VIRGINIA WOOLF biography by Hermione Lee (Vintage Books, 1996)

leeVirginia Woolf’s life story is one that is continually being re-evaluated. After all, it was fully  two decades after her suicide in 1941 before she began to be more widely acknowledged as a literary great and a feminist icon.

Even so, there are still far too many (mostly male) detractors who will routinely belittle the achievements of Woolf. Hermione Lee recalls that as a student she was taught to regard her as a “minor modernist”, not fit to be ranked alongside Joyce, T.S. Eliot or D.H. Lawrence.

She also recounts a revealing (and humorous) story of a St Ives bookseller who decided to take advantage of Woolf’s association with one of her former homes but only had a vague idea of who she was. He put up a sign which read : ‘Talland House. Home of Virginia Woolf, wife of the famous novelist”.

Lee’s biography is particularly valuable because it vividly places Woolf’s novels and essays into their social and cultural contexts. For example, she notes how the ‘savage’ break in the middle ‘time passes’ section of  To The Lighthouse represents a break with literary tradition and describes A Room Of One’s Own and Orlando as “bids for freedom”.

At the same time, she shows how Woolf’s works reflect her family background, experiences and traumas.  While never shy of exploring the roots of Woolf’s demons, Lee is careful not to simplify or speculate on those aspects of her life story that can never be known: “We cannot, I think, be sure what ’caused’ Virginia Woolf’s mental illness. We can only look at what it did to her, and what she did with it. What is certain is her closeness, all her life, to a terrifying edge, and her creation of a language that faces it and makes something of it. This is a life of heroism, not of oppression, a life of writing wrestled from illness, fear and pain”.

When reflecting on the ‘secret’ life of her subject, Lee is admirably plain spoken when the need arises. So, on the much debated question of whether or not Woolf was abused by her step-brother George, she writes: “There is no way of knowing whether the teenage Virginia Stephens was fucked or forced to have oral sex or buggered”.

Woolf’s fierce determination to speak for herself is what comes through most strongly. In her diary she wrote “I am I and must follow that furrow, not copy another” and, borrowing the notion from Turgenev, she regarded the writer’s role as being to “clear the truth of the inessential”.

Her decision to take her own life is not branded as an act of a mad woman but is seen as an understandable consequence of her failing health and fading abilities.

Although Virginia Woolf always wrote with a deep recognition of her own mortality, her work continues to inspire because it shows how its the transience of life which makes it so precious . At the peak of her powers in 1925, she wrote in her diary : “I meant to write about death only life came breaking in as usual”.