My college roommates and I sometimes argued about which of us looked or acted most like Virginia Woolf. We rarely discussed her novels. Hermione Lee has written the latest Woolf biography for people like me -- fans of the Virginia Woolf legend who are less intrigued by her prose. Nothing short of a biographer's dream, Woolf is famous for her feminism, friendships with Bloomsbury artists, romantic relationships with women, recurring bouts of madness, childhood sexual abuse and suicide, and Lee delivers the goods in this absorbing and well-researched book.
If you're not well acquainted with Woolf's history, however, this biography is not for you. Lee -- annoyingly -- assumes familiarity with Woolf's life, casually dropping names and mentioning family incidents without explanation. (For example, she refers to the Dreadnought Hoax several times but waits until page 278 to relate the incident in which Woolf and friends dressed up as Abyssinians, tricking the British Navy into taking them aboard a warship.) The book's structure will be another obstacle for newcomers; Lee organizes chapters around themes like "Abuses" or "Party-Going," rather than telling Woolf's story chronologically. Adding to the confusion, Lee writes as if Woolf's novels are common knowledge, and neither summarizes the plots nor explains the novelist's contribution to modernism.
On the other hand, Lee adopts the perfect tone for Woolf aficionados: bracing, forthright, even confiding. Having sifted through volumes of correspondence, reminiscences and sometimes conflicting information, Lee debunks the wilder speculations about Woolf and draws reasonable conclusions about long-standing controversies. For instance, she re-examines the myth that Woolf's marriage was loveless by citing diary passages of true affection; after 25 years of marriage, Woolf wrote, "You see, it is an enormous pleasure, being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete." Similarly, Lee tempers Woolf's reputation for mean-spirited gossip by citing examples of her extraordinary kindness. And she balances Virginia's reputation as a depressive with anecdotes about her mischievousness and light-hearted friendships.
By calling into question the prevailing images of Woolf as madwoman, daffy genius or elitist snob, Lee paints the writer as far more nuanced than such distorted myths suggest. Even Lee's explanation of Woolf's enduring appeal is characteristically complex. She quotes Woolf on Shelley: "There are some stories which have to be retold by each generation, not that we have anything new to add to them, but because of some queer quality in them which makes them not only Shelley's story but our own." I'd simply add that Woolf's story is delicious enough to deserve one more retelling. -- Salon