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Virginia Woolf: A Biography
Hermione Lee
Alfred A. Knopf, $39.95

Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf
Panthea Reid
Oxford University Press, $35

by Barbara Hardy

Virginia Woolf's life, like her books, was crammed with eccentricities and experiments. Family, childhood, friendships, loves, games, sex, marriage, work, sickness, and death offer a biographer rich pickings. Her father was the great Victorian Leslie Stephen, whose first wife was Thackeray's daughter; his second was Virginia's mother Julia, beautiful widow, compulsive sick-nurse, death-bed watcher, angel in and out of the house. Virginia's half-brother, Gerald Duckworth, both sexually abused her and published her work. Her sister Vanessa exhibited in the second Post-impressionist exhibition of 1912-13, married Clive Bell, took Roger Fry and Duncan Grant as lovers. Woolf created Bloomsbury, self-mythologizing family of clever posh rebels. She dressed and blacked up for the notorious Dreadnought Hoax, an anti-establishment prank in which she and others made fools of the British Navy by pretending to be visiting Abyssinian dignitaries. With her husband Leonard, she founded the Hogarth Press. She became a feminist, a Labour supporter, and a teacher of working women, and always an outrageous snob, in and out of her novels. She participated in the unexamined anti-Semitism of the English middle and upper classes and married a Jew. Her marriage was permanent, loving, tender, creatively companionable, erotic though perhaps sexually inactive, her husband faithful. She had a crippling mental illness, several breakdowns, and drowned herself. She is one of the poets of modernism, and an innovator of prose fiction. She is a feminist heroine. Societies, periodicals, and restaurants are named after her.

While Woolf's life seems a perfect subject for our own fin-de-si╦cle, the dazzling example of her own experiments daunts biographers. Jealously fascinated by the successful iconoclasm of her dear friend Lytton Strachey, she wrote on Elizabeth Barrett Browning by concentrating on her spaniel (Flush), and about her friend Vita Sackville-West--with whom she enjoyed a tender playful friendship, a touch warmer than an amiti amoureuse--by stretching narrative time like elastic and changing genders like clothes (Orlando). A biographer cannot be expected to match Woolf's style nor her technical virtuosity, but a sophisticated narrative is called for.

Hermione Lee provides it: her book is written with intellectual and emotional openness and detachment, in an easy personal style. She speculates as she writes, balancing probabilities and possibilities, recognizing temptation and ignorance. Perhaps learning from Richard Ellmann's James Joyce, she orders her story thematically, avoiding what looks like the logic, but is actually the arbitrariness and confusion, of chronological order. This form allows her to focus properly on characters (Woolf's parents and husband, for instance, whom she treats with admirable fullness) as well as topics (such as Bloomsbury, madness, and the Hogarth Press), while always returning to Woolf at the book's center. She feels strongly for her subject, but in a way appropriate for the famous dead. She applies no stereotypes, psychological, cultural, or artistic. She's detached and moved, cool and concerned, knowing that biography is as much fiction as history, that it changes in history, that there is nothing final or objective in its truth-offering.

Panthea Reid's book is also thoroughly researched, but it's a solemn biography with a thesis, lacking Lee's humor and ingenuity. The book's title, Art and Affection, refers to Woolf's relationship with her sister, and Reid's focus is the beautiful, brilliant, male-dominated Stephen daughters, liberated by their father's--and perhaps their mother's--death, to become Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. One was sexually inhibited, childless, gratefully monogamous, prey to attacks of mental illness, and a great writer, the other was a sexually free spirit, a healthy mother, and a gifted painter. Reid is interested in both the competition of their sister arts (her central image is the paragone, Leonardo da Vinci's word for the rivalry of painting and writing) and their sibling jealousy.

While there's no doubt that their familial and creative relationship was troubled, and very important to both, I think Reid makes the affective and aesthetic quarrel too central, letting it dominate her narrative. Eager to set things right and tell how it really was, she sometimes writes as if Woolf were an injured friend or relative. Registering Vanessa's neglectful and apparently callous attitudes to her sister, she feels the burden of helpless responsibility felt by the healthy for the sick, but always pushes speculation towards disapproval of Vanessa and sympathy for Virginia. Woolf emerges not only as heroine but as much more complex than the others, who are simplified and made ancillary, like characters in a novel. This is obviously a danger in biography, in which there are only temporarily and provisionally major and minor characters, not designed by an author for a morally illustrative scheme. Art and Affection is too much like a novel.

Both biographies approach the dangerous psychological subjects with common sense. They accept Woolf's account of Gerald Duckworth's groping when she was a child (which she read to Bloomsbury's Memoir Club) and resist temptations to propel surmise into invention, or fix on sexual abuse as the explanation of Woolf's illness and sexual problems. They don't dramatize Woolf's flirtations and intimacies with women friends, or her husband's tolerance, or the veiled mysteries of the Woolfs' marriage bed: when Lee offers suggestions about the couple's secret erotic life, they're based on reading, not invention or ideology.

Then there is the subject's writing, the reason for literary biographies. Neither author does much with Woolf's first two novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day, mining them for autobiography but not praising them for what they are: revolutionary in emotion though traditional in form--old bottles bursting with new wine. Lee is good on the later novels' reflection of the familial nature of Bloomsbury and World War I, including The Waves, and even better in her analysis of Woolf's language, not confining herself to the stories and novels. Her discussion of Woolf's illness, understanding but rejecting the term "manic-depressive" (which Reid follows current wisdom in using), defers to the disturbed, weird, undiagnostic, and analytic language Woolf created to recount her own experience, and is sharply sensitive to styles of pain.

Still, critics who are not biographers are hard to please. I'm disappointed by the failure of these books to attend fully to the moment when fiction's nature changed for Woolf, between Night and Day and Jacob's Room. Both biographers are highly selective, privileging the people Woolf knew personally, when the important thing is not whom she met but what she read. Joyce's influence on Woolf is a case in point. Lee says that both Woolf and Katherine Mansfield considered "the problem of how solid narrative form could be broken up without losing deep feeling," but fails to note that Joyce had already solved the problem for himself. Reid's obsession with the paragone makes her attribute Woolf's change to Post-Impressionist painting and Roger Fry's aesthetic theory; she wonders if Joyce read Fry, but not if Joyce influenced Woolf. In fact, Woolf read bits of Ulysses first as prospective publisher then as reader of the serialization in the Egoist. Joyce disgusted her as he disgusted D. H. Lawrence ("First there's a dog that p's--then there's a man that forths. . ."). But if the Dubliner's styles of scrupulous grossness were unpalatable to Woolf, his innovations must have touched the nerve of her ambitions and discontents as a novelist. The flowing mingled voices of her new narrative bear a remarkable likeness to the forms and language of Ulysses, a truth not universally acknowledged. In her diary, Woolf emphasizes instead the miscellaneous galloping narration of Byron's Don Juan as a major literary source. The surprising homage is possibly half-true, but perhaps also a convenient unconscious evasion of Joyce's influence: Byron was too illustrious and remote to cause anxiety, while Joyce might well have caused jealousy in one easily jealous.

This seems to be Lee's only serious omission, in an admirable joining of narrative and analysis. She writes meditatively and tentatively, at a distance from libraries, her references drawn as needed, from assimilated knowledge--as when she observes, in a sympathetic and wise discussion of Woolf's illness, that her comments on medical therapy and power anticipate Foucault. By contrast, Reid's narrative is distractingly jerky, snippeting quotation without syntactically assimilating it. In appendices and notes, unimpeded by a compulsion to quote, her style's smoother. Elsewhere the index cards lie about on the surface, medical, psychological, and literary references cluttering sentence and argument. She blurts out theory with such abrupt allusiveness that she and her authorities seem dogmatic (as when she says that Woolf "sensed what feminist psychotherapists theorize: that the source of creativity lies in the desire to restore oneness with the mother," referring to Segal and Klein; or directs readers, "for a detailed treatment of the ways in which Virginia Woolf's narrative method subverts monologic, patriarchal narration, see Pearce, Politics of Narration"). Such notes seem redundant in a book nourished more by da Vinci than by Bakhtin or Kristeva. Reid's sources are more digested when she deals with Renaissance theory and Post-Impressionism, even when she seems to push her thesis too far. But her ambitious interpretation of Woolf's life and cultural context is in danger of supposing itself definitive.

Lee's questioning story knows biography can't be definitive. She allows herself what her readers won't begrudge her, a touching but unintrusive postscript about her role as biographer. More than an indulgent grace note, it recalls origins, pleasures, problems of research-- describing, for example, the awkwardness of biographical interviews, which loot rich lives just for Woolf treasures. The apologetic note is characteristic of a biographer telling life-mysteries while admitting the cultural constraints of her genre.

Originally published in the October/ November 1997 issue of Boston Review

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