A Literary Figure of Continuing Fascination

Next to Shakespeare, who is in a class by himself, the most frequently written about literary figure of recent decades has been Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), the brilliant British author of such classics as To the Lighthouse, Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves.

Barely a publishing season goes by without the appearance in bookstores of some new monograph, critical study, biography, or collection of diaries and letters of the writer widely regarded as one of the most innovative stylists of the 20th century.

Beyond Woolf’s unquestioned artistic contributions is continuing interest in the details of her life, her times, and her contemporaries, fascinating figures known collectively as the Bloomsbury Group, and including such notables as John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, David Garnett, E.M. Forster, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry.

The fact, too, that Woolf passed through a number of benchmark periods—Victorianism, Edwardianism, Modernis and that she achieved prominence at a time when professional women were considered a curiosity by much of the male-dominated cognoscenti, makes her life of enormous interest to social historians and feminist critics.

Add to all that Woolf’s periodic battles with mental illness, her upper-crust bloodlines, her unconventional marriage, her intense relationships with other women, and her suicide by drowning at 59, and you have a compelling figure of unceasing interest and speculation, especially since so much of what she felt and experienced she recorded in her correspondence and private journals.

You can use her for any vantage point that suits your purposes,Hermione Lee, author of Virginia Woolf (Alfred A. Knopf, 891 pages, $39.95), a newly released biography that makes generous use of previously unavailable material, pointed out during a recent interview.

If you want to be critical of her, you have the ammunition. If you want to turn her into a victim, you have the ammunition. If you want to turn her into a saint, you have the ammunition for that as well. She is very exploitable, I think, but in the very best sense, in that she lends herself to an infinite variety of interpretation.

A professor of English literature at the University of York and the author previously of a critical study of Woolf’s novels, Lee took on the writing of a full biography at the suggestion of a British publisher.

She is a daunting figure, and the truth is that I started with great trepidation,” Lee said. “But with the availability now of all her diaries, letters and essays, it seems that perhaps I was the right person to do a new biography. I see it now as something of an arranged marriage where you fall in love after taking your vows. An unusually interesting aspect of Lee’s rendering is a structure that disdains strict chronology in favor of a more thematic approach. Chapters on biography, madness, money and fame, war an reading, for example, are presented as essays detailing specific sides and textures of Woolf’s life.

Part of this approach is due to Woolf’s own skepticism of biography, even though she read it all the time and it was her favorite reading. She was very critical of the way biography reduces or simplifies a subject’s life. So that was why I chose not to write a straightforward chronological life.

Particularly fascinating is Lee’s explication of Woolf’s life as a reader, and how books shaped her life as a thinker and writer. She was educated at home and did not go to school or university, but she did have the run of her father’s considerable library,” Lee said. She started reading compulsively, avidly, widely from the age of 5. When you read her notebooks, it seems that life is always intruding on her reading.

In a 1926 essay called How Should One Read a Book? Woolf observed that books in many ways are like people, and that the best way for anyone to read a book is to try and enter the mind and soul of the writer.

What she was saying is that you must crawl inside the skin of the writer, and when you read her novels, what you see, in a sense, are novels about the difficulties of reading people, Lee said.

Because she had already written about Woolf, Lee said she began the project with certain preconceived notions of her subject. But it’s weird. Very often when you are researching a biography you don’t really know what you are looking for. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to get. What I wanted, I guess, was to make her real, not just an icon, not just someone who had been turned into a figure who represented something.

In the end, what Lee said she wanted most of all was to feel what it would be like to enter the mind and soul of Virginia Woolf when she was writing her books and essays.

If I had a take or a line on her, it was my great regard for her deep commitment to work and her acute sense of self. I also had great admiration for her courage and intelligence, and I think her essays bring that across as much as anything. What is clear now is that even if she had never written any novels at all, her essays would make her a very great figure.