If she sometimes feels strange to herself, how much stranger is she to us! Biographers are supposed to know their subjects as well as or better than they know themselves. Biography sets out to tell you that a life can be described, summed up, packaged and sold. But Virginia Woolf spent most of her life saying that the idea of biography is--to use a word she liked-- poppycock. In 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.
Boswell was an egotist who was also a hero-worshipper. He believed in greatness: that was why it was worthwhile writing down everything Dr. Johnson said. Virginia Woolf inherited this historical impulse to record the talk and behaviour of "great men" from her parents' world. And her concept of traditional life-writing was derived from her father's major life's work, the Dictionary of National Biography. The last page of her "Sketch of the Past" remembers the "great men" who used to come to tea in her childhood, and how eccentric and remote that idea of greatness now seems: "something that we are led up to by our parents and is now entirely extinct."27 She never quite loses that extinct idea, but she turns it to her own subversive biographical ends. Though she still takes every opportunity in the diary to write biographical sketches of "great men" (much more frequently than of great women)--Keynes, Eliot, Sickert, Yeats, Arnold Bennett, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells28--these sketches are irreverent, personal, revealing, quite the opposite from the DNB. She questions the idea of "greatness," and she looks behind public faces. Her diary, like her essays and stories and novels, blurs the lines between history, biography and fiction.
In A Room of One's Own, she watches a "very ancient lady" crossing the road with her daughter, with all her memories latent and untapped within her, and feels "the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life" piled up from "all these infinitely obscure lives"67 that remain to be recorded. Both Virginia Woolf's feminist essays, A Room of One's Own and the later Three Guineas, are also essays on life-writing. The climax of A Room of One's Own is, famously, a "fascinating and masterly biography"68 of Shakespeare's imaginary sister, as much of a genius as her brother, but doomed by her sex to a life of exploitation, pain, and failure. Like so much of Virginia Woolf's feminist writing, this biographical fantasy is at once historical and Utopian, a tragic description of what women's lives have been like and an empowering fantasy of how they might become different.
In Three Guineas, the word "biography" is constantly repeated. Biographies are read here--particularly the "rich and revealing" Victorian biographies--to find one story hidden under another. "Let us go on looking--if not at the lines, then between the lines of biography."69 Biography here is like an oracle, a cryptic text from which a hidden and very important message has to be decoded. Lurking inside it is the evidence of male attitudes to women (fathers' "infantile fixations" on their daughters, for instance, or assumptions that all women should marry), of women's struggle for education, their attitudes to war, their attempt to enter the professions. There are good jokes about biography in the essay (we need a female biography of God, she says, since it looks as if a male biography of the Deity "would resolve itself into a Dictionary of Clerical Biography"). But it mainly derives from its reading of biographies a furious analysis of patriarchal discrimination and censorship.
There is a personal basis to her published work which Virginia Woolf is at pains to conceal. Her life-story enters and shapes her novels (and her essays); she returns again and again to her family, her parents, her sister, the death of her mother, the death of her brother. "In fact I sometimes think only autobiography is literature--novels are what we peel off, and come at last to the core, which is only you or me."73 She is one of the most self-reflecting, self-absorbed novelists who ever lived. Yet she is also one of the most anxious to remove personality from fiction. "Autobiography it might be called," she says when she begins to work on what will become The Waves. But then: "this shall be Childhood; but it must not be my childhood."74
Her self-protectiveness is very strong in the feminist essays. This partly derives from a shrewd political sense of her audience's resistance to a woman's special pleading: she thinks her argument will have more impact if it is not perceived as a personal complaint. But it also shows a profound fear of exposing emotions like self-pity, sentimentality, or vanity.75 In A Room of One's Own, the essay in which she chooses not to state her own personal case, she is very dubious about the "modern" genre of confessional autobiography.76 And she cancels from the final version of that essay a passage on Florence Nightingale's autobiography Cassandra, a painful expression of the thwarted lives of nineteenth-century women: "It is hardly writing, it is more like screaming."77 Screams of rage and pain are not what she wants to hear from other women, or what she allows herself.
I have never believed in the big, official, definitive biography, the voluminous tome. I've always been interested in something more highly selective. Virginia Woolf wrote a wonderful essay called "The Art of Biography"; she was interested in whether biography could be an art. Woolf had behind her a family tradition of biography because her father was the founder of the Dictionary of National Biography. In the essay she discusses what facts we choose; she says we can do so much more than add another fact to our collection; we can choose the fertile fact, the suggestive fact, and avoid the barren fact. So that's been a kind of watchword statement for me, that you don't have to document every time somebody goes to the dentist. We don't need the pointless, random, barren facts that go into so many biographies.
'A good essay must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out.' According to Virginia Woolf, the goal of the essay 'is simply that it should give pleasure...It should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last.' One of the best practitioners of the art she analysed so rewardingly, Woolf displayed her essay-writing skills across a wide range of subjects, with all the craftsmanship, substance, and rich allure of her novels. This selection brings together thirty of her best essays, including the famous 'Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown', a clarion call for modern fiction. She discusses the arts of writing and of reading, and the particular role and reputation of women writers. She writes movingly about her father and the art of biography, and of the London scene in the early decades of the twentieth century. Overall, these pieces are as indispensable to an understanding of this great writer as they are enchanting in their own right. ABOUT THE SERIES: For over 100 years Oxford World's Classics has made available the widest range of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford's commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, helpful notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.
My unit's goal is to teach how to understand, analyze, and appreciate Virginia Woolf's fictional and non-fictional works, as well as how to write a biographical or autobiographical essay. In order to achieve this goal, my students will read Woolf'sRoger Fry, A Biography and Orlando, and passages from Hermione Lee's biography,Virginia Woolf. Close reading strategies for written and visual texts will be implemented with two different final assignments: a written argument based on a self-selected fictional text (short story or excerpt by Virginia Woolf) and an autobiographical piece (college essay/personal statement).
EMERSON: THE MIND ON FIRE By Robert D. Richardson University of California Press 656 pp., $30 JOHN DEWEY AND THE HIGH TIDE OF AMERICAN LIBERALISM By Alan Ryan W.W. Norton & Co. 414 pp., $30 VIRGINIA WOOLF By James King W.W. Norton & Co. 699 pp., $35 A GENIUS FOR LIVING: THE LIFE OF FRIEDA LAWRENCE By Janet Byrne HarperCollins 504 pp., $27.50 MAYNARD KEYNES: AN ECONOMIST'S BIOGRAPHY By D.E. Moggridge Routledge 941 pp., $25 GEORGE ELIOT: VOICE OF A CENTURY By Frederick R. Karl W.W. Norton, 768 pp., $30 Conor: A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien By Donald Harman Akenson Cornell University Press 573 pp., $35 The traditional purpose of biography is to furnish interested readers with the story of a famous person's life. Whether the biographer aims to expose the flaws behind the public facade, or to portray an exemplary role model, or something in between, the assumption is that readers are interested in the biographical subject in the first place. Yet in an increasingly forgetful world, it often falls to the biographer to rekindle interest in important figures in danger of being relegated to obscurity. By placing a person's achievements in the context of his or her life, a good biography helps us see its subject afresh. In this respect, one of the most outstanding biographies of this past season may be Robert D. Richardson's Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Although Emerson is scarcely a forgotten figure, his very familiarity tends to disguise his amazing originality, and his protean, deliberately unsystematic mind resists attempts at classification. Even readers who love his poetically pithy essays, such as ''Self-Reliance,'' ''Compensation,'' and ''Nature,'' may find it hard to imagine the man who wrote them. But, thanks to Professor Richardson's superbly written book, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) takes on the lineaments of a thinking, feeling, entirely believable human being: an awkward middle child initially overshadowed by his seemingly more-gifted brothers; the grief-stricken widower of an aspiring poetess who died at 19; a man who taught himself how to recover from overwhelming bouts of depression by relying on his spiritual inner resources. Whether he is describing the strange character of Emerson's remarkable aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, or Emerson's first meeting with Thomas and Jane Carlyle, or Emerson's responses to his wide-ranging readings, Richardson writes with a clarity, vigor, and liveliness that transform his meticulous research into a compellingly readable, highly intelligible story. John Dewey (1859-1952), another quintessentially American figure, was alas a much duller writer than Emerson, though certainly a more systematic thinker. The avowed aim of Alan Ryan's John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism is to refocus attention on a man who in his lifetime was one of America's most revered and influential philosophers. Dewey's faith in democracy and in humankind's ability to solve - or at least alleviate - problems by means of intelligently planned action may lack the dramatic allure of flashier credos, but in the long run, Ryan notes, we could do a lot worse than reconsider Dewey's open-minded yet seriously thought-out approach to political, social, and ethical questions. Ryan's admittedly partisan, but by no means uncritical, account of Dewey's life begins with a helpful ''overview'' of his place in American history. The remainder of the book cogently portrays both the man and the age in which he lived. A pragmatist whose chief concern was finding ways to translate ideas into reality, Dewey thought long and hard about problems that still concern us, such as balancing a belief in individualism with a commitment to public responsibilities. Ryan's reconsideration is well-timed. It's probably fair to say that Virginia Woolf has been one of the least neglected literary figures of the 20th century. Studies of her work are abundant, her diaries and letters have deservedly received much attention, and her life - along with others of the Bloomsbury group - has been the subject of intense interest. Indeed, in this age it's possible that her latest biographer is the one who needs to be rescued from being lost in the deluge of Woolf-related materials. James King's Virginia Woolf holds its own very nicely, providing a moving, acutely perceptive account of Woolf's life and work. Comprehensive, convincing, and well integrated, this biography should fascinate those who are already fascinated by Woolf, while offering an excellent introduction to her character and writing for those less familiar with her. If not the focus of so much attention as Woolf, economist John Maynard Keynes, also of the Bloomsbury set, has been the subject of two major biographies - Roy Harrod's rather buttoned-down version and Robert Skidelsky's ongoing multi-volume project that deals with everything from Keynesian economics to Keynes's busy love life. Now, in a single (albeit hefty) volume, Maynard Keynes: An Economist's Biography, Canadian scholar D.E. Moggridge offers a sound, analytical, carefully researched account of the man who invented deficit spending. As a narrator, Moggridge is less of a presence than the more-convivial Skidelsky. But he sets forth the facts and issues with precision and sharp intelligence. The publisher's decision to place notes at the end of each chapter (rather than at the back of the book) is an added help to readers looking for a reliable, accessible (and at $25 for 941 pages, surprisingly inexpensive) guide to Keynes and his world. Frieda Lawrence was hardly an important figure - except, of course, to her husband D.H. Lawrence, who used her as the model for many of the women in his novels. Lawrence told the dramatic story of their elopement and passionate love match in his sequence of poems ''Look! We Have Come Through!'' and Frieda herself told the story in ''Not I, but the Wind,'' a title borrowed from her husband's poem. Born into the aristocratic German von Richtofen family, Frieda first married a British professor, Ernest Weekley, then left him and their three children for the slim, fierce coal miner's son whose genius she recognized. The story of their tempestuous marriage is dramatic enough to tempt any biographer, and Frieda's young womanhood - the years in which her decisive character took shape - coincided with many interesting developments on the German cultural scene. Janet Byrne's judicious biography, A Genius for Living: The Life of Frieda Lawrence, helpfully places Frieda in the context of the Austro-Germanic avant-garde, who were pioneering just after the turn of the century the kinds of wild behavior that became more widely popular in the 1920s. Byrne also gives a vivid picture of the Lawrences' marriage, but, oddly, short changes the last 26 years of Frieda's life, after her husband's death in 1930. There is little doubt, on the other hand, that George Eliot (1819-1880) was a great woman in every sense of the word. Frederick R. Karl's George Eliot: Voice of a Century is a major biography of a major writer. Professor Karl plunges into Eliot's life and work with the strong engagement that readers of his previous biographies of Faulkner, Conrad, and Kafka have come to expect of him. He takes on previous biographers and commentators, energetically presenting his own, essentially right-minded interpretation of Eliot as woman and as writer, and he also provides particularly fine portraits of the many other people - family, friends, colleagues, and admirers - in her life. The Eliot he presents is a truly extraordinary person, flawed yet noble, bravely unconventional but only when necessary, solidly moderate and recoiling from extremism, someone who, in the words of Matthew Arnold, ''saw life steadily, and saw it whole.'' Writing the life of someone who is still very much alive can be a challenging task, almost always prematurely undertaken. Donald Harman Akenson's lively, detailed, up-close and personal Conor: A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien does not avoid all of the pitfalls. This biographer's fervent esteem for the colorful and eloquent diplomat, journalist, and author, whom he considers ''the greatest living Irishman'' sometimes makes his account of O'Brien's life a trifle embarrassing. But although Akenson's tone can be disconcertingly personal, he demonstrates a solid grasp of his material. O'Brien is indeed an excellent subject. From his early career as an Irish nationalist to his involvement in African and Middle Eastern politics and his recent defense of the rights of Ulster Unionists, he has been a courageous, often controversial champion of human rights, equally ready to challenge the complacency of conservatives and the conformity of self-styled radicals. With his well-thought-out views on everything from the Irish Republican Army to Zionism, O'Brien's multifaceted career offers a unique perspective on the history of our century. 2b1af7f3a8