Leader of the Woolf pack

13th September 1996 at 01:00
Virginia Woolf's latest biographer may have satisfied her desire for 'a fresh form of being', says Frances Spalding. In the second of two suicide notes to her husband, Virginia Woolf wrote: "Will you destroy all my papers." Available to hand were 30 volumes of her diary, further fragments of early diaries and autobiographical essays in notebooks, reading notebooks and a vast mass of correspondence. There was an unpublished novel, Between the Acts, complete except for minor corrections, short stories and essays. None were destroyed, presumably because this final bequest, written by a person in despair, ran contrary to the dedication of a lifetime.

Instead this material was carefully husbanded by Leonard Woolf, who set the terms of his wife's posthumous reputation. He published the novel, selections of her essays and extracts from her diary. These last were severely edited and focused chiefly on her writing, revealing for the first time the fascinating odyssey of her creative life. This book (A Writer's Diary) did much to stir interest in Virginia Woolf as a person and before long Leonard Woolf had three distinguished biographers - the Countess of Huntingdon, Leon Edel and Joanna Richardson - all wanting to write her biography. He chose his nephew, Quentin Bell, and the first authorised biography of Virginia Woolf appeared in 1972.

"How I interest myself!" she wrote, elsewhere worrying about the "damned egotistical self" and insisting that a sense of anonymity was essential to her writing. Aspects of her various selves surfaced in her letters and diaries, the publication of which began in 1975 and ended in 1984. By this time her posthumous reputation had grown and diversified. She was no longer simply the modernist novelist with a fine sensibility. The diaries and letters had revealed, among other things, a brilliant wordsmith with a vigorous, often ribald comic gift and a knack for catching telling details in any social situation.

The revelation concerning her affair with Vita Sackville-West made her in the eyes of some a lesbian heroine, while others, obsessed either with the history of medicine, madness or child abuse, found in her a case study. She was discovered by the Japanese, press-ganged by feminists, became the subject of numerous academic theses and an entire wall of books; her name became enshrined at conferences, in certain periodicals and by societies fanatically devoted to her reputation. In short, Virginia Woolf became an unparalleled literary phenomenon.

Quentin Bell's two-volume biography had mapped out his aunt's life in a lively, intelligent, scholarly manner. In many ways it remains unsurpassed.But, as he admitted in his foreword, his purpose was purely historical: character and personal development were the subject of his book; literary criticism was not and he deliberately made very few remarks about the nature and quality of his aunt's work. Others, attempting to fill this gap,brought out fresh biographies. Among them was Lyndall Gordon's ruminative account, which sought out Woolf's inner life and, in Wordsworth's phrase, "the curious props By which the world of memory and thought Exists and is sustained". Then last summer an American professor, James King, published what he claimed was the first biography to explore fully the relationship between her writings and her life. It was a fat book (700 pages long), serviceable, brisk, accurate but somehow unimpressive, perhaps because every fact and detail he produced was already familiar.

And now we have Hermione Lee's biography. It is some 200 pages longer than King's but the difference between the two books is much greater than this suggests. There is scarcely a page in this new biography where the reader is not surprised by new information, a fresh slant or an unexpected connection.

One major discovery by Lee is the way in which a lecture given by Woolf to a feminist society in 1931 led, by slow degrees, to the writing of Three Guineas and The Years. Furthermore, she argues convincingly that the feminist content in both these books was confirmed and enriched by her friendship with the composer Ethel Smyth, previously treated by Woolf's biographers merely as a figure of fun.

Lee has her fun, too, with Ethel ("Pause. To unstiffen buttocks", began the second page of one of her love letters to Woolf); but mixed in with her hilarious stories is an appreciative grasp of what mattered to Woolf in her friendship with this gallant woman. Lee is excellent on this and others among Woolf's relationships, particularly the ebb and flow of affection between her and Leonard, her sister Vanessa Bell and Vita Sackville-West.

If King's biography of Woolf gave the impression that it was written in libraries, Hermione Lee's is far more outward bound. The reader is shown places that have not been visited before. Lee takes us inside the Woolfs' home, 52 Tavistock Square (destroyed in the war), for example, in a way that makes the flat almost palpable. We then follow her down into the basement where the Woolfs' Hogarth Press was housed. Nor does she ignore the two floors which were let to a firm of solicitors, Dollman amp; Pritchard, whose secretary here provides glimpses of their literary landlords. There are many instances like this, where the texture of Virginia Woolf's life is illuminated by Lee's multiplicity of facts. Her account of the technical details of handprinting leaves us knowing what Virginia Woolf held in her hand and how she set each page.

Lee's method allows the present at any one moment to be cut into by the past or future. For example, the account of Virginia's childhood visits to St Ives is spliced together with quotations from her later memoirs, from Jacob's Room, To the Lighthouse and The Waves. We are shown how actual experience became idealised and translated into images of fullness, rhythm and light. Thus to return to Woolf's fiction after reading this biography is to realise how extensively autobiographical her work is. But it takes a subtle, critical biography to enrich our appreciation as much as Lee does. No one teaching To the Lighthouse should ignore the first four chapters of this book.

It is not only the thick complexity of this biography that makes it so exhilarating but also the buoyancy with which Lee challenges received views. The fragile, other-worldly, apolitical creator encountered in previous biographies is here replaced by a shrewder, more strenuous, eager observer of life, a person to a considerable extent obsessed with injustice and therefore strongly politicised. She took a keen interest, for instance, in the 1926 General Strike and carried to the House of Commons the speech Leonard had written on the workers' behalf for the MP Hugh Dalton.

Nor does Hermione Lee have any truck with labels that fix and narrow our view of Virginia Woolf. The term "frigid", she argues, is ridiculously simplistic both in relation to Woolf's marriage and her sensuousness. "Where people mistake," Woolf herself wrote, "is in perpetually narrowing these immensely composite and wide-flung passions - driving stakes through them, herding them between screens."

Given this warning, it is perhaps right that some confusion remains as to whether more harm was caused to Virginia Woolf's life by her half-brother or her father, Leslie Stephen. George Duckworth's physical fondling of the Stephen sisters was unwanted and Sir Leslie's intemperate rages over minor domestic matters were unjustified. Lee blames Duckworth but mentions a conversation at the end of Woolf's life in which she linked her inability to take pleasure in her own body with the claim that her father's tyrannical behaviour had affected her whole life. But if doubt remains as to who inflicted a lasting wound, the subsequent bruising is clearly brought out.

Still more fascinating is the conflict and struggle that underpinned Woolf's achievement. She had no desire to go on writing the same book, unlike certain popular novelists. And though mindful of critical opinion, she did not want settled fame. "I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped." She strived for the new, for that which seemed beyond reach. When writing The Years, she wanted "a fresh form of being, that is of expression, for everything I think and feel". Earlier, when writing The Waves, she had written of her desire to catch "the feeling of the singing world". Such ambitions required her to fight against time and death; to protest when she "wasted the cream of my brain on the telephone"; and to write to Dora Carrington: "At my age life I may say melts in the hand . . . I sit down, just arrange my thoughts, peep out of the window, turn over a page and it's bedtime."

With this vivid, rigorous and compelling biography to hand we can marvel afresh at the transformation of Virginia Woolf's life into art. "Life stand still here," commanded Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. The same impulse, to find some stay against dispersal and waste, is shared by Woolf and her latest biographer. Lee brings us very close to Woolf's holding vision. She also makes us see that what Woolf wrote of George Eliot is also true of herself: "Everything to such a mind was gain. All experience filtered down through layer after layer of perception and reflection, enriching and nourishing."

Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee is published by Chatto amp; Windus, Pounds 20

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today