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The Whirr of Wings

Virginia Woolf

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 Woolf describes it in her review; it is an account through which one individual life is re-imagined and honored without bias or condescension. The writings themselves, at every turn, are linked to the life and illuminated by it.

Professor Lee puts paid to a number of derogatory myths about Woolf’s life: that she was snobbish, shrinking, overprivileged, blind to anything outside her own exclusive clique. She shows Woolf’s exhausting commitment to her work, her frugal way of life, her self-doubt, and her attitudes—tentative but honest—toward social and political issues. She shows her not as a delicate lady presiding over teacups but as a leader in a generation precariously inventing ways of living and writing for the twentieth century. She relates everything to the powerful family bonds that formed Woolf, and at the same time disentangles the roles that family members set up for one another from the deeper and more real feelings that underlie them.

The slaughter of lives and hopes that took place in the first twenty-odd years of Virginia Stephen’s life, profoundly determining her preoccupation with transience and mortality, is well known. Both father and mother had been previously widowed, and still, it seemed to outsiders, had an air of grieving; they brought, respectively, one and three orphaned children of their own to the marriage. The daughter from Leslie Stephen’s first marriage was retarded, or autistic, and eventually “put away.” The half-brothers to Virginia and Vanessa sexually abused them in girlhood. When Julia Stephen—the “angel of the house” from whom Virginia inherited her exquisite bone structure—died suddenly in the way that Victorian women did, there were eight children left; Virginia at the time was thirteen. Only two years later, and soon after marrying, her half-sister Stella Duckworth died through some medical mismanagement. In his twenties her brother Thoby Stephen died of typhoid. In the family background were eccentrics and manic-depressives. And Leslie Stephen, father and stepfather to the brood, died lingeringly when Virginia was twenty-two. It was from these beginnings that Woolf as adult writer interpreted life as fragile, immensely precious, and always under threat.

It is all the more important to have it made clear by Lee how relentlessly hard Virginia Woolf worked. Considering the number of times when she was quite disabled by migraine, as well as the several serious breakdowns, the routine Woolf kept and the amount of work she got through is noble. The equally workaholic Leonard (whose standard she was no doubt zealous to match) was recording soon after their marriage that they each wrote 750 words in the morning, dug the garden all afternoon, and wrote another 500 each evening. (And the letters, the diaries, the work, later on, for the Hogarth Press….) Lee reminds us that, besides the novels, for a long period Woolf was writing up to forty articles and reviews a year. The novels themselves were revised, retyped, revised again and then again. At the end of the four-year struggle that produced The Years, Woolf, unusually, paid herself a compliment in the diary: “I hand my compliment to that terribly depressed woman, myself, whose head ached so often: who was so entirely convinced a failure; for in spite of everything I think she brought it off, & is to be congratulated.” She did bring it off. And from all the work there was little real money coming in until she was well into middle age; the great excitement of the installation of a bath with hot water system at Monk’s House came when she was forty-five. Woolf was a privileged woman, certainly, but it was the privilege of background, not of money, education (this was reserved for her brothers), family happiness, or easy success.

Nor did either she or Leonard Woolf have the privilege of an easy marriage. Academic boots have tramped to and fro over this relationship, but Lee treads with the greatest delicacy. The unfortunate Leonard has been praised as saint and reviled as jailer, which would no doubt have pleased his grim sense of humor. Lee does not gloss him over: he was a bleak man and a pessimist, with a poor opinion of the human race. Virginia, no doubt, supplied for him the sense of fun and fantasy that he could not find in himself. For her, the marital bargain awarded her his total honesty and commitment—qualities rare enough in the flibbertigibbet homosexual men of the Bloomsbury group. (Katherine Mansfield, attached to the flimsy Middleton Murry, bitterly envied Virginia her marriage.) Woolf told Ethel Smyth much later that she had married and immediately crashed into breakdown, and the impression has hung around that her marriage and its sexual failure drove her instantly mad. Chronology shows, however, that the breakdown came over a year afterward, and was closely connected with finishing The Voyage Out, her first novel. Lee quotes the touching letter she sent to Leonard before the marriage:

I feel I must give you everything; and that if I can’t, well, marriage would only be second-best for you as well as for me. If you can still go on, as before, letting me find my own way, as that is what would please me best; and then we must both take the risks. But you have made me very happy too. We both of us want a marriage that is a tremendous living thing, always alive, always hot, not dead and easy in parts as most marriages are. We ask a great deal of life, don’t we? Perhaps we shall get it; then, how splendid!

Perhaps, Lee says wisely, they did. If so, it was not without sacrifice on both sides.

Woolf has been accused of being—not merely snobbish—but generally indifferent to social and political questions. Once again, Lee’s scrupulous examination modifies this view substantially. Woolf did in fact have some rather reluctant involvement with causes such as the Women’s Co-operative Guild; but she was, certainly, doubtful about taking on the role of do-gooder. There had been committed do-gooders in the family—her self-effacing mother, her half-sister Stella—but she was ambivalent about charity. Unlike the well-meaning women of her class, she was all too aware of the huge gap between patronized and patronizer. And as her writing career took off, the active, political role was automatically assumed by Leonard; for herself, “Thinking is my fighting.” (He, typically, summed up his lifetime of public work as having been totally futile.) But when women of her status found it easy to deny how poorer women lived (“They don’t really feel it,” I was told as a child), she knew very well, for instance, the conditions of the cottagers in Rodmell village. After a Labour meeting that set her once again pondering “Ought we all to be engaged in altering the structure of society?” she moved on in her diary to note that their servant Louie had said she had enjoyed working for them, was sorry they were going to London—and yes, “That’s a piece of work too in its way.” About her own advantaged position she was perfectly honest: “Presumably the miners will have to give in,” she wrote in the diary when they were striking in 1921, “& I shall get my hot bath, & bake home made bread again; & yet it seems a pity somehow—if they’re to be forced back & the mine owners triumphant. I think this is my genuine feeling, though not very profound.”

And the snobbery? Lee is hard on Woolf for her disdain, in off-the-cuff writings, for the dowdy, the boring, the conventional, the plain, the stupid—for anyone, in fact, who was currently grating on her nerves. But then Lee was not alive to listen to the snobbery of grown-ups during a 1930s English childhood—it was massive, all-encompassing. Bloomsburyite snobbery, in comparison, seems only a minor and relatively honest offshoot of it.1

Far from clinging to isolationist snobbery, from her own perspective Woolf—and some others at least of the group—were struggling to express the immense upheavals of their time. As Lee says, “What she does with her life, how and what she writes, has to be read as a feature of the dramatic shifts in English cultural history between the 1880s and the 1930s.” It had begun already with the choice, in 1905, of the orphaned family to set up house on their own together: the time when “we were full of experiments and reforms. We were going to do without table napkins…to have coffee after dinner instead of tea at nine o’clock”—and other such shocking things. In the first three, more or less traditional, novels, ideas about breaking down old structures are explicit, discussed; by the time Woolf reached To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Waves and had abandoned the conventional novel form, she had evolved her own method of examining the flow of time and the fluctuation of character, which drew on rhythm and pattern rather than on event following event. She was by then modernist rather than modern. (When she did try to go back to solid narrative in The Years, she ran into huge difficulties with it.)

  1. 1

    After the Abdication, Woolf was commissioned to write a piece on royalty. She suggested that, since the royal family had fallen from grace, it might be a good idea if royalty worship were replaced by something more scientific: panda worship, perhaps, or veneration of a new breed of caterpillar.

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