You are on page 1of 5



VIRGINIA WOOLF AND BIOGRAPHY: PRACTICE VS. THEORY INTRODUCTION In her seminal 1996 biography of Virginia Woolf, Hermione Lee posits thatIin her essays and diaries and fiction, in her reading of history, in her feminism, in her politics, life-writing as she herself called it, was a perpetual preoccupation.1 She Woolf tried again and again, in different ways in her work, to address the question of the relationship between the biographer and the subject.: She was interested in whether the successful biographer was hampered or helped by the existence of a personal relationship with the subject, as well asand by extension, in the

necessarydiffering limitations of view that in different ways the lack as well as the presence of personal knowledge would bring. She was also interested inAnother repeated concern was the biographers autobiographical or personal presence in the book;, she sometimes laudeding a the mixture mingling of biography and autobiography, and at others moments wisheding for the biographer to be invisible. She also grappled with; as well as in the possibility of actually capturing the essence of the person in language, from under the facts,: wondering in her letters how anyone writers a real life. An imaginary one wouldnt so much bother me. But oh, the dates, the quotations!2 But what was this notion of biography that concerned her so? Her notion of biographyIt was created by her own peculiar position in private and public spheres. On the one hand, she was part of an illustrious socio-literary tradition;, on the other hand, by laying claim to that tradition, she was a woman aspiring to what had, until then, been a male bastion. She inherited her notions of ideas about the interrelations of
1 2

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf, Chatto and Windus, London, 1996, pg 4 Letter 3257, Virginia Woolf to Janet Case, June 12, 1937,Leave the letters till were dead: The letters of Virginia Woolf: Vol. VI, 1936- 1941, Ed. Nigel Nicolson, The Hogarth Press, London, 1980, pg 134 (henceforth referred to as Collected Letters)

biography, history, and literature in large measure from those of her influential father Sir Leslie Stephen, the editor of the first Dictionary of National Biography. But he believed in biography as a form, which she described in these words: the majority of Victorian biographies are like the wax figures now preserved in Westminster Abbey [] effigies that have only a smooth superficial likeness to the body in the coffin.3 She dismissed this notion of describing, and summing up of a life into a neat package of facts as poppycock. To her, biography was about capturing the subject at defining moments of being where A biographer, if he respects facts [] can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact. [] For how often when a biography is read and tossed aside, some scene remains bright, some figure lives on [] and causes us, when we read a poem or a novel, to feel a start of recognition.4 The character of Ralph Denham in her 1920 novel Night and Day could almost be speaking with his authors voice when he bursts out: The worship of greatness in the nineteenth century seems to me to explain the worthlessness of that generation."5 This inherent contradiction meant that on the one hand, she saw herself temperamentally and politically opposed to the conventional male voice - , hence the worthlessness of conventional greatness., but Oon the other hand however, she had a horror of perpetuating in opposition to that voice the clich of the unserious woman writer whose voice rang loud and strident through her work6. It is thus perhaps not very surprising that she came to the conclusion that biography never returns a single and simple answer to any question that is asked of it. 7

Virginia Woolf, The Art of Biography, Collected Essays, Vol. IV, The Hogarth Press, London, 1967, pg 222 (henceforth referred to as AB) 4 AB, pg 228 5 Virginia Woolf, Night and Day (1920), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992, pg 17 6 Citation needed here. 7 Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (1938), Selected Works, Wordsworth Editions Limited, Ware, 2005, pg 143-144

Given the wide scope of her preoccupation with biography, it is impossible for reasons of space to encompass an exhaustive discussion of Virginia Woolf and Biography in my essay. Orlando has had to be omitted, in the light of the ambiguity of its genre. The simultaneous combination of the: the witty subversion of biographical techniques even whilst carrying onand a serious attempt to capture the personality of Vita Sackville-West has the possibilities of a full-fledged discussion, which whilst overlapping in some ways, falls outside the scope of my essay. The New Biography and The Art of Biography are the two essays in which she posited her changing theories about biography. In the earlier essay8, we may sit, even with the great and good, over the table and talk9, since the biographer has ceased to be the chronicler; he has become an artist10, claiming independence in the lack of pose, humbug, solemnity, but even as he (sic) playsing with fire in mixing the incompatible truth of fact and truth of fiction.11 In the later essay though, no one [] can make the best of both worlds; you must choose, and abide by your choice,12: the slipping between pronouns betraying her own difficulties. Biography, if not yet merely a craft , is no longer an art: it is something betwixt and between..13 It was after the publication of the first, The New Biography in 1927 that the painter and art critic Roger Fry himself had suggested she try out her theories in practice in a portrait of him. That resulted in Roger Fry: A Biography, which isa work central to my discussion not just because it is her only full-length biography, but: and one that has quite often been labelled laboured, dull and most devastatingly to her experimental writers persona, conventional., There appears to be the interesting

Dates and publication details needed here, in the body of the essay to help the reader identify the essays chronological ordering easily. 9 Virginia Woolf, The New Biography, Collected Essays: Vol. IV, The Hogarth Press, 1967, pg 230 (henceforth referred to as TNB) 10 ibid, pg 231 11 ibid, pg 234 12 AB, pg 226 13 ibid, pg 227

paradox here that suggesting that in the general critical consensus it failed to live up to the expectations engendered by the theories she herself posited. To answer that accusationIn order to take a closer look at that apparent contradiction, it is necessary to first to establish what she Woolf set out to do., and to do that,In my attempts to understand, I have turned to Night and Day, excluding due to constraints of space the discussion of the nature of personality and its transmission in the form of an ordered life or biography in all her other novels. Although this novel chronologically precedes even the first of the theoretical essays, the figure of Mrs. Hilbery at her biographical toils in many ways presages that of Woolf at hers. And though the bulk of the essays are biographical in one way or another, and fascinating to discuss especially in terms of the intersection of her feminist and biographer selves I have limited myself to Sara Coleridge as an example of her musings on the impossibility of actually achieving a comprehensive life. Woolfs concern with these issues carried on past the completion of Roger Fry, in Sara Coleridge creating once again a strikingly similar figure to that of her own: as woman biographer writing the life of an older man. Yet there are equally striking differences: and many clues as to her actual intention lie in this apparent contradiction.