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Virginia Woolf

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  5,800 ratings  ·  160 reviews
While Virginia Woolf--one of our century's most brilliant and mercurial writers--has had no shortage of biographers, none has seemed as naturally suited to the task as Hermione Lee. Subscribing to Virginia Woolf's own belief in the fluidity and elusiveness of identity, Lee comes at her subject from a multitude of perspectives, producing a richly layered portrait of the wri ...more
Paperback, 893 pages
Published October 5th 1999 by Vintage (first published October 15th 1996)
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Cynthia Yes, I have read both of them, although the Quentin Bell I read a long time ago. Both are elegant respectful biographies. Bell's is shorter, and more …moreYes, I have read both of them, although the Quentin Bell I read a long time ago. Both are elegant respectful biographies. Bell's is shorter, and more conventional, and shows his intimate knowledge of Woolf and her family (being a family member); among other things, Lee's biography shows a more modern (feminist) appreciation of the writer. Both (if my recollection is correct) are well worth reading.(less)
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Dec 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
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
Mar 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a biography of great depth and detail, which left me feeling that I understood Virginia Woolf far more than I had before I started it. However, Lee questions how exactly should she write Virginia Woolf’s biography? As a victim, through her family history, class, as part of the Bloomsbury group? For she can be seen in many ways, through many different aspects of her personality or life. Where I think Lee succeeds, is to look at Virginia Woolf objectively, but sympathetically – putting her ...more
Roman Clodia
Feb 23, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an exemplary biography and one which is thoughtful and self-conscious about what it means to write a life. Lee's introduction and conclusion top and tail Woolf with the musings of Lee herself, always conscious of the various Woolfs that her reception over a century has prompted.

It's easy to forget that Woolf, the arch feminist-modernist, was born as a confirmed Victorian child in 1882, and her struggles to escape, not always successfully, her inbred ideas about class, gender (her mother
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
Dec 29, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
So the making of art, in reaction to the blows of life, is both an active, controlling process, in which she orderes reality by "putting it into words"; and a passive, self-abnegating process, whereby she recognises that what she is making is part of something pre-existing and universal: "There is no Shakespeare; there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself."

Fear, as usual in her case, became a form of courage.
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. ...more
Mar 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir-biography
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
Jee Koh
Aug 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Paul Bryant
Feb 24, 2019 marked it as to-read-nonfiction
Just arrived : a 700 page biography of someone called Virginia by someone called Hermione.

well, true, but I'm balancing it up by rewatching The Sopranos.

"So you're sayin this Mrs Dallow what the fuck shimmies around London and all she's doin is thinkin her thoughts? And this is good because? "
Well, that only took six months.
Dec 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2018
This is not the Virginia Woolf biography for the faint of heart. This is the 800 page door stopper with a hundred pages of footnotes in the end, thorough almost to a fault (but not quite crossing over that line), with direct quotations from books and letters in practically every sentence. It was a slow read for me - I'd sit down for an hour and read maybe 20 pages - but I found it gripping and fascinating. If you've considered picking it up: it is SO worth the commitment.

Virginia was such an int
Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf is definitely one of the best biographies I have ever read. It is definitely one to read if you are intrigued by Woolf and want to know more about her life but as it is so dense, I don't think that person who isn't that interested at Virginia Woolf and her work wouldn't really enjoy it. Still, as I said, I truly think that this biography is a work of art and I learned so much while reading it. It was an experience; saddening, exciting and tiresome at th ...more
Feb 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"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)

Feb 22, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Biographers tend to lean towards linearity when examining their subjects; it makes sense to reveal a life chronologically, as if a life were a story with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. And while technically, that may appear to be true -- one is born, one lives, one dies -- the weight of our experiences often don’t ground themselves simply on what just immediately happened but of what happened ages ago. Memories, false, remembered incorrectly, indistinct, challenged, repressed, all play a ...more
Feb 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
My reading of this biography was interrupted by my reading of Viviane Forrester's biography. I do not recommend this interruption, but I opened one page of Forrester and could not stop: Forrester's book is superior to any biography I've ever read.

Though Hermione Lee is a master biographer, and obviously poured a lifetime of research and careful objectivity into this biography - which Forrester must have referenced for her own work - I did not enjoy returning to it.

Lee's work is an accounting o
May 31, 2014 rated it liked it
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
Nicholas Whyte
Dec 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing

Lee's biography of Woolf was published in 1996, and I see there have been a couple more since; but this is pretty comprehensive, covering 59 years in 770 pages. Woolf bitterly regretted not having had a formal education, but maybe her more chaotic intellectual upbringing was a necessary precursor for her genius to take the shape that it did. Certainly being brought up with and mixing with writers gave her a keen understanding for the writer's life. Lee
Sharon Bright
Sep 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book is a tome! For me it was a case study and ongoing personal interest in Virginia Woolf. I’m not sure that someone would casually choose this book. At nearly 800-pages of dense research, you not only gain a well-rounded view of Woolf but you also feel you are starting a new acquaintanceship with her.
I was most impressed by the author’s temperance to reveal Woolf as who she most likely was instead of falling into the myth or legends surrounding her. Creatively structured by topic instead
Sep 13, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, abandoned
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
Anne Fitzpatrick
Apr 22, 2011 rated it did not like it
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?
Really, truly extraordinary. One of the best biographies I've ever read, certainly at least as good as Shelley: The Pursuit by Richard Holmes (my previous favourite). I rather suspect it's instilled a lifelong love of Woolf in me - I had previously only read Orlando, but am currently also reading Mrs Dalloway and planning on continuing through the body of work. Highly, highly recommended. ...more
Moushmi Radhanpara
Sep 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"She too, coming to the end of rereading his work (an antholohy called Coleridge the Talker, and the three volumes of his Poetical Works) feels 'bereft' when the voice stops."

I feel bereft now, that sense of hollowness as I turn the last page of this book, listen to Hermoine talk about no ghosts but the lighthouse streak, the waves breaking on the shore. A big tome of a book, a lifetime of a lady, a gorgeous lady, people and families & life & books & magazines & reviews & essays, a war, breakdow
Oct 31, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is possibly the most detailed, academic, yet entertaining biography I have ever read. I truly enjoyed this. It was not dry as some biographical works can be. It was totally worth the hours spent reading this.
Finally done!

This book is a masterpiece of research and insight and evocation of character and I’m so glad I read it. But for the last three hundred pages or so, I felt like it would never be over. It needed to be as long as it is, but it was a labor to finish it!
Debbie Aruta
Jul 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is filled with so much info!! my hats off to Hermione Lee!!!
Joanna Dobson
Oct 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
One brilliant woman writing about another with compassion, curiosity and dazzling scholarship. The book is also absolutely gripping: more than 700 pages without a single dull paragraph.
May 06, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
Apr 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
A sublime meeting of author and subject: Lee manages to chronicle Woolf's life, times and literary achievements comprehensively, while at the same time brilliantly capturing the essence of her many selves and how they are reflected in her writing. Lee's admiration and affection are evident throughout and this is eminently readable, while still being a thorough and comprehensive review of a complicated (and not always terribly likeable) woman living through changing and difficult times.

If you hav
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Reading the 20th ...: Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee (Jan - April 2018) 181 45 May 31, 2018 08:52AM  

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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 1998-2008 sh ...more

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“I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.” 51 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)” 6 likes
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