Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Orlando’s history plays with the notion that genetic inheritance can be pooled (just as sexual orientations can be crossed) in the identity of one person. So, after living for generations, Orlando is both an exceptional individual, and the summation of her whole family’s history. But the inheritance is not usually as joyously resolved. In the novel of her family, To The Lighthouse – a novel split down the middle – the splits between husband and wife, parents and children, past and presaent, generate a violent sense of conflict and a painful desire for resolution: ‘For what happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel was the other; and then they fought together in her mind, as now.’ This ‘violent’ conflict of feelings is given to the modern, post-war artist, trying to make her peace with her Victorian inheritance by turning it into her material. It is also the conflict of the twentieth-century daughter, torn between the sympathies she feels arising from ‘the mysterious kinship of blood’, and the quarrel of the generations: ‘that’s what you feel … that’s what I feel.’

I’m a late convert to Virginia Woolf. Since I started bookblogging I have read Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, The Waves, Selected Essays and Between the Acts, and I have enjoyed them all. There is something about the Modernists that really ticks my boxes (as opposed to the nineteenth-century Romantics who I often find impenetrable). I guess I should look out for Orlando next.

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.

This was the top unread book by a woman on my shelves. Next on that list is Looking For JJ, by Anne Cassidy.