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A biography of one’s own

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 care

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 The biographer is bound by facts, but must go ahead, like the miner’s canary, to test the air for falseness and out of date conventions.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.

“Virginia Woolf and her contemporaries are poised on the edge of the revolution which has turned biography into the iconoclastic gossipy art form it is now, when the only taboo is censorship,” Lee writes. Failure to make money is of course also a taboo, and literary figures wait like bundles of washing for regular collection (“reassessment”) every ten years or so. Chatto absent-mindedly, or perhaps recklessly, says that this is the first major Life for 20 years, ignoring James King’s (rather dull) Virginia Woolf in 1994, Phyllis Rose’s Woman of Letters (1978), John Mepham’s Virginia Woolf: A Literary Life (1991) and Lyndall Gordon’s in 1984, not to speak of Louise Desalvo’s Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse in Her Life and Work and Jane Dunn’s A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf (1990)-but here we are out with the auxiliaries, with the dizzying circles of intimate and less intimate friends and relations and their emotional baggage trains. Meantime, six volumes of letters and five volumes of diaries have been published and last year Woolf herself emerged from copyright.

Why do people want to read so much about her? Not, it seems, to identify with her, rather to feel how much she was “other.” As a child, a journalist’s daughter, I felt most clearly the distinction between the undemanding Georgian world I lived in and the world of Bloomsbury. My world was Hampstead, muffin-men, autumn leaves, Peter Pan at Christmas, the Poetry Bookshop where Walter de la Mare, WH Davies and Eleanor Farjeon read aloud our favourite verses (for this was the last era when poets and the general public were on easy terms with each other). Bloomsbury was brilliant, poetryless, Cambridge-hardened. In comparison, we knew we were homely.

But Bloomsbury has been the survivor. No?l Annan, asked in 1990 for an assessment, described its position on the stock exchange of culture. “Stracheys reached a high between the two wars, but suffered a catastrophic decline in the 1950s and 1960s and have never totally recovered their one-time value… On the other hand, Forsters have proved to be remarkably firm right up to the 1980s, although they have eased somewhat since then. Woolfs were bought by discerning investors in the 1920s, but it was not until the company diversified with the publication of the [Quentin Bell] biography… that the stock went through the roof.”

He gives Michael Holroyd the credit for introducing these people (in his Lytton Strachey, 1967) as living, disturbing, suffering human beings. The Georgians, however, also suffered-they rotted away in the trenches, loved, hated, and sometimes could not pay the rent-but although Edward Thomases have stayed in favour, Walter de la Mares (in spite of Theresa Whistler’s fine biography) and John Masefields have sunk, it seems, almost too low for recovery.

But Hermione Lee has not written this book because Woolfs have gone through the roof. She mentions an attack of “archive faintness” at the thought of the vast reserves of material which would make it possible to recover what Virginia Woolf said, felt and did pretty well every day of her life. Like some other researchers, she has felt almost ashamed to interview the still living friends and acquaintances who have obliged so often already with their reminiscences of this one famous woman, “as though the rest of their lives counted for nothing.” But Lee’s book is not only very good, but very necessary.

One of her objects, although not at all the only one, is to place the half-Victorian Virginia in her right context of 20th century feminism. Virginia’s own explanation, early arrived at, was that her father-dominated upbringing at 22 Hyde Park Gate was an image for her of the noisiness and infantilism of a male-organised society and the tyranny of the state. She said this charmingly in A Room of One’s Own and more forcefully and raggedly in Three Guineas (which was originally called “On Being Despised”). Leslie Stephen, her father, although he held, or said he held, that women should be as well educated as men, found the money for his sons’ education but not for his daughters’. (Lifelong resentment led Virginia to refuse every academic honour offered to her and even an invitation to deliver the Clark lectures.) After his second wife’s death his demands for sympathy were monstrous, he was insatiable, and she knew and said that if he had lived much longer she would have been obliterated. None of this is in doubt, but Lee describes, better than anyone else has been able to do, what a complex business it truly was. Virginia loved her father, and she had inherited from him a Victorian nonconformist conscience painfully detached from its God. She tried to exorcise him, but he escaped her, just as Mr Ramsay, at the end of To The Lighthouse, steps ashore, ignoring his son and daughter, with his brown paper parcel in his hand. At the age of 50 she still shook with anger at the thought of his emotional blackmail and his obtuseness to music and painting. “Virginia wrote and rewrote her father all her life,” says Lee, but she also read and reread him. She was drawn back, against the grain, to the honesty of his books and their courage.

Lee accepts that Leslie Stephen, first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, “chanting and groaning on his way up to his study,” was at the root of Virginia’s erratic radical politics. But she also makes a convincing connection between her feminism and her concept of biography. Perhaps (as Stephen Spender suggested) because she felt her own experience was too limited, she was unashamedly interested in other people’s lives, women’s in particular, hidden, obscure lives. What was the way into them? Among her correspondence, after Three Guineas came out in June 1938, was a woman called Agnes Smith, a factory worker who lived near Huddersfield. She was out of a job, managing on 15 shilling a week. She asked what was the use of telling women to become “outsiders” and refuse to manufacture arms, when so many of them would be glad to be paid to manufacture anything? Virginia answered this and Agnes Smith’s subsequent letters, always admitting that she belonged to a privileged social class and wrote from among them and addressing herself to them. But the “unnarrated lives” which she wanted to bring into brilliant clarity were not documentary, they were imaginary. She envisaged a point where fiction and history met, or could be believed to meet. One of the best loved passages she ever wrote is the story, in A Room of One’s Own, of Shakespeare’s young sister-who never existed-and her pitiable expedition to London-which never took place.

What we cannot tell is how this idea might have worked out in the autobiography which, in one way or another, she had been writing ever since she left the nursery. She did not feel able to live long enough to finish it. We cannot tell either what she would have said about this wonderfully fluid, imaginative, but strictly researched book, where every chapter has its own pattern, as though the biographer was following Virginia Woolf’s own advice to herself “to get down into the depths, and make the shapes square up.”

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