A Modern Woman

Hermione Lee discovers Virginia Woolf’s radicalism.

Virginia Woolf
By Hermione Lee
Knopf; 893 pages; $39.95

Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf is a revelation. Not that Lee offers any startling new gossip. On the contrary: The facts that she juggles have sat in the public domain for years, and the story has been worn to threads by frequent telling. Woolf was born Virginia Stephen in 1882, the freakishly talented, spectacularly cheekboned youngest daughter of Leslie Stephen, a successful but depressive London intellectual, and Julia Duckworth, a stoic beauty who brought to the marriage children of her own. Virginia’s early years were drenched in book chat, but otherwise not so different from other crowded, stifling Victorian youths: The children had a swarm of spinster aunts, curious animal-inspired nicknames like “Ape” and “Marmot,” and not a moment of privacy.

Then disaster struck, struck, and struck again. First, Virginia’s mysterious and saintly mother broke under the strain of Victorian women’s work–nursing invalids, running a staff of servants–though the immediate cause of death was rheumatic fever. Then, her father in his grief selfishly leaned on Virginia’s half-sister, Stella, for support and, after a period of exhausted servitude, she died too. Virginia spent her teens getting over a nervous breakdown (the recovery was delayed by her half-brother, George, who chased her around the house and fondled her). When her father followed Julia and Stella to the grave, Virginia and her sister, Vanessa, and their brothers, Thoby and Adrian, left their posh family home for the decrepit neighborhood of Bloomsbury. They invited Thoby’s smart, ambitious Cambridge cronies Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, and John Maynard Keynes over for unchaperoned partying. Soon they began to talk about and experiment with sex, straight and otherwise (except, perhaps, Virginia, whose libido at this stage was, according to Lee, dribbled away on childish crushes on maternal women). Most of all, Virginia wrote, supporting herself with a brutal workload of reviews, dreaming of delicate but radical new ways to tell a story.

This is Woolf’s back story, as it were, the preface to her bohemian celebrity during the 1920s. Even in the bare-bones narration, it’s fertile. Almost too fertile, in fact–as open to selective interpretation as a Rorschach test. Depending on whom you consult, following her apprenticeship in suffering Woolf became the woman who wrote To The Lighthouse and The Waves, a stream-of-consciousness pioneer and a cool, ethereal priestess of high modernism. Or the rage-filled victim of abuse and feminist crusader of A Room of One’s Own. Or, to her detractors, a frivolous gossip. Luckily for us, Lee isn’t especially invested in any of these eye-catching slants. She accepts that all these versions of Woolf are more or less fair. And she believes that Woolf’s writing reflects a lifetime spent contemplating her strange tangle of traits.

For lack of a better word, this is the most lifelike biography I’ve ever read. Lee counts on our basic familiarity with Woolf’s story, and this frees her up to tease it into all kinds of subtle themes in much the same way you or I might retrospectively organize our lives under such motley headings as “Life Under Reagan” or “The Period When I Was Especially Close to Jim.” A visceral early chapter on the houses of Woolf’s childhood tells us what sensory data the little girl would have absorbed: the constant smell of cigars, the pale yellow shade covering the window that overlooked the sea. Later chapters calmly walk us through some of the more hotly debated Woolfian themes, matching each exactly to its place in Woolf’s life. Female friendships supplied critical nurturing, Lee says, and the famous affair with Vita Sackville-West was a thrill, but Woolf never saw herself as a strict “Sapphist.” As for her husband, Leonard, he earned Virginia’s complete loyalty by stoically caring for her during her breakdowns, but he comes across as stiff, humorless, and inclined to unconsciously pull male rank.

Maybe it’s the unusual non-mustiness of Lee’s approach, but I was struck by the number of current concerns that Woolf’s life anticipates. Living at the mercy of her quixotic brain chemistry, she took notes on her moods, observing when her head felt “cool and quiet” or “sizzling.” She was precociously attuned to the interplay of mind and body, far more so than her peers. One also wonders whether, if Woolf were alive today, she would join the hordes of writers abandoning fiction for the memoir. Probably not: Her ambition, love of make-believe, and need to experiment would have driven her back to the novel. Yet she felt the impulse to tell her story directly. Lee guesses that it was because Woolf predicted in advance the ridicule of her male friends (and literary competitors) that she kept herself from doing so. Here is her despairing diary entry after she visited a memoir club and read a chapter aloud: “I couldn’t help figuring a kind of uncomfortable boredom on the part of the males; to whose genial cheerful sense my revelations were at once mawkish and distasteful. What ever possessed me to lay bare my soul!”

L ee demonstrates brilliantly the centrality of this issue of male censorship, real and perceived, to Woolf’s writing. Growing up in her father’s shadow, Woolf felt perfectly comfortable writing like a smug Victorian patriarch. But she understood that a tone of cool authoritativeness left no room for her childhood catastrophes, her anger at getting a girl’s paltry education, her palpable delight in reading. To discuss such experiences she needed a less omniscient voice, a new style–one that in its fragmentation would become a hallmark of modernism. But she was afraid to go too far, to alienate all the “genial cheerful” men whose standards she continued to internalize. As a result, Woolf constantly seesaws in her writing between revealing and concealing. To be perfectly honest, I think the tension hurt her fiction. I’ve always admired her novels, but found the experience of reading them frustratingly indirect, circular, dissociative. Now I begin to understand why.

On the other hand, Woolf’s back-and-forth led to insights that escaped the male modernists. Lee argues that Woolf’s essays are badly undervalued today, and she’s right. “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” the defense of modernism she delivered before a puzzled Cambridge audience in 1924, seems, in retrospect, wiser and more realistic than just about everything else on the subject. In that essay Woolf explained that she and Joyce and Eliot and the rest had no choice but to abandon baggy old Victorianism. Why? Because, as she famously proposed, “on or about December, 1910, human character changed,” and it was the writer’s duty to explain this change to readers. Note the humble attention to human character and readers, not just to high art and artists. Woolf stood up for her peers, but she also understood if people found her overweeningly concerned with style, or found Eliot obscure, or Joyce obscene, “a pimply undergraduate.” She knew that modernism was a work in progress, not a new system to be defended to the death.

In Lee’s hands, Woolf’s feminism becomes more radical and more flexible than one might think. She was no dogmatist. She even thought “feminist” was a “dead and corrupt word” now that women had the right to earn a living. But later in life she argued that it was not enough for women to get rooms of their own in which to become towering, dominant writers like men. She challenged the ugly human desire to be towering and dominant. She went, as always, to the question of human character, wondering if there might be a moral advantage in the centuries women had spent as anonymous people of no status. She played with the notion of a Society of Outsiders “without office, meetings, leaders, or any hierarchy, without so much as a form to be filled up, or a secretary to be paid.”

Woolf’s supple “outsiderism” might seem to have worn pretty well. But in the partisan 1930s, it was dismissed as dotty and vague. She sank into depression. It didn’t help that fiction writing was becoming harder, and that war was approaching. Given that Woolf’s mind was beginning to cloud over again, Lee thinks that her decision to kill herself by walking into the Ouse, one day in the 1940s, was, in its way, a brave one. But it cast a shadow over her life. It made her story too readily available to people who wanted to see her as a victim, or a crusader, or a martyr to art. What Lee’s biography reveals is much more interesting. Woolf devoted herself to literature and believed in the rights of women, but both these passions were part of a humbler–and therefore grander–pursuit. Getting down to “the essential thing” is how she put it when talking about literature. “Freedom from unreal loyalties” is the striking phrase in her late feminist essay Three Guineas. In either case, the goal was to see life a little more clearly.