Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hermione Lee's "Virginia Woolf"

Hermione Lee's Woolf is a major Modernist who in conscious reaction against Victorian society and in artistic competition with other modern writers (Katherine Mansfield, Lytton Strachey, among others) set herself formal problems and solved them in her novels. Revealing is her process of writing. The intensity of writing a complete first draft gripped her but the coldness of revision was repugnant. She revised with great reluctance and labor, for re-reading what she wrote often shook her confidence in the writing. She was to the end of her life terrified of being laughed at. Despite her concern with form, when she tried to define to herself the essence of literature, she settled on "emotion."

To argue for Woolf's significance, the biography also attends carefully to the political writing, primarily A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. In doing so, it shows convincingly how Woolf developed her feminism in response to her traditional upbringing, the women's suffrage movement, the male-dominated literary marketplace and the rise of Fascism. She was more than the delicate envelope of human consciousness, she was also an acute analyst of contemporary history. To marginalize her  analysis because it focused on gender relations is itself a political act.

Lee does not attempt to excuse Virginia's personal faults, for instance, her snobbishness and petty cruelty. Instead, she shows from Virginia's diary and letters that the writer was well aware of her shortcomings, and experienced much internal self-contradiction. Virginia gave to others what she could spare from her bouts with madness and with writing. She shared the anti-semitism of her age but her marriage to Jewish Leonard gave both much happiness, and almost certainly enabled her to write. Her love for her sister Vanessa, fellow novelist Vita Sackville-West and composer Ethel Smythe caused much jealousy, anxiety and heartache, but she was never in doubt that her life lay with Leonard.

The command of detail in this biography is astonishing. So much was read, considered and synthesized in this 755-page tome. The portraits of the Bloomsbury group are lively. The writing is lucid and graceful, sympathetic yet exact. Lee has a particular feeling for describing Virginia's homes, in the country or in London, a sensitivity that goes well with the writer's life-long meditation on and in rooms. The description of World War II gives the narrative a natural climax, but the war did not cause Virginia to drown herself, Lee makes clear. The cause was the fear of the onset of another season of insanity. Having lived through at least two major bouts of madness, Virginia did not want to, could not, do it again.

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