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Virginia Woolf

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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 writer and the woman that leaves all of her complexities and contradictions intact.  Such issues as sexual abuse, mental illness, and suicide are brought into balance with the immensity of her literary achievement, her heroic commitment to her work, her generosity and wit,  and her sanity and strength.

It is not often that biography offers the satisfactions of great fiction--but this is clearly what Hermione Lee has achieved. Accessible, intelligent, and deeply pleasurable to read, her Virginia Woolf will undoubtedly take its place as the standard biography for years to come.

893 pages, Paperback

First published October 15, 1996

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About the author

Hermione Lee

62 books122 followers
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 she was the Goldsmiths' Chair of English Literature and Fellow of New College at the University of Oxford. In 2008 Lee was elected President of Wolfson College, University of Oxford.

Lee is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Fellow of the British Academy and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and an Honorary Fellow of St Hilda's and St Cross Colleges, Oxford. She has Honorary Doctorates from Liverpool and York Universities. In 2003 she was made a Commander of the British Empire for Services to Literature.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 178 reviews
Profile Image for Paul.
1,217 reviews1,964 followers
January 24, 2014
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 for any fan of Woolf.
As Lee herself points out Woolf’s voluminous writings and correspondence is still being published; but those who knew her are mostly gone. She has been reinterpreted by feminism, Marxism, modernism and most everyone else since. It would be so easy to get lost amidst all the mass of studies and writings about Woolf; but Lee’s book is an excellent start for those wishing to study Woolf in depth. For those of us who want a comprehensive literary study of Woolf; this is ideal.
Lee has written biographies of Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Bowen and Penelope Fitzgerald and I have a sudden desire to read them all! She has also written about biography and about Philip Roth (that one I really must read!). She has also written a book called Reading in Bed, which is a history of women’s reading habits, which looks fascinating.
I could at this point go on about how much I learnt about Woolf (a lot) and about what a wonderful writer she was (but you already know that). What Lee does do well though is analyse the historical context and look at the lives and work of those around her. There are lots of interesting leads to follow and I noted down several references to books which I will follow and read (if time allows). If you are a fan of Woolf this is a must read.
Profile Image for Susan.
2,694 reviews595 followers
March 18, 2018
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 firmly centre stage of her story and examining her literary work alongside her life.

I must admit that I knew very little about Woolf before reading this. Of course, there are things that many people will mention in relation to her – from the Hogarth Press, feminism, her relationship with her husband, Leonard, with her sister, Vanessa, and, of course, madness. The author does not shy away from any of these difficult subjects. She takes us through her childhood, her breakdowns, her depression, her relationships, friendships and marriage. Yet, she also brings her alive, with her human frailties; her love of gossip, her insecurities and jealousies.

There is a great deal in this biography about her writing, which, for me, at least, gave me a greater understanding of her novels and essays. I feel that I would now like to read more by her and that I would have gained more from having read this. An excellent, well researched and objective look at her life, which is impressive in detail, but wonderfully readable.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,491 reviews2,715 followers
February 23, 2018
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 had no time for the suffragette cause, for example) and race, are depicted with a clear-sightedness that refuses to smooth over the uncomfortable aspects of Woolf: yes, she can be unbearably snobbish, even disturbingly racist and anti-Semitic, despite having married a Jewish husband.

So Lee is no apologist for Woolf; at the same time she is eminently balanced and even-handed. She ties her narrative to the evidence - and, luckily for us, Woolf left a huge archive of letters, diaries, memoirs, essays, journalism as well as the fiction. The material 'husbanded' by Leonard Woolf, who was concerned about controlling his wife's reputation in a way that looks forward to Ted Hughes, is now scattered but Lee has used it wonderfully, offering us primary evidence to both support her readings and also to allow us to 'hear' VW's voice for ourselves - in all its tones.

The controversial topics - the breakdowns, the sexual abuse, sexuality, suicide - are treated with calm and nuanced intelligence, and, by the end, we feel like we 'know' VW, however complicated and contradictory a personality she was.

Deprived of an education by parents who only considered formal schooling and university appropriate for sons, VW, ever the autodidact, never stopped pushing herself, learning, reading and experimenting with what fiction and writing could do. And one of the prime outcomes of this book is that it makes us eager to go back to VW's writings - not just the novels and the 'big' essays like A Room of One's Own, but also the diaries and criticism.

This is a big book and one packed with ideas so it's worth taking your time over it - the rewards are immense.
Profile Image for Jim.
395 reviews282 followers
January 4, 2015
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 Room of One's Own, and time permitting, also read The Waves and Orlando. Woolf wrote much more than that, of course, and so the more you've read, the more you'll appreciate this biography.

An excellent companion read for this biography is Moments of Being, a collection of Woolf's own autobiographical writing. Much shorter in length, Moments of Being gives the reader Woolf's own perspective on some of the more important moments of her life. Highly recommended.

While it isn't a requirement to read any of Woolf's novels before reading this biography, Lee's 900+ page book will be much more enjoyable after familiarizing yourself with Woolf's writing - the more, the better.
Profile Image for AB.
69 reviews36 followers
June 20, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,359 reviews794 followers
April 16, 2017
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.
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.
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.
Of course, none of this would be printed.
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.
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.

-Leonard Woolf
Profile Image for Margaret.
1,035 reviews332 followers
June 16, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Antigone.
516 reviews750 followers
March 12, 2015
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 constant as its chapters break into graceful riffs of alternating theme. Beautiful from the view of composition alone, it is every bit the deserved housing for the historical account of one of the most important and intriguing woman writers in our literary canon. If you've any interest in Virginia Woolf - her writing, her ideas, her existence - this hefty tome is assuredly the premiere foundational resource. I doubt any biographer will do better. Ever.

A sample decidedly apropos to this venue:

When she is putting her reading in order, Virginia Woolf asks a great many questions about canon-formation, and insists that great books must be set in the context of inferior, ordinary, forgotten books: trashy novels, obscure memoirs, especially of women's lives, dust-gathering volumes of letters, mediocre biographies, minor plays. "A literature composed entirely of good books" would soon be unread, extinct: "the isolation is too great." We need "trivial ephemeral books": "They are the dressing-rooms, the workshops, the wings, the sculleries, the bubbling cauldrons, where life seethes and steams and is for ever on the boil." They fertilize our minds and get them ready for the big masterpieces. We can't always be reading Keats or Aeschylus or King Lear, so she defends the pleasures of bad books, the historical importance of the rubbish heap. She argues for serendipitous random reading from the shelves of second-hand bookshops and public libraries: "I ransack public libraries & find them full of sunk treasure." All her life she celebrated the democratic function of the public library as the university of the non-specialist, uninstructed reader; it is the reading room for the common reader.

It's substantial stuff; exhaustive but frequently rewarding. A few (very minor) provisos:

As with most thoroughly knowledgeable experts, Lee does her fair share of assuming her readers are aware of the basic facts. I wasn't. London's cultural life, Bloomsbury, the various love affairs, the plots of all the novels - I came quite ignorant to the party. It wasn't off-putting, yet there is a certain displacing frisson for the reader in those moments.

About a third of the way through I began to feel insufferably confined by it all. It took me awhile to realize Lee was doing her job so well that she'd presented me with a resonance of Virginia's own creative dilemma. So know going in that empathy will be extracted.

Lastly, I did take issue with the manner in which Lee denounced those who felt they could diagnose Woolf's psychological condition based upon the little information available - and then proceeded to do so herself. Either you can or you can't, Hermione. You've got to pick.

That said, this is a tremendous achievement and a tremendous addition to the field of literary biography.
Profile Image for Jee Koh.
Author 22 books167 followers
August 25, 2011
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 confidence in the writing. She was to the end of her life terrified of being laughed at. Despite her concern with form, when she tried to define to herself the essence of literature, she settled on "emotion."

To argue for Woolf's significance, the biography also attends carefully to the political writing, primarily A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. In doing so, it shows convincingly how Woolf developed her feminism in response to her traditional upbringing, the women's suffrage movement, the male-dominated literary marketplace and the rise of Fascism. She was more than the delicate envelope of human consciousness, she was also an acute analyst of contemporary history. To marginalize her analysis because it focused on gender relations is itself a political act.

Lee does not attempt to excuse Virginia's personal faults, for instance, her snobbishness and petty cruelty. Instead, she shows from Virginia's diary and letters that the writer was well aware of her shortcomings, and experienced much internal self-contradiction. Virginia gave to others what she could spare from her bouts with madness and with writing. She shared the anti-semitism of her age but her marriage to Jewish Leonard gave both much happiness, and almost certainly enabled her to write. Her love for her sister Vanessa, fellow novelist Vita Sackville-West and composer Ethel Smythe caused much jealousy, anxiety and heartache, but she was never in doubt that her life lay with Leonard.

The command of detail in this biography is astonishing. So much was read, considered and synthesized in this 755-page tome. The portraits of the Bloomsbury group are lively. The prose is lucid and graceful, sympathetic yet exact. Lee has a particular feeling for describing Virginia's homes, in the country or in London, a sensitivity that goes well with the writer's life-long meditation on and in rooms. The description of World War II gives the narrative a natural climax, but the war did not cause Virginia to drown herself, Lee makes clear. The cause was the fear of the onset of another season of insanity. Having lived through at least two major bouts of madness, Virginia did not want to, could not, do it again.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
372 reviews224 followers
January 6, 2019
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 interesting person, living in such interesting times (I love turn of the century literature for that transition from Victorian to Edwardian to the Great War and beyond) - by the end of this biography, I felt like I knew her intimately. Lee writes with such compassion and respect, and really her whole approach as a biographer seems to hinge on not making assumptions. She takes nothing for granted, especially about the inner workings of Virginia's mind and heart, and whittles down all the narrative around Virginia to what might have actually happened.

I also loved that this is a "literary biography" (is that a thing? I think it's a thing), and Lee uses Virginia's novels to show how Virginia used fiction to work through her own life. Although I've just read a handful of her books (so far), I feel like I now have an understanding of her as a writer that will help as I read more.
Profile Image for Petra.
853 reviews126 followers
January 24, 2018
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 the same time.
Profile Image for Wouter.
183 reviews5 followers
July 6, 2021
If it was the biographer’s aim to make Woolf come to life, she certainly succeeded. It might be foolish to think you know an author who has been dead for 70 years, but it does really feel like I got to know Woolf.
Profile Image for Margret Asmunds.
19 reviews16 followers
January 9, 2023
Having finished this beautiful biography, I am now left mourning the loss of a woman who has been my constant companion these past autumn and winter months.
967 reviews53 followers
June 18, 2014
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 novel is pretty self-sufficient.

So why read, or write for that matter, all of the details of a person's life that can be dug up from primary and secondary sources and interviews with persons who knew the author? Presumably, it's to reveal how a person's life contributed to his accomplishments, especially if the accomplishments seem to come out of unlikely origins. . That's a legitimate attempt, but to me too many biographers, including Lee, are so concerned about leaving out something and being accused of neglect or insensitivity, they dredge up any details of a person's life, no matter how slight.

Woolf's life is eccentric enough to be fairly interesting, and I suppose it's helpful to know that TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, for example, draws heavily on her childhood family experiences. But the novel transcends those experiences, and in reading the novel I was mostly indifferent to what real life experiences fired Woolf's imagination. .

All this said, though, some items of interest do emerge from Lee's study of Woolf's life. It is a life that is dominated by untimely deaths beginning with her mother's sudden demise, and the abrupt cutting off of possibilities,. Death dominates all of her novels. World War I, a huge collective death, violent and shocking, overshadows everything she wrote.

Another theme that is found in her works and emerges from her life was a conflict between private and public life. Woolf was an intensely private individual, but at the same time she wanted her novels to be read. When some of her works commented on the diminished role of women in the world, she was regarded as an early feminist with all of the critical scrutiny that involved. Many of the attitudes toward women that she criticized grew out of her 19th century past, and this cleavage between the past and the present is another major topic in her books.

As for her husband, friends, critics, acquaintances, yes, they're interesting and do show up in some form or other, often disguised, in her works, but again my interest in identifying these sources of material is minimal.

As a scribbler of comments such as this one, I found Woolf's critical ideas to be of interest, She commented that good reading is challenging in its own right and should involve the effort to express what one thinks of what one has read, to make it "whole" and to put one's reading into a context of reading.

Finally, there is the question of why she waded into a river with rocks weighing down her clothing and drowned . The author feels this action was not the result of a deranged mind, but rather one of calculated rationality. To begin with, she was discouraged by what was happening in WW II . She was 59 and beginning to feel her age and that her best work was behind her. She didn't want to be a burden to her husband, Leonard Woolf, and felt that he could get on with his life better without her.

The always obscure motives of persons you know and love who kill themselves are always of concern, and if you admire Woolf as a writer, these motives always raise questions. But I'll repeat that my enjoyment of Virginia Woolf's writing accomplishments was only slightly increased by slogging through these hundreds and hundreds of pages.
Profile Image for kim.
362 reviews68 followers
December 6, 2014
"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)

meer: http://winterlief.blogspot.nl/2012/10...
November 1, 2011
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?
Profile Image for christina.
185 reviews21 followers
February 24, 2021
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 role in our decision-making just as habits long refined for no particular reason other than its being habitual reveal latent biases, snobbery, and ignorance.

What a life really should be visualised is not as a timeline but as a Venn diagram, an originating mass with sets of separate masses overlapping each other but never fully containing the originating mass: which is precisely what Hermione Lee does in her biography, Virginia Woolf.

While there is some chronological linearity to the total of Virginia Woolf, much of the this biography rests on certain chunks -- sets -- that touch “Virginia”, sometimes overlapping each other, other times not relevant at all other than it impacted Virginia in a particular way, at this particular time in her life. What the reader is left with is a constellation of pieces that happened to Virginia Woolf but doesn’t pretend to reveal more than what a person can reveal: their passions, the history that impacted them and continue to revisit them in later life, their foibles, their misunderstandings, others’ misunderstandings about them, their contradictory behaviour… but never to whom Virginia Woolf really is because Virginia Woolf, like all of us, never could know.

Thankfully, Lee also doesn’t fall into the trap of gossip, idolisation, or of excusing Woolf for her less than admirable qualities, such as her vacillation in her politics, her constant snobbery, her exuberant and sometimes pugnacious need for attention; instead, Lee is fair. Any observation on her character -- good or bad -- doesn’t come from Lee’s mouth, they come from the plethora of people who knew Virginia, offering a more comprehensive view of not only how Virginia Woolf was received as a person but perhaps also what the motivations were behind some of the more pernicious character studies of Virginia Woolf actually derive from. These things matter since none of us are created whole without others' influence. By detailing, exhaustively, the people in Virginia's orbit and what they thought of her, informs readers of the culture and environment Virginia Woolf inhabited, making her life-long struggle to create new forms of writing that touches the reality of human experience and the mental machinations that precede and proceed those experiences that much more impressive.

By books’ end, I find I know no more or less about Virginia Woolf, the person, but feel satiated in understanding her better as a thinker, as an author who attempted to challenge the scope and form of her writing to touch more authentically at the human experience through the tricky beast, one’s mind.

Virgina Woolf is a colossal achievement (or maybe Virginia Woolf is).
Profile Image for Olivia.
274 reviews9 followers
February 2, 2020
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 of sorts, like reading a summary of every sentence left by Virginia Woolf. Forrester, on the other hand, pulls you into an acute and vicious analysis; I could not tear away from it for the two days I took to read it - and I only took two days because I was sad that it was ending. Lee's biography is obviously also sad, but it mourns the account left of Virginia Woolf without forcefully countering it. Neither book deserves less than 5 stars, but Forrester's at least gives you a fighting feeling.

So that's my personal reading - my advice is finish Lee, then read Forrester, and don't bother with any biographer other than those two.
Profile Image for Kristi.
787 reviews41 followers
December 23, 2021
This is an excellent biography of a much loved subject; well written, researched, and analyzed. I especially enjoyed how Lee grapples with the appropriateness of attempting to assign meaning to actions and words of the past which may not be accurate, such as Woolf’s relationship with Katherine Mansfield, or her illnesses. I enjoy VW’s letters and diaries more than this book, but Lee gives excellent context to some of the people, places, and events contained in Woolf’s writings. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful testament to an extraordinary writer, thinker, and woman.
Profile Image for Nicholas Whyte.
4,734 reviews182 followers
December 14, 2017

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 does a really good job of mapping the literary interactions between Woolf and her family, friends and lovers, from the day she was born to the day she died. I learned a lot about the micro-geography of Bloomsbury and its satellite territories, and it was all very interesting.

Lee devotes appropriate but not obsessional attention to Virginia's half-brother's sexual abuse of her and her sister; she rightly puts more time into elucidating Woolf's experience of mental illness, which hit her repeatedly as an adult and prompted her suicide at the fear of yet another debilitating breakdown. I feel a lot of Woolf's work is translucently teetering on the edge of experience, and this was a good explanation of how that came to be. Though of course, a lot of other people have similar experiences and do not achieve the same fame; it doesn't explain how she became a great writer, but it does I think help explain why she became the great writer that she did.

My one minor disappointment with Lee's book is that I didn't feel Woolf's feminism was really put into context, apart from her fleeting engagement with the suffragettes and her later entanglement with Dame Ethel Smyth. Did she interact with or influence other feminist writings of the day? Were her friends and lovers (other than Ethel Smyth) also feminists? She is portrayed here as rather a lone voice in the wilderness.

However, otherwise this was a very satisfying read about someone I had wished I knew more about, and whose books I will now read with greater understanding and even more enthusiasm.
Profile Image for Sharon Bright.
61 reviews4 followers
September 24, 2020
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 of sequential format gave small victories of completion with every chapter.
There are so many uses of parentheses that it does obstruct the flow of reading when one is really trying to find flow in the density. However it took the author 5 years and a sabbatical to write, so who am I to judge how she slipped in every last known detail of Woolf that she could dig up.
Can this count as two books in my reading challenge?!
Profile Image for John.
226 reviews106 followers
April 9, 2008
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 ever be possible for any one book to capture her truly, even if that achievement were even theoretically possible.
I will update later once I review the book to identify Lee's particular contribution of my understanding of Woolf and the sources of her lie as a writer.
Profile Image for Rosemary.
46 reviews7 followers
June 30, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Moushmi Radhanpara.
Author 5 books17 followers
September 18, 2020
"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, breakdowns, friendships, love, a lifetime and yet here I am still with that hollow heart, a sense of loneliness that only Adeline Virginia Woolf can leave you with. 

I had different thoughts throughout the book, so many views and ideas to review this book but I fail. It is impossible for me to do. What can one say after deliberately studying Virginia and her whole circlenof family and friends. She is a hero, nothing to doubt on that but as I delve again on the last few pages I cannot not praise the 'husband'. Leonord, to whom Vita says, 'I do not like your being here alone like this.' "He turned those piercing blue eyes on me and said It's the only thing to do." A husband who loved her, who stood by her despite knowing everything, who praised her, supoorted her in all equalness, who worked for her even when she was long gone.

Stephen Daldry said "Not just essential reading for anyone interested in Virgina Woolf, but a startling page-turner that re-invents literqry biography." And believe me one cannot know what actually a biography is unless you pick up something like this. Magnanimous, dazzling and raw. Every minute detail looked into. You'd just be amazed at the amount of effort. From before Virginia was born, her family, distant family, friends, relationships, bloomsbury, reviews, essays, speeches, books, marriage, death, war, everything is intricately recorded and turned into a lastin impression. It got a little unnerving, more so towards the end, during war, despite my knowing that she will die, and how too, I had goosebumps, a sense of losing something, which in the first place was not mine. A heart ache. 

I reccomend to readers interested in the life of Mrs. Woolf. Not a breezy read. 
Profile Image for Kate.
87 reviews12 followers
March 28, 2021
I believe this is the longest book I’ve ever read, and I put off picking it up for so long because it just seemed like such a brick (particularly because the font is also so tiny!), but I am so glad I felt the urge to do so now, because it was so much better than I expected.

It was a very literary biography, and very rarely lost my interest despite the detail and length. It certainly was a triumph to write such an impartial and well-balanced biography for a figure as complex and multifaceted as Virginia Woolf. The real strength, for me, was how well Lee emphasised Woolf’s contradictions. In my readings of her, I have constantly come back to this; often, she held seemingly antithetical beliefs, so that her critics also demonstrated opposing opinions. She has often felt like a paradox. Lee wrote about this objectively but sensitively, and I could at once pick up on her genuine enthusiasm for her subject, but, at the same time, she was never above being able to display her very obvious flaws.

The one main criticism, for me personally, would be that I felt she didn’t quite do justice to certain relationships Virginia Woolf had with women in her life (namely with Vita Sackville-West, Violet Dickinson and Katherine Mansfield). I have read many portrayals of these relationships, and Lee’s fell short for me. But in a book which covered so much ground, this critique doesn’t really hold much weight in the grand scheme of things. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey Lee took me on. I didn’t leave the book loving or disliking Woolf any more than before, but I do feel like I understand her even better, and I’m grateful for that. I leave the book feeling closer to her.
Profile Image for Diem.
458 reviews142 followers
September 25, 2023
My lords. This was the work of a full year. I read the first 1/4th of the book about 5 times, trying to get the author's voice and the book's structure well established before I continued. I just set it down, 10 months later. I have nothing of value to say about it other than it is a most impressive work that I was never once tempted to abandon. It was a year well spent.
Profile Image for Debbie Aruta.
48 reviews3 followers
July 26, 2018
This book is filled with so much info!! my hats off to Hermione Lee!!!
Profile Image for Tarah.
421 reviews60 followers
July 20, 2012
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 genuinely interested in Woolf herself, and I WANTED to read a good biography, rather than the number of shitty ones out there (I'm looking at you Quintin Bell).

But DAMN I could not make myself read all the pages of this book. And there was some salacious info: other authors she hates, women with whom she has affairs, wars that crush nations, etc. But I just couldn't make myself pour through all the minute details page by page. I finally gave up and read the sections I was interested in (Vita Saxville West and WWII) and skipped the rest.

I'm disappointed because I know I've lose good insight into Woolf, but I think what I've learned is that even with the best biographer (and really, Lee is among the best), you have to be REALLY invested in the subject of the biography to make 800 pages worth it.
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