After six volumes of letters and five volumes of diaries we know what Virginia Woolf did and said on almost every day of her life. Penelope Fitzgerald considers why we careby Penelope Fitzgerald / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in October 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
More literary biographies are published than any other kind, presumably because writers like writing about writers. And they find readers who like reading them, although those readers are not seen at their best in the introduction to Hermione Lee’s new biography of Virginia Woolf. “I have noticed,” says Lee, “that in the course of conversation about the book I would, without fail, be asked one or more of the same four questions: Is it true that she was sexually abused as a child? What was her madness and why did she kill herself? Was Leonard a good or a wicked husband? Wasn’t she the most terrible snob?” Lee seems not to have been asked about Virginia Woolf’s parents or her sister Vanessa Bell, and certainly not about her novels. She does not complain about this, noting it down simply as part of the process of myth-making. As a biographer she is calm, patient, strong, deeply interested and interesting. Although she does not believe that complete objectivity is possible, she will answer all the questions in their proper place.
She could not start her book, she says, as Quentin Bell started his 24 years ago: “Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen.” She begins instead with Virginia Woolf’s own obsession with “life writing” and with the relation between the inmost personality-“the wedge-shaped core of darkness”-and the daily hard-working self. The biographer is bound by facts, but must go ahead, like the miner’s canary, to test the air for falseness and out of date conventions. Hermione Lee herself is certainly on the lookout for falsifications, but her real concern is to restore order, dignity and sympathy. Her book, marvellously informative as it is about food, money, houses, clothes, pets, doctors’ prescriptions and the complexities of love and sexual jealousy, is still a heroic life of Virginia Woolf, and perhaps even more so of Leonard.