by Hermione Lee
Knopf, 893 pp., $39.95
What would Virginia Woolf have made of the immense biographical fuss that has been made, from the time of Michael Holroyd’s Lytton Strachey onward, over the Bloomsbury group and herself in particular? Of the sexual speculations and revelations, the doctoral dissertations, the pro- and anti-Bloomsbury arguments, the iconization of herself as feminist queen, the tourists at Charleston farmhouse, the T-shirts, the innumerable student bedrooms with that wistful early photograph tacked to the wall? As exponent of the evanescence of personality, the elusiveness of a narrative line in any life, she herself has of course said the best things about biography. “Do you think it is possible to write a life of anyone?” she wrote to her young niece when she was contemplating her life of Roger Fry. “I doubt it; because people are all over the place.” So Roger Fry was not a great success, though in the semi-biography Orlando she did allow herself to go all over the place—mixing up centuries, sexes, and magical transformations. In her fiction, the difficulty of pinning down a life keeps on recurring: the pursuit of a vanishing Jacob in Jacob’s Room, for instance, the splitting of herself into six autobiographical voices in The Waves—a book that mocks the “biographic style” which just “tacks together bits of stuff, stuff with raw edges.”
Woolf summed it all up in a review of a biography:
Here is the past and all its inhabitants miraculously sealed as in a magic tank; all we have to do is to look and to listen and to listen and to look and soon the little figures—for they are rather under life size—will begin to move and to speak, and as they move we shall arrange them in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant, for they thought when they were alive that they could go where they liked; and as they speak we shall read into their sayings all kinds of meanings which never struck them, for they believed when they were alive that they said straight off whatever came into their heads. But once you are in a biography all is different.
How brave then of Professor Lee to have undertaken this outstanding biography, slyly undermined as it was by her subject before she even began. She confesses to fear of Woolf—fear of not being intelligent enough for her—as well as fear for her, as Woolf’s feelings and experiences are tracked. And Lee has had attacks, she says, of “archive-faintness” in face of the mass of correspondence, diaries, articles, and books that could almost make it possible to know what Virginia Woolf did on every day of her life. Fortunately, of course, no amount of data actually could do that, for any life. There remain secrets and surmises, important ones, that actually add depth and vitality to the story. Lee’s book is not at all a tale of little doll-figures pushed into patterns by the biographer, as …