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What choices must a biographer make when stitching the pieces of a life into one coherent whole? How do we best create an accurate likeness of a private life from the few articles that linger after death? How do we choose what gets left out? This intriguing and witty collection of essays by an internationally acclaimed biographer looks at how biography deals with myths and legends, what goes missing and what can't be proved in the story of a life. Virginia Woolf's Nose presents a variety of case-studies, in which...
What choices must a biographer make when stitching the pieces of a life into one coherent whole? How do we best create an accurate likeness of a private life from the few articles that linger after death? How do we choose what gets left out? This intriguing and witty collection of essays by an internationally acclaimed biographer looks at how biography deals with myths and legends, what goes missing and what can't be proved in the story of a life. Virginia Woolf's Nose presents a variety of case-studies, in which literary biographers are faced with gaps and absences, unprovable stories and ambiguities surrounding their subjects. By looking at stories about Percy Bysshe Shelley's shriveled, burnt heart found pressed between the pages of a book, Jane Austen's fainting spell, Samuel Pepys's lobsters, and the varied versions of Virginia Woolf's life and death, preeminent biographer Hermione Lee considers how biographers deal with and often utilize these missing body parts, myths, and contested data to "fill in the gaps" of a life story.
In "Shelley's Heart and Pepys's Lobsters," an essay dealing with missing parts and biographical legends, Hermione Lee discusses one of the most complicated and emotionally charged examples of the contested use of biographical sources. "Jane Austen Faints" takes five competing versions of the same dramatic moment in the writer's life to ask how biography deals with the private lives of famous women. "Virginia Woolf's Nose" looks at the way this legendary author's life has been translated through successive transformations, from biography to fiction to film, and suggests there can be no such thing as a definitive version of a life. Finally, "How to End It All" analyzes the changing treatment of deathbed scenes in biography to show how biographical conventions have shifted, and asks why the narrators and readers of life-stories feel the need to give special meaning and emphasis to endings.
Virginia Woolf's Nose sheds new light on the way biographers bring their subjects to life as physical beings, and offers captivating new insights into the drama of "life-writing".
Virginia Woolf's Nose is a witty, eloquent, and funny text by a renowned biographer whose sensitivity to the art of telling a story about a human life is unparalleled--and in creating it, Lee articulates and redefines the parameters of her craft.
"Lee's tales of the battles of the biographers are gripping and vivid. There is a lightness of touch for stories of story-making that are often funny. . . . The nose is a funny thing anyway; stick it on to 'Virginia Woolf' or any other of the illustrious names Lee discusses, and you are bound to bring them down a peg. All part of the biographer's power to make or unmake, sniff out or sniff at, which Lee so engagingly shows us."--Rachel Bowlby, Financial Times
"Hermione Lee, biographer of Woolf and Willa Cather, acknowledges the 'messy, often contradictory' nature of the craft of biography. . . . Lee concedes [that] Woolf--as any subject--will continue to be reinvented; any life, protean and elusive, refuses to be owned."--Linda Simon, Biography
"Lee is able to give the reader an authoritative glimpse of the difficulties that must be overcome when tackling a literary biography. . . . Well written, insightful, and enjoyable."--Library Journal
"So many fine literary biographers are practicing that the genre itself is the subject of books with surprising frequency. The most alluring, eccentric and thoughtful example I've come across recently is Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography by Dame Hermione Lee."--George Fatherling, Books in Canada
"Monumental and long-needed. . . . So much is here for future scholars to use and appreciate from this tremendous and substantive quarry of Stracheyan biographical material."--Jay Dickson, Woolf Studies Annual
"The four essays are the equivalent of listening to a smart, kind and personable professor holding forth on her favorite subject. . . . These essays are everywhere informed by the fact that Lee is such an accomplished biographer, a writer who knows the ropes."--Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune
"For proof of Hermione Lee's expertise in biography (or, to use the technical term, 'life-writing'), one need only consider her massive and important Virginia Woolf. [There] is a lot to like about this book: for reminding us that Woolf herself was no apologist for the ceremony of death, which she studiously avoids in her fictions; ... and, for writing an accessible and literate treatment of life-writing. For this and for de-mystifying the genre for a post-modern audience, we can thank Hermione Lee."--Karen Levenback, Virginia Woolf Miscellany
Biographies are full of verifiable facts, but they are also full of things that aren't there: absences, gaps, missing evidence, knowledge or information that has been passed from person to person, losing credibility or shifting shape on the way. Biographies, like lives, are made up of contested objects-relics, testimonies, versions, correspondences, the unverifiable. What does biography do with the facts that can't be fixed, the things that go missing, the body parts that have been turned into legends and myths?
A few years ago, a popular biographer who had allowed doubts and gaps into the narrative of a historical subject was criticised for sounding dubious. "For 'I think,' read 'I don't know,'" said one of her critics crossly. But more recently, "biographical uncertainty" has become a respectable topic of discussion. Writers on this subject tend to quote Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot:
You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string.
You can do the same with a biography. Thetrawling net fills, then the biographer hauls it in, sorts, throws back, stores, fillets and sells. Yet consider what he doesn't catch: there is always far more of that. The biography stands, fat and worthy-burgherish on the shelf, boastful and sedate: a shilling life will give you all the facts, a ten pound one all the hypotheses as well. But think of everything that got away, that fled with the last deathbed exhalation of the biographer.
We all know stories of what falls through the net of biography. Many of these are bonfire stories. The poet, biographer, and editor Ian Hamilton, who had been severely singed in his attempt to write a biography of J. D. Salinger, enjoyed himself in Keepers of the Flame (1992) with stories of widows and executors fighting off predatory biographers, of conflagrations of letters, of evidence being withheld. These stories all read like variants of Henry James's novella The Aspern Papers in which the predatory would-be biographer, the "publishing scoundrel," is thwarted in his greedy desire to get hold of the papers of the great American romantic poet Jeffrey Aspern by the two protective, solitary women who have inherited and who guard his legacy. These are stories like Byron's executor, publisher, and friends gathering round the fireplace of John Murray's office in Albemarle Street in 1824 and feeding the pages of Byron's memoir into the flames; or Hardy spending six months of 1919 destroying most of his life's papers while setting up a conspiracy with his second wife that she pretend to author the biography he was actually writing himself; or Cassandra Austen destroying those letters of her sister which may have contained revealing personal material; or Elizabeth Gaskell reading, but feeling unable to use, Charlotte Brontë's passionate love-letters to M. Heger, in a biography which set out to protect her against accusations of impurity; or Ted Hughes destroying Sylvia Plath's last two journals, and then publishing his own edition of the rest.
Many literary biographers are affected by such bonfires. Writing on Willa Cather, I came up against her directive, in her will of 1943, that none of her letters should ever be quoted (with the result that they are paraphrased, usually to her disadvantage), alongside her command that no adaptations or dramatisations should be made of her work "whether by electronic means now in existence or which may hereafter be discovered." One of the significant gaps in the Woolf archive is the apparent lack of any correspondence between her and her brother Adrian, so that this relationship has never come into focus. The friendship between Edith Wharton and Henry James is a challenge to her biographers, because James made a bonfire of nearly all the letters he had from her, which as a result have to be decoded from his letters to her.
James's destruction of Wharton's letters about her private life, or Elizabeth Gaskell's censoring of Charlotte's love letters, are acts of protection, and are often talked about as illustrations-as in The Aspern Papers-of the battle for possession that is always fought over a famous literary life. But such disappearances also raise the question of what biographers do with the things that go missing, or with contested objects. Biographers try to make a coherent narrative out of missing documents as well as existing ones; a whole figure out of body parts. Some body parts, literally, get into the telling of the stories, in the form of legends, rumours, or contested possessions. Body parts are conducive to myth-making; biographers, in turn, have to sort out the myths from the facts. There is a tremendous fascination with the bodily relics of famous people, and the stories of such relics have their roots in legends and miracles of saints which are the distant ancestors of biography. But they persist in a secular age, rather in the way that urban myths do, and are some of the "things" biographers have to decide how to deal with. These "body-part" stories play into the subject's posthumous reputation, sometimes with suspicious appositeness. We might expect Joan of Arc's heart (and, it is sometimes added, her entrails) to have survived the flames and to have been thrown into the Seine. It seems fitting, too, that Sir Thomas More's head, boiled, and impaled on a pole over London Bridge, is supposed to have been secretly taken by night by his daughter Margaret Roper to Saint Dunstan's Church in Canterbury, which, after the beatification of More in the nineteenth century, became a pilgrimage shrine. Charlotte Yonge, in A Book of Golden Deeds, retells-without much conviction-the old story that, in the boat, "Margaret looked up and said: 'That head has often lain in my lap; I would that it would now fall into it.' And at that moment it actually fell, and she received it." It's the kind of story probably best ignored by biographers.
There are stranger stories of the fate of relics. Napoleon's penis is said to have been chopped off by the Abbé who administered the last rites, and since then has been sold, inherited, displayed, and auctioned many times, last heard of in the possession of an American urologist, but possibly buried all this time in the crypt at the Hôtel des Invalides. Hardy's body was interred in Poets' Corner, but, after an argument between his friends and his family, his heart was buried in the grave of his wife, Emma, at Stinsford Church, near Dorchester, carried in an urn to its resting place with great solemnity by a procession of gentlemen in suits and hats (the church has a photograph of the ceremony). On the tomb, it says: "Here Lies The Heart of Thomas Hardy." Rumour has it that Hardy's housekeeper, after the death and the extraction of the heart, placed it in a biscuit tin on the kitchen table, and that when the undertaker came the next day he found an empty biscuit tin and Hardy's cat, Cobby, looking fat and pleased. The story then divides: in one branch a pig's heart replaces Hardy's in the urn. In the other, Cobby is executed by the undertaker and replaces his master's heart. Either way, this rural myth is probably more useful for a Life of Cobby than a Life of Hardy.
The story of Einstein's brain is intriguingly grotesque, too. After a pathologist from Kansas, Thomas Harvey, performed Einstein's autopsy in 1955, he made off with the brain, claiming he would investigate and publish his findings on it. He cut the brain into 240 pieces, and, at various times, doled out bits to scientific researchers. In 1978 a reporter tracked down Dr. Harvey in Kansas and was shown the brain, kept in two mason jars in a cardboard box. In Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip across America with Einstein's Brain, Michael Paterniti described a journey with Dr. Harvey and his "sacred specimen," in which he meditates on the motives for such "relic freaks."
Uncertainty also surrounds the bones of Yeats. Yeats was buried on 30 January 1939 in an Anglican cemetery in France, at Roquebrune. His wife, George, took out a temporary ten-year lease (she thought) on the grave site. Plans to bring his body home to Sligo in September 1939 were thwarted by world events. In 1947, it was discovered that the concession had run out after five years, not ten, and that Yeats's bones had been removed to the ossuary. Very confused negotiations followed between George, some of Yeats's friends, the municipal and church authorities and the French government. In March 1948 the remains were identified (though leaving some room for uncertainty) and placed in a new coffin; in September 1948 the coffin was taken in state from Roquebrune to Galway. The reinterment ceremony at Drumcliff on 17 September 1948 took place with enormous crowds in attendance, and the poet's verse was, some time later, duly inscribed on the tombstone: "Cast a cold eye, on life, on death; Horseman, pass by!" But rumours persisted that the bones had got mixed up in the ossuary; Louis MacNeice, at the funeral, said they were actually burying "a Frenchman with a club foot." Roy Foster's life of Yeats takes a laconic and brisk line on all this, since in his view posthumous legends about body parts have no meaning for the life. "The legend of a mystery burial, or even an empty coffin," he notes dispassionately, "sustains a kind of mythic life, as with King Arthur, or-more appositely-Charles Stewart Parnell." What interests Foster about Yeats's death is that, in the last days, he showed no interest at all in the systems of occultism and supernaturalism that had so preoccupied him, he made no mention of the afterlife, but concentrated exclusively on finishing his last poems. His last conscious act was to "revise a contents list for an imagined last volume of poems."
So, what, if anything, are biographers supposed to do with such mythical body-part stories? They can easily be set aside and ignored. But these compelling relics fit with our deep fascination with deathbed scenes and last words-which I'll come back to in the last essay in this book. We are all fascinated by the manner of the subject's death. And if there are legends about the last moments of the subject, or stories about what happened to their bodies after death-most of which fall into the category of unverifiable things or contested objects-it is a rare biographer who risks taking no notice of such stories. They play a part in the meaning of the life. How such matters should be dealt with in the biographical narrative involves tricky questions of tone and judgment, often involving a standoff between scepticism and superstition, rationalism and sentimentalism. But most biographies concern themselves with afterlives as well as with lives.
One of the most complicated and emotionally charged examples in British biography of the contested use of sources, of rival versions and myth-making, in which a body part comes to symbolise the subject's afterlife, is the story of the death of Shelley. Shelley's great biographer Richard Holmes has written several times about this, once in his biography of 1974, once in the chapter called "Exiles," in Footsteps (1985), which movingly retraced his own steps as Shelley's biographer, and once in a more recent essay on the legends about Shelley that followed his death, in which he notes that "many lives change their shape as we look back on them." In Footsteps, he began that process of "looking back" on the writing of Shelley's life by remembering what he had wanted to do as Shelley's biographer in the 1970s. When he started work, he said, he was faced with a "received biographical image of Shelley's adult character." This "received image" had "three powerful components," he added, all of which he wanted to "explode." One was "the 'angelic' personality of popular myth, the 'Ariel' syndrome, with its strong implication that Shelley was insubstantial, ineffectual, physically incompetent." The second "concerned his radical politics," which had always been treated "as essentially juvenile, and incompatible with his mature lyric gift as a writer." Holmes wanted "to show that Shelley's poetic and political inspirations were closely identified." The third was the "prevailing attitude" to "Shelley's emotional and sexual make-up." Holmes cited Matthew Arnold reviewing Edward Dowden's biography of Shelley in 1886, with horror at what it revealed of the poet's "irregular relations." Holmes, who described his own experiences and friendships in the 1960s as being rather like those of the Shelley circle, was not shocked or horrified, and wanted to understand how Shelley's principles of free love and equal partnerships could have led to such chaos and suffering.
Matthew Arnold's distaste at Shelley's morals formed part of a nineteenth- and early twentieth-century story of posthumous protection and accusation which Holmes outlined at the start and the end of his Shelley biography. This is how he tells it:
Shelley's exile, his defection from his class and the disreputability of his beliefs and behaviour, had a tremendous effect on the carefully partisan handling of his biography by the survivors of his own circle and generation, and even more so by that of his son's. In the first, the generation of his family and friends, fear of the moral and social stigma attached to many incidents in Shelley's career prevented the publication or even the writing of biographical material until those who were in possession of it, like Hogg, Peacock and Trelawny, were respectable Victorians in their sixties, who were fully prepared to forget, to smudge and to conceal.... Mary Shelley was actually prevented from writing anything fuller than [a] brief introduction ... [and] editorial "Notes" ... partly by the same considerations of propriety as Shelley's friends, but even more by the fact that Shelley's father, Sir Timothy Shelley of Field Place, specifically forbade any such publications until after his own death ... and made the ban singularly effective by outliving his detested son by twenty-two years.... In the second generation, control of the Shelley papers passed to Boscombe Manor and Sir Percy Florence's wife, Lady Jane Shelley, who made it her life work to establish an unimpeachable feminine and Victorian idealization of the poet.... The vetting and control which Lady Jane exercised over the chosen scholars who were allowed into the sanctuary, notably Richard Garnett and Edward Dowden, was strict.... This crucial period of Shelley studies was crowned by Edward Dowden's two-volume standard Life (1886), whose damaging influence is still powerfully at work in popular estimates of Shelley's writing and character.
Towards the end of the biography, Lady Shelley's shrine at Boscombe Manor is described in more detail as "complete with life-size monument of the poet, lockets of fading hair, glass cases of letters and blue opaque pots containing fragments of bone." Ian Hamilton, in Keepers of the Flame, adds Shelley's baby-rattle to the list of sacred items and blames the women for the sanctification of Shelley: Mary was "a pious keeper of her husband's flame." The Shelley scholar Timothy Webb, describing in 1977 the posthumous forces "which operated to thin the poet's blood and to idealise his memory," said that Lady Shelley "kept the poet's hair, his manuscripts (limited access for true believers only), his books and his heart (or was it liver?) which had been rescued from the flames at Viareggio. Before you could enter the shrine you had to remove your hat."
All three of these writers attributed the romanticising of Shelley to Mary Shelley's remorseful, grieving idealisation of her husband, and to the testimonies of Shelley's friends: the egotistical Thomas Jefferson Hogg, the adventurous, self-invented Edward Trelawny, who dined out for years on his Shelley and Byron stories, and the unreliable Leigh Hunt. All of them had their own versions to tell of the end of Shelley's life.
The Shelley story evolved through tremendous battles over materials and versions. Friends and family did battle over "their" accounts of Shelley, censoring each other (Lady Shelley putting a stop to Hogg's biography after two volumes, Trelawny taking issue with Mary's editing of Shelley's work), and changing their own stories. For over a hundred years, accusations and counteraccusations flew of lies, censorship, and even forgery. A splendidly obstreperous book of 1945 by Roger Smith and others, The Shelley Legend, much disliked by the Shelley scholars of the time, puts Lady Shelley at the centre of the battle for custody: "Lady Shelley, terrified lest the facts of Shelley's sex-life should become public, made herself the centre of a conspiracy to keep these facts hidden." 11 As Richard Holmes says in his biography, at every point of conflict over the Shelley sources, "where events reveal Shelley in an unpleasant light" (as with his abandonment of Harriet, his first wife, and her subsequent suicide when heavily pregnant) "the original texts and commentaries have attracted suppressions, distortions, and questions of doubtful authenticity, originating from Victorian apologists." William St Clair sums up the matter in his essay of 2002, "The Biographer as Archaeologist": "The general intention of the family was to enhance the reputation of Shelley and of Mary Shelley, and to suppress knowledge of matters which contradicted the image, or rather the myth, which they wanted to see projected ... for example by removing evidence of irreligion, and slurring ... the reputation of Shelley's first wife, Harriet." Long after these attempts at censorship, and now that all the facts of Shelley's life have been scrupulously explored, there are still competing versions of the life-story; blame and accusation are still in play.
Excerpted from Virginia Woolf's Nose by Hermione Lee Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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