book blog · Book Review

Book Review | Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee

May 16th, 2022

Hi Readers!

So I’ve been really enjoying my non-fiction this year, and I think I’ve discovered a new love for literary non-fiction.

| Published: 1996 by Vintage |
| Genre: Non-Fiction |
| Themes: Literature, 20th Century, Virginia Woolf |
| Length: 893 Pages |
| Age: Adult |
| My Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ |

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.

This was an incredibly detailed, well-researched biography. It’s admiring, but also a balanced and fair telling of one of the literary greats of the 20th century. Lee doesn’t put Woolf up on a pedistal and forget that she was a flawed human being, and she treats Woolf’s mental health factually and sensitively.

Learning about her life has left me with so much more understanding of her novels. How her relationships and surroundings influenced them, why she wrote them, and the impact they had on her. This book is filled with insights into her books and what is clear is Woolf put so much of herself into her writing. Her pain, grief, joy and hopes are all immortalised.

“Thoby haunted her: she perpetually remembered and reimagine him. She wrote three versions of him in over twenty years, as ‘Jacob’ in Jacob’s Room, as ‘Percival’ in The Waves, and as himself in her Sketch of the Past.”

There’s a reason so many of her books are set around the sea, during the Summer, on the hottest days of London. All of these things had a significence to her and would eventually work their way into her novels.

“Her diary, like her essays and stories and novels, blurs the lines between history, biography and fiction.”

She lived during one of the most exciting times in British literature, and I loved learning about her famous literary friends, the Hogarth press she ran with her husband (I had no idea she owned the house that published all of her books!), her romances and her (slightly half-hearted) political endeavors.

“Virginia Woolf and her contemporaries were poised on the edge of revolution.”

You don’t have to have read Woolf to enjoy this book (although there are a lot of references to Three Guiness, The Waves, The Lighthouse, Orlando, Mrs Dalloway and, of course, A Room of One’s Own). It’s also just an interesting look into a writer born a Victorian and growing into a modernist, living through two world wars, going through immense amounts of loss and battling with her mental illness all her adult life.

“Books are a school for character, she (Woolf) argues, because they change (like people) as we read them, and change us as we read. Books read us.”

What got me, was her unawareness of just how incredible her writing was. Multiple times Lee shared quotes from diary entries and letters where Woolf said her writing was ‘nothing’, “she couldn’t do anything right or anything useful”, she felt she was wasting her time. Despite her successes, she still had moments of self-doubt. Well, if only she could see how her works have stood the test of time.

And of course, her self-doubt could have been part of her mental health problems. It’s a known fact she died by suicide, but from the very beginning of adulthood depression and suicidal thoughts plagued her mind, and writing was an especially strong trigger for it. There’s a lot of references to suicide and depression, but I thought Lee handled it carefully “Virginia was a sane woman who had an illness”and it was very interesting to see how these were delt with by doctors in the early 20th century. Very interesting…

“Everything suddenly became unreal; I was suspended; I could not step across the puddle; I tried to touch something… the whole world became unreal.”

Another theme Lee follows is Woolf’s sexuality and what I loved to see was, despite censorship and laws, almost all of Woolf’s friends were gay or in gay relationships. They were also so open about it in conversations and letter corrispondants as well which I think is brilliant.

“She could not bear to catergorise herself as belonging to a group defined by its sexual behaviour (just as she didn’t want to think of herself as an ordinary ‘wife’ or as a writer of ‘novels’). She wanted to avoid all categories.

I now have the uncontrollable urge to reread all of her novels, starting at the beginning. There’s also a whole lot of non-fiction work by Woolf I had no idea was out there, so I’ll be looking to get my hands on them soon as well.

Thanks For Reading,
Jess X

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