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893 pages, Paperback
First published October 15, 1996
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."The fact that it is still considered humanly possible to write nonfiction in the 21st century is something of both a marvel and a threat. Objectivity, works cited, academic credibility, demographic positioning, tone, syntax, words: I'm not saying that these are lies, but you've got another thing coming if you think your chaotically spawned senses and speech are any more accurately all encompassing than those of cats and dogs and marmosets. The animal menagerie was a treasure trove for the writing community composed of those close to Virginia Woolf, so why distance our more passive reading efforts from the origins of the truth we believe ourselves capable of creating? To beat less around the bush, I certainly found this biography engagingly holistic enough to forgo Woolf bios for the next decade, but my lord Lee's agenda. Painted Shadow and Secrets of the Flesh both dealt with white women in Woolf's chronological periphery, but neither felt it necessary to sanitize their focus to such a neurotypical and non-bigoted degree. If I wanted to be told a story, I would have picked up Flush instead.
Fear, as usual in her case, became a form of courage.
She noted how everyone had a phrase, a way of speaking which made them sound in control.What is Virginia Woolf. According to this weighty 800+ page packet of citations, vindications, and gossip, she is someone who has been made one thing and then another, ignored and vilified, pedestaled and coddled, set upon by a misunderstanding public that, when considering the debacle that is her posthumous publications, may still not have access to all that she ever composed. Her most well known works came before her increasing dedication to politics, her wealth was derived from a colonialism never touched upon saved as the sort of metaphor that graces the rapturous end of Jane Eyre, and her insanity has been chique when neurotypicals needed inspiration and a barrier when these same neurotypicals needed to claim her as one of their own. She might punch me in the face for calling her insane if she were capable of it, but as someone who's nearing two decades of inherent suicidal impulses, I don't call her anything I don't call myself. It'd be fine if she rejected membership in my community, but the last thing needed is the supposed writers of her life making her mental struggles anything they were not, with all the metaphors of disability afforded to authorship.
"Happily I'm interested in depression."I've spent two paragraphs talking about the barriers between this writing and my reading to convey how cold I had to be to get anything out of this. To be quite honest, the most valuable aspect was how much my mental web of authors and authorial influence was widened around one of my most famous figures, from the expected if detested nearness of Rebecca West to the surprising burst of Silvina de Ocampo onto the scene. Thinking further back, I consider such tidbits as the nitty gritty details of the Hogarth Press, the honest (for once) portrayal of public and private confusion over Virginia Woolf being sexually assaulted as a child by her stepbrothers, and just what it meant to have Hitler hovering over the horizon (that fucking list the Nazis drew up of targets including the Woolfs and Zweig is the stuff of nightmares), but that's some dry stuff, cause thanks to Lee's insistence on smoothing over some of Woolf's more horrid moments, I've no idea what the real difference is between the censorship that interfered with Orlando and that which created Virginia Woolf. Sure, there's talk about rape jokes and blackface and lifelong classicism, but the shooting-herself-in-the-foot stunt Lee pulled with Woolf's literary antisemitism in conjunction with her husband makes me wonder what other incidents she didn't even attempt to reason out of bigotry cause she knew it wouldn't work. All in all, if I'm going to be told a somewhat more accurate narrative of a human being, I expect a flesh and blood portrait, not a bed time story to tuck me in at night.
["]Yes, I intend to be a dead in future; the dead have so many rights."The fact that I found myself reading, throughout my effort to study for the GRE English subject test, the biography of the author who caused me to cry in the library of the university I was subsequently going to drop out of didn't pass me by. I acknowledge that I excoriate Lee out of selfish and possessive reasons, as she was in the position to devote herself to the life of someone who changed my life while dead and gone in more ways than I can put to words. Woolf's feminism and wit and aesthetics don't put an ax to my frozen heart as much as they used to, but the plain and simple truth is, had I not encountered her when I did, I'd be dead four years ongoing from having jumped off some bridge. Make of that biographical factoid what you will.
I think the best these men can do is not to talk about themselves anymore.All in all, reading this, I aimed at increased comfort in the emotional realm and ended up hitting the academic realm instead. One would assume as much from a text with a 100+ pages of footnotes, but being the odd duck that I am, that is not always a guarantee. Those who are thinking of reading this probably have more to fear from boredom than anger, so if they're still reading on, they're likely wondering when I'm going to finally stop, or get to a point, or something. Sorry, kiddos. Like I said, I don't go for bedtime stories.
Of course, none of this would be printed.
One afternoon [in 1939] I was planting in the orchard under an apple tree iris reticulata...Suddenly I heard Virginia's voice calling to me from the sitting-room window: "Hitler is making a speech." I shouted back: "I shan't come. I'm planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead." Last March, 21 years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard.