Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf's Nose

Wasn't I flattered when the editor of biography contacted me and asked me to review this book? Wasn't it a happy day to receive the thin volume free in the mail? And to take a day off from manuscript work in July to write the review, well, it made me feel important and busy. So, then, what is the emotion when the editor writes to say, oops! we assigned the review to somebody else. Bless her, she tried to place it elsewhere. No dice. Here it is.

LEE HERMIONE, Virginia Woolf’s Nose. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 141 pp.

Hermione Lee is the author of the best biography of Virginia Woolf: in a field crowded with competitors for the definitive portrayal of a beloved woman writer, this is no mean achievement. Her status as Woolf’s definitive biographer is testament to Lee’s overall standing as one of our best literary biographers. In addition to Virginia Woolf (1998), she has written books on Willa Cather, Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Bowen, and Philip Roth. She is currently at work on a biography of Edith Wharton.

Lee’s latest book, Virginia Woolf’s Nose, is a handsome, slim volume on writing biography. It originated in a Cambridge University seminar and a series of lectures at Princeton. That origin, the book’s subtitle, Essays on Biography, and the humorous title itself (an allusion to the controversial prosthetic nose Nicole Kidman wore to play Woolf in the movie of The Hours) give the flavor of the book. Lee’s wit canters along at an easy pace here: Virginia Woolf’s Nose is a delightful read. Although this book is entirely concerned with literary biography, Lee never distinguishes between her subgenre and biography tout court: this is my only quibble with an otherwise lovely book.

The book opens with Elizabeth Gaskell’s note to herself: “If you love your reader and want to be read, get anecdotes!” Hermione Lee heeds Gaskell’s dictum here: we get stories of Jane Austen fainting, of Pepys forgetting to bring home the lobsters he has bought for dinner, of Trelawny grieving for Shelley while Byron darkly refuses to do so. Many of these stories are familiar but no less enjoyable for the repetition. But pleasure is not the whole point of this book nor is Virginia Woolf’s Nose only a fireside chat in the company of an engaging biographer. Each of these four essays discusses a particularly thorny aspect of biography: how to deal with gaps in the record, or a thin record in which every event seems to take on great significance, how popular fictional portrayals color—and flatten—public perception of a literary figure, and how biographers deal with death. Neither theoretical nor especially practical (this is not a how-to guide for beginners), Lee makes her case through judicious comparisons. As readers of her work will expect, she has little patience for polemical or narrow readings of a life. We should not expect Lee to insist that a single event colored an entire life any more than that a single theoretical perspective can bring that life into order. She revels instead in navigating how the details of a life combine to create a likeness of the writer.

How, for example, are we to deal with a significant moment in the life of someone about whom little is known? This is her subject in “Jane Austen Faints,” in which she contrasts the nostalgic world of the Janeites with the growing feminist effort to “construct a more robust, less sanctified Austen” (74). There is no doubt that Lee’s sympathies lie with the feminists, but the pleasure and point here lies in reading, side by side, competing versions of the same story: Jane Austen’s faint at learning of her family’s sudden decision to move to Bath. (She was twenty-five.) It may be an anomalous moment in an otherwise discrete life; it may be a sign of intense repressed emotions; it may be the occasion for larger speculations on the social position of an unmarried woman, subject to her parents whims. What Lee watches—and teaches us to watch—are the moments in which the biographer turns to conditionals and speculations, what “Jane” “must have felt” or what “seems likely.” In the end, she reminds us that the best biographers are careful to distinguish between the historical record and their interpretation of it, and, harder still, are careful to assess how accurate an historical account is likely to be. What ever we might want Austen to have been like, we must, Lee counsels, remember how far we are from knowing her.

In spite of this, Lee insists: “explanation is exactly what is wanted” (120). She will brook no shirkers. This insistence holds even on the difficult subject of death, where Lee notes with some amusement that biographers often find it “hard to resist colouring the moment of death with the subject’s own attitude to death” (114), otherwise, why would a biographer of Proust give him “mother” as his last word? And should we be surprised that biographer Andrew Motion found the modern, clinical view of death fitting for his biography of Philip Larkin, whose stark, clinical poems provide Motion with his imagery of pain, rage, and inevitability (116)?

On the novel and movie of The Hours, which used her Woolf biography as one of its sources, Lee is particularly generous where she might have been churlish. She clearly admires the book and likes the movie, though more reservedly, and says so before launching into her critique. In doing so, she distinguishes herself from those critics, also quoted here, who loudly protested against what they saw as the disappointing portrayal of Woolf as a fragile, humorless, suicidal woman. Lee places herself above the fray of either possessive American feminists or, across the channel, of bitchy, jealous Englishmen, even as she concurs with the feminist objections. She calls Cunningham’s an “inventive, absorbing novel” which “makes a sensitive reinvention of Woolf’s inner life” even as she expresses reservations about turning real people into characters. However, when she notes that instead of a coat from Harrod’s, Woolf’s niece “would much more likely be wearing a cut-down jacket of Duncan Grant’s, or a velvet cloak made out of old curtains” (50), I could not help but wish that Lee would turn her hand to novels. That eye for detail, that way of knowing a life so well that you can guess not only where your subject would shop but what kind of coat her young niece would wear, is what makes Lee a biographer worth listening to again and again.