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Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee

Virginia Woolf (1997)

by Hermione Lee

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785718,059 (4.24)62
"A biography wholly worthy of the brilliant woman it chronicles. . . . It rediscovers Virginia Woolf afresh."  --The Philadelphia Inquirer              While Virginia Woolf--one of our century's most brilliant and mercurial writers--has had no shortage of biographers, none has seemed as naturally suited to the task as Hermione Lee. Subscribing to Virginia Woolf's own belief in the fluidity and elusiveness of identity, Lee comes at her subject from a multitude of perspectives, producing a richly layered portrait of the writer and the woman that leaves all of her complexities and contradictions intact.  Such issues as sexual abuse, mental illness, and suicide are brought into balance with the immensity of her literary achievement, her heroic commitment to her work, her generosity and wit,  and her sanity and strength. It is not often that biography offers the satisfactions of great fiction--but this is clearly what Hermione Lee has achieved. Accessible, intelligent, and deeply pleasurable to read, her Virginia Woolf will undoubtedly take its place as the standard biography for years to come. "One of the most impressive biographies of the decade: moving, eloquent, powerful as both literary and social history."   --Financial Times "The most distinguished study of Woolf yet."  --The New Republic  … (more)



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Lee's biography of Woolf was published in 1996, and I see there have been a couple more since; but this is pretty comprehensive, covering 59 years in 770 pages. Woolf bitterly regretted not having had a formal education, but maybe her more chaotic intellectual upbringing was a necessary precursor for her genius to take the shape that it did. Certainly being brought up with and mixing with writers gave her a keen understanding for the writer's life. Lee does a really good job of mapping the literary interactions between Woolf and her family, friends and lovers, from the day she was born to the day she died. I learned a lot about the micro-geography of Bloomsbury and its satellite territories, and it was all very interesting.

Lee devotes appropriate but not obsessional attention to Virginia's half-brother's sexual abuse of her and her sister; she rightly puts more time into elucidating Woolf's experience of mental illness, which hit her repeatedly as an adult and prompted her suicide at the fear of yet another debilitating breakdown. I feel a lot of Woolf's work is translucently teetering on the edge of experience, and this was a good explanation of how that came to be. Though of course, a lot of other people have similar experiences and do not achieve the same fame; it doesn't explain how she became a great writer, but it does I think help explain why she became the great writer that she did.

My one minor disappointment with Lee's book is that I didn't feel Woolf's feminism was really put into context, apart from her fleeting engagement with the suffragettes and her later entanglement with Dame Ethel Smyth. Did she interact with or influence other feminist writings of the day? Were her friends and lovers (other than Ethel Smyth) also feminists? She is portrayed here as rather a lone voice in the wilderness.

However, otherwise this was a very satisfying read about someone I had wished I knew more about, and whose books I will now read with greater understanding and even more enthusiasm. ( )
  nwhyte | Dec 14, 2017 |
I gave up on this book about 300 pages in... This is well-written and full of information -- maybe too much information! It is more of an analysis of how Woolf's life affected her writing than a biography. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it felt like reading an academic treatise on Woolf's life, full of references to her novels and letters (both hers and those of friends and family). Although I found it mildly interesting, it was very slow reading and never absorbed me, so when it was due back to the library I returned it even though not finished. ( )
  leslie.98 | Jun 26, 2013 |
This was an interesting and fascinating read and one that that attempts to rescue Woolf from the literary mythology that has grown around her. I really felt that I understood more about Woolf the woman and the writer and the demons that chased her. ( )
1 vote riverwillow | Jun 9, 2009 |
This weighty tome is often cited as the definitive Woolf biography, and with good reason. Lee's densely detailed portrait is rigorously sourced and referenced - she does not indulge in baseless speculation, yet still unearths many intriguing nuggets concerning her subject. Woolf's achievements seem all the more astonishing in light of these reflections on her often tragic and turbulent life. A must-read for her fans, and for lovers of top-shelf biographies. ( )
1 vote whirled | Mar 12, 2008 |
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'I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual'.
Diary, 17 February 1922
For John Barnard
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'My God, how does one write a Biography?' Virginia Woolf's question haunts her own biographers. How do they begin?
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