Virginia Woolf once observed, 'to have so many selves.' In her novels and essays, not to mention nearly 4,000 letters and a 30-volume diary, Woolf left behind her a voluminous anatomy of self, and in the years since her 1941 suicide, biographers and critics have created a succession of further portraits.
Biographies are fictions we contrive about lives we find meaningful. Facts are interpretable, and become available to the biographer with a certain randomness: the significance of unknown ''facts'' can scarcely be determined.
To literary formalists, she was a groundbreaking stylist, a courageous experimenter who, along with James Joyce, fractured and remade the novel. To feminists, she was an early advocate of women's rights, a writer concerned with both the social and emotional consequences of patriarchal politics. Quentin Bell's 1972 biography of his aunt focused on her life rather than her art, leaving us with a picture of a high-strung, unstable woman, irreparably damaged by her childhood and dependent in later life on the ministrations of her devoted husband, Leonard. Phyllis Rose's 'Woman of Letters' (1978) provided a feminist reading of the transactions between her fiction and her life, while Lyndall Gordon's 'Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life' (1984) attempted to use Woolf's own narrative techniques by focusing on a series of epiphanic moments that supposedly shaped Woolf's sensibility and art. James King's biography, which draws heavily on Woolf's diaries and letters, takes an altogether more comprehensive approach, providing the reader with more than anyone could want to know about the writer's daily ups and downs, travels and flirtations.
Virginia Woolf had very mixed feelings about biography, or ''life-writing,'' as she called it. On the one hand she was an enthusiast: ''As everybody knows,'' she wrote in her essay on Christina Rossetti, ''the fascination of reading biographies is irresistible.'' But, she also declared biography to be ''a bastard, an impure art'' and claimed that the very idea was ''poppycock.''
Mr. King -- a
professor of English at
For that matter, a schematic Freudianism
informs this entire biography. As Mr. King sees it, the young Woolf longed for
more attention from her beloved mother, who died when
On the matter of Woolf's own suicide, which occurred against the threatening backdrop of World War II, Mr. King offers a few theories, some more convincing than others. He suggests that she was depressed by the ascent of Hitler, which meant, in his words, 'that phallic man had triumphed.' He suggests she was convinced that her last book, 'Between the Acts,' was a failure. And he suggests she felt 'deeply alienated' from Leonard, Vanessa and Vita (even though the last decade with Leonard had been happier, on the whole, than ever; even though her relationship with Vanessa routinely fluctuated; even though the affair with Vita had long since wound down).
In Mr. King's view: 'She carefully chose the time and circumstances of her death, very much in the manner of an artist imposing her will upon life. Her decision was deeply courageous: although she would not be able to write about death, she would actually face the experience itself.'
Mr. King's readings of Woolf's novels are colored by his determination to show how her work reflects 'the search for a distinctly feminine esthetic, one in which the intuitive parts of the self are dominant.' It is an approach that not only tends to apply retroactively the dogmatic statements she made about men and women in the latter part of her life to earlier works of art, but that also has the effect of ghettoizing her overall achievement and reducing her stature as a modernist master to that of a women's writer.
A remarcable work is “Virginia Woolf :A writer’s Life”. As Lyndall Gordon well knows, no writer's life has been so fully documented as Virginia Woolf's. Woolf left 4,000 letters and 30 volumes of a diary, ''yet the woman writing remains elusive.'' Between those who have already had too much of Woolf (they rarely complain of having too much of Joyce, Yeats or T. S. Eliot) and those who recognize that she created her own life like a novel and that we shall not soon be done with interpreting it, there yawns an abyss.
South African by birth with a doctorate from
Mrs. Gordon notes that it is not external, recorded events that mark the significant moments in a writer's life, but rather what she calls turning points, internal illuminations. She identifies these turning points in Woolf's life. They were: ''1892 when a ten-year old child spied the monumental characters of her parents; 1897 (two years after their mother's death) when the sisters learnt to walk alone; 1905 when the young woman tramped out the unorthodox form of her novels; 1907-8 when she discovered the uses of memory; 1912-15 when she set up her private life against all marital and mental odds; the fertile spring of 1925 (when she was planning ''To the Lighthouse''); the 'fin' of 1926; and the 'soul's change' of 1932.''
The 'fin' of 1926, what Woolf called ''my vision of a fin rising on a wide blank sea,'' marked her new conception of fiction. As she herself wrote of this vision: ''No biographer could possibly guess this important fact about my life in the late summer of 1926; yet biographers pretend they know people.'' Her ''soul's change of 1932'' was her decision to write with a public rather than a private voice. At the age of 50 she had become a feminist, a reformer and a questioner of the abuses of power. As Mrs. Gordon demonstrates, Woolf ''wished to expose a woman's point of view and called the autumn of 1932 'a great season of liberation.' '' She had ceased to dread male condemnation.
Mrs. Gordon identifies as the three most significant elements in Woolf's life her marriage to Leonard, her devotion to the dead (''ghostly voices . . . more real for her than were the people who lived by her side'') and her ''move away from the self-conscious superiority of modern writers towards the lives of the obscure, particularly the lives of women.'' Mrs. Gordon's thesis that the dead claimed Woolf more than the living, that she may even have died to join them, necessitates her finding all of Woolf's work essentially autobiographical - the recapturing of youthful ghosts.
Mrs. Gordon understands that Woolf was, like all women, trained to silence, that ''the unlovable woman was always the woman who used words to effect. She was caricatured as a tattle, a scold, a shrew, a witch.'' Women felt ''the pressure to relinquish language, and 'nice' women were quiet. Mrs. Ramsay smiles at her husband silently.'' Finally, Mrs. Gordon refuses to use absurd simplifications like ''madness,'' ''sanity,'' and ''frigidity.'' As she wrote in an essay on Woolf and T. S. Eliot, ''the greater the woman, the less possible it is to slot her feelings, thoughts and relationships into fixed categories.''
Probably Mrs. Gordon's comparison between Woolf and Eliot, about whom she has written the brilliant ''Eliot's Early Years,'' has led her into a certain conservatism that renders this book mildly idiosyncratic. She may well be correct in seeing Woolf's marriage as central to her life. There has been a recent tendency in Woolf studies to bury or condemn Leonard rather than to praise him. Yet if the Woolfs' marriage was necessary to her survival, this was not, as Mrs. Gordon would have it, because it was in any sense conventional. It did not begin in romance, was not celebrated by ceremony or reception and would not, in its personal details, have suited the marital ideals of T. S. Eliot or the Archbishop of Canterbury. A rare marriage, it allowed two unusual people to lead, with the fewest impediments and the largest opportunities, their chosen lives. It is a remarkable fact how few women in lasting marriages have recorded anything about them. The role of the nurturing husband has been one of the better-kept secrets. There is surely no female experience of which so little truth has been told as that of a woman in an ''equal'' marriage.
Mrs. Gordon's emphasis on the centrality of Woolf's marriage is important, therefore, but does raise problems. She simultaneously admits that Woolf wrote little about Leonard Woolf (''If I dared I would investigate my own sensations with regard to him, but out of . . . Idon't know what reticence - refrain. I who am not reticent'') and yet, despite her admission that the diary almost never explores Woolf's attitude to her husband, Mrs. Gordon claims to understand the marriage's success. She doubts the view, now generally accepted, that there was no sex in the marriage - this is a daring guess. Mrs. Gordon adds that in the marital exchanges of Leonard and Virginia ''there is not one note of tepid compromise.'' But a marriage without the occasional ''tepid compromise'' would be shattered in a year.
Lyndall Gordon has given us in this work what is essential to the biography of any writer: an analysis of those experiences about which they were silent. We come away with the sense that, muted by centuries of training, women writers especially have found that when they attempted truthfully to record their own lives, language failed.
Hermione Lee, a professor of English literature at Liverpool University and the author of a biography of Willa Cather, notes, Virginia Woolf's ''status has grown beyond anything that even she, with her strong sense of her own achievements, might have imagined.'' The greater a writer's status, the more likely he or she will be appropriated by others: given the sheer volume of material that's been produced about Woolf -- all those books, articles and scholarly papers, not to mention memoirs, letters, diaries and psychoanalytic readings -- is there anything vital left to say? This question is raised by Hermione Lee (''periodic attacks of archive-faintness overcame me'') and must inevitably occur to even the most ardent of Bloomsbury/Woolf fans when faced with this rather hefty volume. One hesitates to commit oneself, wondering whether the time put in will have been worth it at the end, a bit ashamed of this cost-accounting approach but wary nonetheless.
Ms. Lee documents the evolving perception of
her subject from ''the delicate lady authoress of a few experimental novels and
sketches, some essays and a 'writer's' diary, to one of the most professional,
perfectionist, energetic, courageous and committed writers in the language.''
She does this without recourse to the politicized agendas of the academy or
special pleading (all of Woolf's flaws are on display here); this account sets
itself above the fray, the better to home in on the glittery and elusive
creature at its center -- the prize catch in what one critic has described as
From its very first page Ms. Lee's book is
informed by current thinking on how to approach the writing of someone's life:
''There is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this
case. Positions have been taken, myths have been made.'' But it is also infused
with a very personal passion for her subject, which enables the author to cut
crisply through the labyrinth of theories that have sprung up: there is ''no
way of knowing,'' she asserts, whether the teen-age Virginia Stephen was really
violated, ''forced to have oral sex'' -- or, indeed, any kind of sex. What we
get instead of reductionist speculation -- Virginia Woolf as incest survivor or
proto-feminist or trailblazing post-modernist -- is a vivid picture of an age
in flux and the pressures, internal as well as external, that it brought to bear
upon one particularly sensitive female. When she and her half sister, Stella,
took a walk in
This biographer also makes judicious use of psychological conjecture; by keeping a careful distance from jargon-ridden speculations (''But do we need . . . to put Virginia Woolf on the couch and make more sense of her than she can make of herself?'') and by maintaining a certain modesty before the irreducible nature of her subject, Ms. Lee comes across as immensely insightful without appearing to have all the answers at hand. Of Woolf's parents, for instance, she remarks: ''They both died before she had begun to prove herself as a writer, but it is probable that her writer's life was driven by the desire to say 'look at me!' to those two exceptional and critical parents.''
Ms. Lee is good also on the crucial role of
Leonard -- this man who seemed ''so foreign'' to his wife-to-be even as she is
only months away from marrying him and who eventually became her truest
companion. In the legend that has grown up around Virginia Woolf, Leonard
features as a grim head nurse of a husband, ceaselessly gauging his wife's
symptoms and doling out the amount of time she may spend chatting with
visitors. Ms. Lee does not deny this side of him, conceding that Leonard's
vigilant supervision of his wife's social life ''certainly turned him, over the
years, into more of a guardian than a lover,'' but he takes on fuller form here
than he has elsewhere, exhibiting ambitions and judgments of his own -- not
only in the arena of politics, where Virginia favored pacifism in the face of
the mounting threat from Hitler and Leonard favored going to war, but also when
it came to people and literature. (Leonard was bored by much of
Of the many original ideas that Ms. Lee takes
up, the place of reading in Virginia Woolf's life and the meaning of her
madness are especially well developed. Although Woolf's was too mocking a
sensibility to give itself over to the Pateresque view of art as a form of
religion, she clearly found solace -- a way out from her overwhelming sense of
futility, ''the old treadmill feeling of going on and on and on, for no
reason'' -- in the ordering properties of reading and writing.
And perhaps, indeed, it did. As she aged, she
seems never to have succumbed to middle-aged prejudices; she remained porous in
a way creative people are often imagined to be but rarely are. Although it may
seem odd to say of someone who killed herself (she put a stone in a pocket and
walked into the
The danger in
analyzing lives and literature according to selective evidence or a single set
of experiences is that the essential spirit of people and their creative
products can suffer severe misinterpretation if tucked neatly into Procrustean
beds. Such a reductionist reading is at the heart of Louise DeSalvo's thesis in
''Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work.''
She claims that Woolf's recurrent depressions, breakdowns, and eventual suicide
were caused by physical abuses, especially by Woolf's half brothers, and the
probable psychic trauma that was triggered by the dysfunctional behavior of
almost all Woolf's immediate family; these experiences also provided the
central theme for her novels and nonfiction. Although Ms. DeSalvo, who teaches
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