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VIRGINIA WOOLF.<i> By Hermione Lee</i> .<i> Random House: 867 pp., $39.95</i> : ART AND AFFECTION: A Life of Virginia Woolf.<i> By Panthea Reid</i> .<i> Oxford University Press: 570 pp., $35</i>

<i> Regina Marler is the editor of "Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell" (1993) and author of the forthcoming "Bloomsbury Pie."</i>

To write a fresh and engaging new life of Virginia Woolf is no mean feat. For Hermione Lee to do so, the “official” biographer, taking over from Quentin Bell, whose award-winning 1972 “Virginia Woolf” is still considered among the most stylish biographies of the century, seems an act of virtuosity along the lines of ax juggling or handcuffed escapes from tiger cages. Letters, diaries and other major materials for such a biography have been in the public’s hands for over 10 years. The details of Woolf’s private life--her periods of mental illness, her feminism, her childhood tragedies and sexual abuse--are better-known and more exhaustively debated than those of any other modernist writer. Readers can hold firm opinions on these matters, siding with one biographer or another, or adhering to some personal insight into Woolf’s character or motives. And to complicate matters, another substantial Woolf biography has appeared this summer to compete with the official biography.

Although there is new material in the Hermione Lee biography, and much astute commentary, its strength lies not in revelation but in artful layering of the past and present. By the end, Lee has devoted as much attention to Woolf’s lively posthumous presence--the Woolf of our making--as to the writer herself. It is Hermione Lee’s breadth of awareness, her willingness to expand the conventional boundaries of a life in the search for a richer and more faceted Virginia Woolf, that distinguishes her biography from its predecessors and contemporaries, including the recent “Art and Affection” by Panthea Reid. Both new Woolf biographies are hefty and well-researched. Both offer carefully considered arguments. But Reid is still engaged in the search for demons that characterized Woolf biography from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s. In the Reid biography, the figures around Virginia Woolf are defined in relation to her, existing chiefly as helpers or antagonists. Her husband, Leonard, is cast as a sort of good shepherd, benevolently overseeing Woolf’s emotional balance, while her sister Vanessa Bell shifts between helpless incompetence and cruelty. It is a sad trick of mortality that Woolf’s friends and family could not know that their future importance would rest on their relations with her. They dared to neglect her, at times, or to complain she made mischief, or to criticize her in letters that have now made their way into print, permanent records of passing irritation. They dared, in fact, to press on with their own puny lives, and posterity has judged them harshly.

Although the best parts of Reid’s book address Woolf’s middle age, when her relationship with her sister no longer preoccupied her, the bulk of Reid’s argument hinges on sibling rivalry. Like other scholars of recent years, Reid explores both the fruitful and defeating aspects of the sisters’ championship of their own artistic spheres. “I cannot remember a time,” Vanessa wrote after Virginia’s death, “when Virginia did not mean to be a writer and I a painter.” The sisters kept up a playful antagonism on the subject, often managing to displace personal jealousy with the theoretical competition between painting and writing. Reid uses Leonardo da Vinci’s term paragone to describe the tension between their respective arts and, by implication, their respective paths in life. The difficulty is that Reid takes Virginia’s side in the conflict with Vanessa, perpetuating and even furthering an opposition that was at least partly a family joke. There is not a bitchy remark anywhere in Vanessa’s letters that escapes inclusion here. Even Virginia’s 1913 suicide attempt and its aftermath are plotted to highlight Vanessa’s selfishness and brutality. Bertrand Russell once complained that Lytton Strachey’s biographical style didn’t lend itself to strict accuracy: He “would always touch up the picture to make the lights and shadows more glaring.” Readers familiar with Woolf and her circle may find that Panthea Reid favors the same contrasting brush work.

The decision to publish the Reid biography this summer, when the long-awaited, much-publicized Lee biography was due to appear, tells us much about the perceived market for Virginia Woolf material. At least eight full-length biographical studies of Woolf have appeared in the past 15 years, and at least two more biographies are now scheduled for publication. The fascination with Woolf’s life is an essential part of her legend, continually remarked on in the press and joked about at scholarly conferences. Given the current glut, it may be hard to believe that in the 30 years after her suicide in 1941, there was almost no biographical information available to readers. But this, too, is part of the legend that Lee draws on: the story of Woolf’s slow return from critical disfavor in the 1940s and 1950s.

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Woolf’s husband and publisher, Leonard Woolf, was in a unique position to influence this recovery. Acutely aware of the antagonism to his wife’s work after her death (and the larger antagonism to the Bloomsbury Group, her immediate milieu), he developed a long-term strategy for the revival of her reputation. Only the best-known novels, like “To the Lighthouse,” would be kept in print, even during the war, when the Hogarth Press could publish almost nothing else. He carefully parceled out her essays and short stories, too, releasing only what he felt the market could bear. In 1953, against his better judgment, he began to publish selections from her personal writings: an expurgated, heavily abridged edition of her diaries, followed three years later by a similarly sanitized version of her correspondence with Lytton Strachey. Neither volume ignited a fascination with Virginia Woolf. But thanks in part to the Women’s Movement, a readership for her novels had been growing (Leonard liked to quote her rising sales figures to hostile critics), and when the Quentin Bell biography finally appeared, it was rapturously received. Reprints were so rapid that Bell could not even insert a small correction until the seventh print run.

Many readers, however, especially women, were disappointed that Bell chose not to address Virginia Woolf’s thought or writings in any detail, and this is one reason that rival biographers have flourished. His decision seemed to suggest that Woolf’s novels were too difficult for common readers, or even that her work was not central to her life. Along with the family flavor of the official biography (Bell was Virginia Woolf’s nephew), Bell’s reluctance to address the writing sparked an enduring controversy among scholars.

Lee’s own 1977 study “The Novels of Virginia Woolf” announced itself as an attempt to refocus attention on Woolf’s work: “This is not a book about Bloomsbury, lesbianism, madness or suicide,” she insisted. The critical squabbling left readers with a fragmented vision of Virginia Woolf, and little consensus of her literary merit. In America, for instance, Woolf has long been regarded as a major writer, but she is still routinely derided in the English press, where her popularity with American readers is considered potent evidence against her.

“There is no such thing as an objective biography,” writes Lee in the opening pages of this biography, “particularly not in [Woolf’s] case. Positions have been taken, myths have been made.” Lee’s awareness of the Woolf legend crackles like an electrical current under the surface of her primary narrative. Approaching the fraught subject of Woolf’s sexual molestation by her half-brothers, for instance, Lee admits, “it is impossible to think about this story innocently, without being aware of what has been made of it.” Although she names her opponent only in the end notes, Lee’s discussion of the subject can be read as a submerged running argument with Louise DeSalvo, whose provocative book on Woolf’s childhood sexual abuse portrayed the Stephens as a pathologically dysfunctional family. Given the popular success of DeSalvo’s book (it is the best-selling Woolf book since the Quentin Bell biography), Lee knows that when she counters DeSalvo’s views, she is challenging not only a single influential scholar but a powerful and appealing version of Woolf’s childhood that has taken hold in the popular imagination. Lee ends by convincing us that what is important is not what actually happened to the young Virginia, or even our most plausible interpretations of events as they have come down to us in the written record, but what Woolf herself made of them in her fiction and essays.

Lee’s treatment of Woolf’s close friend and early love interest, Violet Dickinson, is similarly colored by her awareness of what previous scholars have made of it. Another writer might have despaired of saying anything original on this matter--Panthea Reid, for instance, dismisses it with a sentence or two on Virginia’s craving for maternal affection--but Lee establishes her own views through contrast with earlier accounts of the relationship. “Because Violet was dropped [by Woolf],” she argues, “she has been treated subsequently as a negligible, comic figure, the benevolent object of a youthful ‘crush’ and a lingering reminder of Hyde Park Gate days. But what she gave Virginia Stephen at a time of great vulnerability was very important. Violet enabled her to behave freely, childishly, like a daughter or a favorite pet or a sweetheart. . . . She provided a space in which Virginia could curl up or hurl herself about, and be as egotistical and demanding as her dying father.” This is not a radical revision but an enlargement of sympathy; it is both a rational and an intuitive gesture, typical of Lee’s generosity toward her subject, and of her fundamental sensibleness.

Perhaps the best example of this sensibleness is Lee’s chapter on Woolf’s “madness,” in which she throws into question much of what Leonard Woolf and Quentin Bell had written about Woolf’s recurring episodes of physical and emotional breakdown, though without casting blame on either writer. Like other biographers, she describes the psychiatric biases of Woolf’s day and lingers on the quietly tormenting “rest cure,” so often prescribed for troublesome gifted women. But she also speculates about possible physical causes, such as undiagnosed tuberculosis, for Woolf’s susceptibility to contagious diseases, as well as her severe mood swings.

Turning to the original sources, Lee found that almost the only surviving contemporary documents on Woolf’s mental illnesses are her drug prescriptions. She looked into the neuropsychiatric effects of the drugs Woolf was given and discovered that some of them, under some conditions, mimic the mania that Leonard Woolf described as a phase in his wife’s illness. “Even in light of these different, and changing, readings,” Lee concludes reasonably, “we cannot, I think, be sure what ‘caused’ Virginia Woolf’s mental illness.

“We can only look at what it did to her, and what she did with it. What is certain is her closeness, all her life, to a terrifying edge, and her creation of a language which faces it and makes something of it. This is a life of heroism, not of oppression, a life of writing wrestled from illness, fear, and pain.”

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Passages like these are not so very different from what readers might have expected of Bell, had he been born a woman in the late 1940s, for he is of course one of the biographers with whom Lee invites comparison. Hers is a more rigorous and intellectual effort, but tends, like his, toward a middle course in interpreting Woolf’s life and writings. The middle has shifted considerably in the last 25 years, however, so that Lee’s approach is matter-of-factly feminist, while Bell’s managed to enrage many bright women. He is the better writer, perhaps, but she is the better scholar. More importantly, she brings her dazzling knowledge of Woolf’s texts and drafts to bear on the writer’s life, providing in the new authorized biography the blend of life and work--the full life, in other words--that Quentin Bell could not, or would not, attempt.


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