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Virginia Woolf

4.24 of 5 stars 4.24  ·  rating details  ·  2,035 ratings  ·  85 reviews
Hermione Lee sees Virginia Woolf afresh, in her historical setting and as a vital figure for our times. Her book moves freely between a richly detailed life-story and new attempts to understand crucial questions - the impact of her childhood, the cause and nature of her madness and suicide, the truth about her marriage, her feelings for women, her prejudies and obsessions. ...more
Paperback, 912 pages
Published 2008 by Vintage Books (first published December 1st 1982)
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This is an excellent, erudite and extremely detailed biography weighing in at well over 700 pages (without footnotes). It is a literary biography and so there is much emphasis on Woolf’s writing. Lee knows her subject and her subject’s works and is able to separate the myth from the reality. This is very much not a casual read easy biography as it is so steeped in Woolf’s work, her life, Bloomsbury and her ideas about writing and women. It is one of the best biographies I’ve read and is a must f ...more
Amazing, stellar, incredible, etc. etc. Has been the centre of my attention since I started reading it, to the chagrin of everyone who's had to hear me talk about the combined awesomeness of both Woolf and Lee non-stop for weeks.

Hermione Lee wrote a meticulously researched, ruthlessly balanced, clear-eyed, compassionate, respectful biography. I got the sense that she seemed to be actively wrestling with the material in order to present VW in the most complete way possible instead of choosing to
Jee Koh
Hermione Lee's Woolf is a major Modernist who in conscious reaction against Victorian society and in artistic competition with other modern writers (Katherine Mansfield, Lytton Strachey, among others) set herself formal problems and solved them in her novels. Revealing is her process of writing. The intensity of writing a complete first draft gripped her but the coldness of revision was repugnant. She revised with great reluctance and labor, for re-reading what she wrote often shook her confiden ...more
While I haven't read other biographies of Virginia Woolf, it's easy to believe the many who assert this volume stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. Hermione Lee's lengthy work is clearly a labor of dedication. Her intellectual investment is indisputable; her rigorous research and deep rumination manifest on every page. In addition, and rare to the craft of biography, is the artistry with which Ms. Lee conveys this material. Similar in design to jazz music, the base line of chronology is con ...more
"Virginia Woolf's story is reformulated by each generation. She takes on the shape of difficult modernist preoccupied with questions of form, or comedian of manners, or neurotic highbrow aesthete, or inventive fantasist, or pernicious snob, or Marxist feminist, or historian of women's lives, or victim of abuse, or lesbian heroine, or cultural analyst, depending on who's reading her, and when, and in what context." (p. 769)

This was easily the best biography I read all year, and possibly the best I've ever read: certainly in the top ten. Lee shows Woolf from many angles and with many layers, allowing her full complexity to shine through, never reducing her to just one self.
Hermione Lee has written an excellent book about an excellent writer. Her topical chapters help to unfold Woolf's life in an engaging and enlightening way.

One caveat I would offer to the reader is to be familiar with Woolf's more well-known novels and books. Lee makes many connections between the author's work and her personal life, which given the nature of Woolf's fiction, makes perfect sense. At a bare minimum, I suggest that the reader should have read To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and A
I gave up on this book about 300 pages in... This is well-written and full of information -- maybe too much information! It is more of an analysis of how Woolf's life affected her writing than a biography. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it felt like reading an academic treatise on Woolf's life, full of references to her novels and letters (both hers and those of friends and family). Although I found it mildly interesting, it was very slow reading and never absorbed me, so when it wa ...more
This massive tome reinforces why I'm generally not too enthused about reading lengthy biographies. Lee has written nearly 800 pages about the life of Woolf, one that ended in suicide at the age of 59. How much detail does a reader need to know about her life? I recently reread her TO THE LIGHTHOUSE which I think is a great novel, and as I happened to have a copy of this biography, I thought I'd read it, hoping it might fill in some obscurities of the novel. It didn't help particularly as the nov ...more
Peter Mcloughlin
Very enjoyable book about a very complex person. Virginia Woolf was involved with Bloomsbury and wrote in a very sensual style creating characters with rich inner worlds separated at times from quotidian surroundings. Mrs. Dalloway and to the Lighthouse being good examples. Hermione Lee brings Woolf and her her world in this beautiful biography. Her depiction of the complex and contradictory nature of Woolf out in this book. She takes you into the mind of her subject much in the same way Woolf d ...more
Joe Moody
Hermione Lee portrays Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) as a difficult person to categorize whose life appears a struggle from start to end. Even though criticizing the narrow confines of Victorian mentality, she tended to actively play a role within that mentality. Her life appears a sort of testament to the inability to be confined to expectation.

From the outside, it may have seemed that Virginia’s family had it all. Her father, Leslie Stephen, gained fame as an historian and biographer leading to
Mardin Aminpour
Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf offers a discerning account of the life of an author whose unconventional lifestyle and writings evade simplistic categorizations. Lee’s book, as if apprehensive to attract her subject’s criticism, follows a thematic order that predicates on scenes and episodes from Woolf’s evolving selves. A prolific author, Woolf herself wrote on the nature of biography-writing, identifying it as “a bastard, an impure form of art.” Lee demonstrates her knowledge of Wo ...more
Dense but not tedious examination of Woolf's contentious, wrought and often contradictory journey. The book is organized chronologically and relies largely on available materials. Clearly, Lee is attempting to portray Woolf with honest and compassion and seems largely successful. She challenges some of the taken for granted views of Woolf but only when evidence suggests these views are limited or wrong.

All of Woolf's work is interwoven in the chronology so that each novel, essay, biography is pl
Anne Fitzpatrick
This is almost certainly a great biography for Woolf scholars, but anyone else should keep looking. It assumes you have an encyclopedic knowledge of Woolf's life, writings, and historical context. I respect Lee's achievement, but it's actually kind of unbelievable how completely she disregards the need for any sort of explanation of anything. Why not take the time to make all this work more accessible? Where were her editors?
Ravishing literary biography which I read ravenously. Definitely in the top 3 of lit bios that I've read anyhow, with nothing dull or monotonous, and reflecting a keen, admiring but nuanced viewpoint on the subject. Organized chronologically but taking on in each chapter a particular theme, so that the emphasis is always on the work, the inner life, the friendships, the and how she evolved in her writing and her life.
This one leaves me just speechless; in all likelihood, the most astonishing biography I've read. Positively *required* for Woolf lovers & those interested in the problems & possibilities of biography as a literary form.
Finally done! At last completed. Exhaustive biography. Learned: the river Ouse is pronounced "Ooze" not "Wheeze" (thanks, wikipedia).
Rebecca H.
I have spent so much time with this book and am sad it's finished. Amazing.
Ah man, I REALLY wanted to like this book. Hermione Lee is a stellar biographer. Lyrical, interesting, thorough, accurate, and actually FUN to read. Find THAT in another biographer out there (David McCullough, you WISH you were these things).

And her biography of Wharton was fucking riveting. Like at the end of 800 pages I was like "nooo! please give me more!".

The Woolf biography, on the other hand, was a slog. I'm a big Woolf fan: and a number of her novels had a profound effect on me. And I'm
I can without a moment of doubt say that this is the best biography I have ever read. I was curious to know how such a biography would be handled, given Woolf's own thoughts on the problems of describing other people's lives. Hermione Lee devotes her first chapter to this, and seems to keep this in mind all through the text. She has built a text that is both thematically and chronologically organized, so that one's understanding of Virginia Woolf developes in an organic way. The constant referen ...more
As with many wonderful things having to do with words and stories and books, I first discovered Virginia Woolf through Ursula K. Le Guin. I'm guessing it was in Le Guin's essay "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown" from The Language of the Night, which I read at some point in middle school or early high school (books usually stand out much more clearly in my memory than the surrounding context). And then, of course, Le Guin's later collection of essays, The Wave in the Mind, is titled after a quote f ...more
When I began the book, I felt that the narrative was heavy with the minutia of the subject's life. Only as I arrived at the 4th chapter did I realize I had grown closer to Virginia in a way that happened gradually but emerged suddenly. In a way, Lee begins the book by explaining that biography is about what Geertz would call "thick description," the seemingly trivial morsels that, like atoms, form an individual's life.

I add to my initial perception of the book by noting a comment made by a frie
Not even finished yet. This is a mother of a book, coming in just over 700 pages. But, man, this is deliciously addictive. By far, the best biography I've ever read. A blend of her life--filled with the regular bits, then add on a lot of death, war, abuse, and weirdness; her work-- a fascinating look into how a writer's mind forms and functions over time; a meditation on the very nature of biography (from both the author and the subject); and an insight into a time of great change--the slow, cre ...more
Jargon Slunce
An excellent biography that is neither dry or in danger of creating a caricature, an absolute must read for fans of Virginia Woolf. Lee is an accomplished biographer and this book would probably be of interest to general fans of biography as well. She brings the subject alive, conveys the emotional atmospheres of the various phases of Woolf's life alongside the facts--and one would be hard pressed to find or write a biography on Woolf with more scrupulous attention to and organization of the fac ...more
I have read 12 or 13 biographical works on Virginia Woolf and I will be listing them all here, once I dust them off and try to remember exactly what it was I read. Lee's book is quite memorable, However. By far the most thoroughly researched, detailed and documented of all the biographies I know of. Yet, I wonder if Lee didn't loose something essential in Woolf's life in the welter of information she presents. Of course, Woolf was a notoriously illusive individual, so I'm not sure that it will e ...more
Dec 17, 2011 Lynne-marie rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: any serious Virginia Woolf reader
This was truly a magnificent effort from an author who has made her name writing scholarly biographies of women authors. Not only does it minutely mine Virginia Woolf's diaries & letters, but those of persons who wrote to and about her. I have chosen to go on to the primary sources myself, as I felt there were some overly contrived interpretations of some of these, but believe me, without Hermione Lee pointing the way, my own further studies in Virginia Woolf's life & works would have ha ...more
This is an unusual, challenging but ultimately rewarding biography. Each of Lee's chapters in an extended essay on an aspect of Virginia's life and art but at the same time she keeps the chronological thread going and moves through the various eras of her life. I thought this was an amazing feat of research, writing and judgement. I particularly liked her perspective on Virginia's mental and physical health, emphasising her courage and strength - an important correctives to some of the 'Virginia ...more
Aug 05, 2007 Rachel marked it as to-read
Shelves: biography
I can't rate this one yet because I've never managed to finish it. *blushes* I've got through her early life on at least two occasions, and if I could manage to get deeper into the Bloomsbury stuff, I'm sure that it will propel me onwards. Not having read a great deal of Woolf's output, one of the aspects of this biography that's both edifying and frustrating (in terms of pace) is that Lee brings relevant quotes and references from Woolf's fiction at almost every opportunity. They can illuminati ...more
An amazing, detailed, neutral account of the life of a remarkable woman in a remarkable time. It is, however, a dense read and took me much, much longer to finish than I ever imagined. I would recommend peppering your reading with some of Woolf's works for when you need a breather from this biography.
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Hermione Lee grew up in London and was educated at Oxford. She began her academic career as a lecturer at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va (Instructor, 1970-1971) and at Liverpool University (Lecturer, 1971-1977). She taught at the University of York from 1977, where over twenty years she was Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, and Professor of English Literature. From 1998-200 ...more
More about Hermione Lee...
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“I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.” 24 likes
“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living': so too with the biography of that self. And just as lives don't stay still, so life-writing can't be fixed and finalised. Our ideas are shifting about what can be said, our knowledge of human character is changing. The biographer has to pioneer, going 'ahead of the rest of us, like the miner's canary, testing the atmosphere, detecting falsity, unreality, and the presence of obsolete conventions'. So, 'There are some stories which have to be retold by each generation'. She is talking about the story of Shelley, but she could be talking about her own life-story. (Virginia Woolf, p. 11)” 2 likes
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