Virginia Woolf has long been celebrated by feminists. After all, she is the writer who passionately argues for women’s rights in her essay “A Room of One’s Own” (1929). She has also become one of the prime writers in the literary canon—the works that are studied and discussed at the university level. Such groundbreaking novels as Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) brought fresh, innovative approaches to fictional narratives and earned Woolf a reputation as a modernist. Fortunately, Hermione Lee’s book is a welcome addition to the numerous studies of this well-known but little understood woman.
One of the most interesting aspects of Virginia Woolf is that it is a biography about a writer who had a lifelong obsession with the challenges posed by the very nature of biography. That very keen interest stems, in part, from the fact that her father was the famous Sir Leslie Stephen, a workaholic writer who devoted much of his life to the Dictionary of National Biography. Woolf rejected the traditional notion of biography as a life reduced to just so many words on a page, calling it “poppycock.” However, many of her major works are concerned with this problem, from the straightforward biography Roger Fry (1940), to the autobiographical To the Lighthouse, to the fictional mock-biography Orlando (1928). That Lee devotes her first chapter (“Biography”) to this very issue augurs well for her own essay in the genre and is no mean feat of courage. A lesser writer would probably have ducked the problem and given instead a simple presentation of the known facts, but all to the detriment of the finished product. With admirable candor, Lee sets out the would-be biographer’s dilemma in facing Woolf’s life. The recurring questions include the possibility of sexual abuse in her childhood, the nature of her mental illness, her husband’s character, and her social attitudes. Various critics have already made up their minds regarding these issues, making the biographer’s task as treacherous as threading one’s way though the proverbial minefield. This is not to say that objectivity should be the biographer’s goal, for writers cannot screen out their own prejudices and political leanings. Thus, Lee’s admission of this is as honest as it is brave: “There is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case.”
Another problem that Lee confronts is the fact that this life is one of the mind. Woolf’s many battles were intellectual and emotional, and they unfolded in a life that appeared to be outwardly uneventful. Though the future novelist never traveled beyond the confines of Europe, her family life provides a rich source of material for the biographer. Like many women of the Victorian period, Adeline Virginia Stephen endured the ignominy of watching her brothers attend the best schools while she was forced to stay at home. Lee’s account of Woolf’s childhood is fascinating in its depiction of someone who was always something of an outsider. It is true that the lack of a formal education excluded certain career opportunities from her, but it also allowed her to develop her own independent voice. She was a true autodidact, and what she lacked in formal education she made up for through sheer intellectual voracity. Woolf was one of the great readers of her time, no doubt inspired, in part, by her father’s example. Sir Leslie Stephen was a formidable personality by any standard. Best known for his work as the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, he numbered writer Thomas Hardy among his friends.
One great service rendered by Lee’s book is the effective manner with which she attempts to sort out the complex web of family relationships in Woolf’s life. It was a large clan. When the widowed Sir Leslie married Julia Duckworth (also widowed), he already had a daughter and she had two sons and a daughter. Together, their union produced two boys and two girls. Lee makes it clear that these complicated relationships played a vital role in Woolf’s status as an outsider, particularly in reference to the Duckworth boys. As already stated, Lee eschews any notion of objectivity. This does not mean, though, that her purpose is to bend Woolf’s life to her own set of prejudices. Rather, Lee’s goal is to present the most balanced account possible when dealing with the more contentious issues in the writer’s life. When conflicts arise among various accounts on a given issue, or when there are gaps in her knowledge, she provides what information is known and leaves the rest to the reader. It is a method that is most effective in dealing with Woolf’s relationship with the children from her mother Julia’s first marriage, the Duckworths. The controversy centers on...
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