Virginia Woolf | Hermione Lee

I’m not a great reader of biography, although in reflective middle age I’m starting to find them more interesting. I first read this as a Virginia Woolf fangirl when it came out in 1996, and decided to revisit it after recently thinking a lot about modernism, Woolf, Bloomsbury, and biography (thanks Dickon, and Square Haunting).

Its great strengths are Lee’s insight into Woolf’s work and life, and how these are inseparably combined: how her experiences and issues were written into her work, and how her work shaped her life and experiences. Lee’s literary analysis is adept, and she makes no secret of her view of Woolf as a courageous and exceptional genius. She also doesn’t shy away from showing her as an unlovely mess.

It’s a themed biography rather than chronological and this form works perfectly with such a complex subject. The nature of her ‘madness’ is the focus of one chapter, sexual abuse by her half-brother another, for instance, and these are given full and clinical analysis in the light of what we know now rather than the foregoing Woolfology of mad, frigid, daddy issues etc.

There can’t be many more difficult biographical subjects. She documented her life in detail, and there are mountains of letters and memoirs not to mention academic writings and analysis. The material to sift through is enormous. But Virginia comes though loud and clear, in all her contrary splendour – her introversion and her love of performing, her emotional chaos and her disciplined work ethic, her affection-craving and her coldness. (Anyone who has been in a relationship with an Aquarius may relate.)

This seems to me, without being immersed in the biography canon, everything a literary biography should be – full of contradictions, uncertainty, multiple plausible truths, all covered brilliantly. Immensely thorough, as in referenced to letters, diaries etc rather than authorial speculation, astute literary insight as in how the life shaped the work, and socially astute as in how current events shaped the life. All with a clear starting place of Woolf’s unique genius, as modernist pioneer, feminist, individual genius in a community / family of highly influential people. And all her paradoxes: flawed and vulnerable, egotistical and privileged, liberal yet snobbish, craving adoration but spiteful.

I set myself a project of reading all Woolf’s work in chronological order alongside this biography, to put the writing in its life / real world context. No reviews though, it’s impossible for me to write about her.