s literary antisemitism in conjunction with her husband makes me wonder what other incidents she didn t even attempt to reason out of bigotry cause she knew it wouldn t work All in all, if I m going to be told a somewhat accurate narrative of a human being, I expect a flesh and blood portrait, not a bed time story to tuck me in at nightYes, I intend to be a dead in future the dead have so many rightsThe fact that I found myself reading, throughout my effort to study for the GRE English subject test, the biography of the author who caused me to cry in the library of the university I was subsequently going to drop out of didn t pass me by I acknowledge that I excoriate Lee out of selfish and possessive reasons, as she was in the position to devote herself to the life of someone who changed my life while dead and gone in ways than I can put to words Woolf s feminism and wit and aesthetics don t put an ax to my frozen heart as much as they used to, but the plain and simple truth is, had I not encountered her when I did, I d be dead four years ongoing from having jumped off some bridge Make of that biographical factoid what you will I think the best these men can do is not to talk about themselves any.
Of course, none of this would be printed.
All in all, reading this, I aimed at increased comfort in the emotional realm and ended up hitting the academic realm instead One would assume as much from a text with a 100 pages of footnotes, but being the odd duck that I am, that is not always a guarantee Those who are thinking of reading this probably have to fear from boredom than anger, so if they re still reading on, they re likely wondering when I m going to finally stop, or get to a point, or something Sorry, kiddos Like I said, I don t go for bedtime stories One afternoon in 1939 I was planting in the orchard under an apple tree iris reticulataSuddenly I heard Virginia s voice calling to me from the sitting room window Hitler is making a speech I shouted back I shan t come I m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead Last March, 21 years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple tree in the orchard Leonard Woolf Hermione Lee s Woolf is a major Modernist who in conscious reaction against Victorian society and in artistic competition with other modern writers Katherine Mansfield, Lytton Strachey, among others set herself formal problems and solved them in her novels Revealing is her process of writing The intensity of writing a complete first draft gripped her but the coldness of revision was repugnant She revised with great reluctance and labor, for re reading what she wrote often shook her confidence in the writing She was to the end of her life terrified of being laughed at Despite her concern with form, when she tried to define to herself the essence of literature, she settled on emotion To argue for Woolf s significance, the biography also attends carefully to the political writing, primarily A Room of One s Own and Three Guineas In doing so, it shows convincingly how Woolf developed her feminism in response to her traditional upbringing, the women s suffrage movement, the male dominated literary marketplace and the rise of Fascism She was than the delicate envelope of human consciousness, she was also an acute analyst of contemporary history To marginalize her analysis because it focused on gender relations is itself a political act.
Lee does not attempt to excuse Virginia s personal faults, for instance, her snobbishness and petty cruelty Instead, she shows from Virginia s diary and letters that the writer was well aware of her shortcomings, and experienced much internal self contradiction Virginia gave to others what she could spare from her bouts with madness and with writing She shared the anti semitism of her age but her marriage to Jewish Leonard gave both much happiness, and almost certainly enabled her to write Her love for her sister Vanessa, fellow novelist Vita Sackville West and composer Ethel Smythe caused much jealousy, anxiety and heartache, but she was never in doubt that her life lay with Leonard.
The command of detail in this biography is astonishing So much was read, considered and synthesized in this 755 page tome The portraits of the Bloomsbury group are lively The prose is lucid and graceful, sympathetic yet exact Lee has a particular feeling for describing Virginia s homes, in the country or in London, a sensitivity that goes well with the writer s life long meditation on and in rooms The description of World War II gives the narrative a natural climax, but the war did not cause Virginia to drown herself, Lee makes clear The cause was the fear of the onset of another season of insanity Having lived through at least two major bouts of madness, Virginia did not want to, could not, do it again.
Just arrived a 700 page biography of someone called Virginia by someone called Hermione.
well, true, but I m balancing it up by rewatching The Sopranos So you re sayin this Mrs Dallow what the fuck shimmies around London and all she s doin is thinkin her thoughts And this is good because This is a biography of great depth and detail, which left me feeling that I understood Virginia Woolf far than I had before I started it However, Lee questions how exactly should she write Virginia Woolf s biography As a victim, through her family history, class, as part of the Bloomsbury group For she can be seen in many ways, through many different aspects of her personality or life Where I think Lee succeeds, is to look at Virginia Woolf objectively, but sympathetically putting her firmly centre stage of her story and examining her literary work alongside her life I must admit that I knew very little about Woolf before reading this Of course, there are things that many people will mention in relation to her from the Hogarth Press, feminism, her relationship with her husband, Leonard, with her sister, Vanessa, and, of course, madness The author does not shy away from any of these difficult subjects She takes us through her childhood, her breakdowns, her depression, her relationships, friendships and marriage Yet, she also brings her alive, with her human frailties her love of gossip, her insecurities and jealousies There is a great deal in this biography about her writing, which, for me, at least, gave me a greater understanding of her novels and essays I feel that I would now like to read by her and that I would have gained from having read this An excellent, well researched and objective look at her life, which is impressive in detail, but wonderfully readable.