cover image Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Hermione Lee. Alfred A. Knopf, $39.95 (893pp) ISBN 978-0-679-44707-8

Balance and perspective characterize this extensive biography of one of the world's most chronicled writers. Lee (biographer of Willa Cather) is a British academic who, unlike so many writers on Woolf (1882-1941) and friends, wasn't a member of the Bloomsbury circle and, apparently, wasn't involved in any complex psychosexual ballet with the Stephens/Woolf/Bell clan. With quiet attention, she has absorbed and ordered a daunting amount of material from the letters, diaries, essays and fiction of Woolf herself, the detailed records kept by her husband, Leonard, and, not least, the outpouring of words from her family. Then there were her friends and literary contemporaries from Vita Sackville-West and T.S. Eliot to E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, all of whom had recorded their encounters with Woolf, and by so doing, immortalized her idiosyncrasies. Lee refuses to jump on any of the Woolf bandwagons that have sought to explain her writing style, fragile mental profile, subsequent breakdown and suicide. She doesn't discount early sexual abuse by Woolf's half-brother Gerald Duckworth, but she questions the intricate lengths to which chroniclers have extrapolated its effects; she agrees that Woolf's husband, writer and socialist thinker Leonard, was highly controlling of their lives together, yet she creates a touching portrait of a relationship smoothed by years of interdependence, suffering and understanding. Lee takes considerable risk in not following a chronological structure. She ferrets out themes and lines of thought and pursues them through the years, doubling back to fill in the major landmarks. Thus she demands of her readers a certain fluency in Woolf's writings and a grasp of the cast of characters (a complex family tree is included). Lee interweaves the events of her subject's life with her writing, assessing life and work as a seamless whole. Most important, she allows Woolf and her circle to speak for themselves and reveal their own inconsistencies. In so doing, Lee helps vanquish the stereotype of Virginia Woolf as a half-mad bohemian writer who destroyed herself as the bombs of WWII exploded over England. The ultimately vulnerable Woolf has found a thorough and sympathetic biographer who refuses to exploit either her literary talent or her devastating mental illness. Photos not seen by PW. (May)