VIRGINIA WOOLF by Hermione Lee


A Biography
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 Following Woolf's own experience of her life rather than later interpretations of it, Lee (English/Univ. of York, England; Willa Cather: Double Lives, not reviewed) delivers a comprehensive, elegantly structured work on the High Victorian modernist. At almost 900 pages, Lee's life seems to be in competition not with the many previous Bloomsbury books, but with Woolf's multivolume diaries, the ``great mass for my memoirs,'' as she called them. Woolf never actually got around to producing a finished autobiography. Yet she once wrote that ``only autobiography is literature,'' and Lee takes this as her cue for Woolf's life story and creative development, from her first anonymous review in 1904 to the militantly feminist essay Three Guineas in 1938. Lee goes back to primary sources (e.g., Woolf's diaries, her incomplete Moments of Being, and her sketches for Bloomsbury's ``Memoir Club'') to resurrect a fully human personality. Intelligently incorporating into every page letters, diary entries, and other writings, she smartly bypasses previous reductionist versions of Virginia the victim, the snob, the suicide, or the madwoman. Maintaining a degree of objective skepticism, Lee views Woolf foremost as a creative force and a fascinating personality, ``a sane woman who had an illness'' (although manic-depression, often identified as her malady, is still difficult to diagnose posthumously). Lee also gives balanced due to those in Woolf's life who have been neglected in previous biographies, such as her eminent father, Leslie Stephen, her sister, Vanessa, and the septuagenarian suffragette Ethel Smyth. Leonard Woolf, in Lee's view, was more of a guardian than a husband and helpmeet. Out of the Bloomsbury biography glut, Lee's admirably sympathetic portrait is as close to the Boswellian ideal as one could hope for. (24 pages photos, not seen)

Pub Date: May 11th, 1997
ISBN: 0-679-44707-5
Page count: 912pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1997


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