In "Granite and Rainbow," a new biography of Virginia Woolf, Mitchell Leaska begins by making a handful of savvy remarks that identify him as a biographer who is aware of the duplicities of his craft. So long as the process involves human perception, he explains, there is no such thing as objective reporting. Interpretations of the same source material, he allows, can differ as widely as reviews of the same novel. Biographers approach the lives they are reconstructing, he adds, under the influence of their "own private repertoire of experience and history and values and assumptions about the world."
Such a sensibility would seem up to the task of chronicling one of the most refined and self-aware literary intelligences of the 20th century. The editor of Woolf's early journals ("A Passionate Apprentice: 1897-1909") and the author of several critical studies of her work, Leaska would also seem well positioned to face a particularly difficult challenge: how to render a conventionally chronological biography just two years after the appearance of Hermione Lee's stunning and imaginative "Virginia Woolf."
Lee approached her subject by theme: Each of her chapters focused on the critical people, events and ideas in Woolf's life, and the cumulative effect was a fresh, vibrant and ineffably moving retelling of a story that seemed already familiar to readers of the shelves full of Bloomsbury biographies and memoirs. Lee's narrative managed to meet one of Woolf's own requirements for a good biography, which is that it be "the record of the things that change rather than of the things that happen." Over the course of 800 pages, her Woolf evolved, developed, deepened and matured. Further, and critically, Lee eluded one of the major dangers of biography that Woolf once laid out in a book review. Likening the process of biography to sealing the past in a magic tank, Woolf said that its subjects often move and speak "in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant" and have "read into their sayings all kinds of meanings which never struck them." Lee's Virginia Woolf, it seems safe to say, would be recognizable to Woolf herself.
Leaska's portrait belongs to a different category entirely. He begins by reporting that both Virginia's husband, Leonard, and her brother-in-law, Clive Bell, found her to be untruthful and a fabricator, hereby setting a tone of doubt, even suspiciousness, that colors much of the story that follows. Leaska proceeds to assert that "the familiar separation of life and work upon which most literary biography depends does not apply to Virginia Woolf. Her life and her work were inseparable, and part of that life was inscribed in every novel she wrote." Woolf's fiction, then, is to be read as fact, while her facts are to be read as fiction. Only with the appropriate biographical mediation, Leaska implies, can the enigma of Virginia Woolf be cracked.
It is true that few Woolf biographies have given such detailed attention to the psychological makeup of her parents or to the intricate anatomy of their marriage. To his credit, Leaska reviews their correspondence and vividly renders the lugubrious courtship between the greedy, self-consumed, childish and demanding Leslie Stephen and the dark, inscrutable, self-sacrificing Julia Duckworth. "We are both cripples and can help to bear each other's burdens" is Stephen's way of wooing the beautiful Julia, who, in Leaska's (as in Woolf's) view, remained all her life possessed by her first husband and true love, Herbert Duckworth, who died after four years of marriage when Julia was pregnant with their third child. For Duckworth, Julia felt passion, for Stephen pity.
Born into this difficult triangulation of mother, father and ghost, the highly sensitive young Virginia had, in Leaska's view, strong Oedipal feelings for Leslie, whose habit of equating being babied and petted with being loved was "something his little Virginia would learn from him and carry on into her own adult and married life." To gain Leslie's favor, Virginia developed a literary mind, whereas to hold the attention of her mother, the perennial nurse, she learned to be ill or in crisis. As psychoanalytic readings go, this is not implausible; what is implausible, however, as well as reductive, is the degree to which Leaska sees the entirety of Woolf's life as a mere reenactment of the parental prototypes or these early parent-child dynamics.
Leaska's psychoanalytic template is as immutable as it is severe. Virginia's teasing, affectionate and, at times, needy letters to her sister Vanessa sound "like Leslie's to Julia at the height of their courtship"; likewise, Virginia's letters to Leonard "might have been written by Leslie to Julia." When Virginia falls in love with Vita Sackville-West, she often plays the invalid; she and her father therefore "are indeed mirror images." These reiterations (they are legion in the book) succeed in sucking the air of reality and individuality out of Woolf's relationships. Their rigidity strips Woolf of the ambiguity, paradox and fluctuations that make her a human being and not merely the enactment of a tightly laced psychological theory.
Leaska approaches some interludes in Woolf's life more neutrally and therefore more revealingly. The period she spent as an independent, and independent-minded, single woman, between Vanessa's marriage to Clive and hers to Leonard, is poignantly portrayed. The apprehensions she feels in the early months of her marriage are piercingly imparted. Her breakdowns of 1913 and 1915 and her many fluctuations between wellness and illness are sequentially cataloged and convey a quality of mental and emotional anguish that become muted when presented in overview. And Leaska grasps the new approach to the novel that Woolf wrested out of herself, with its pioneering use of mental time, shifting points of view and interior monologue.
Many troubling evaluations remain, however. While Leaska may lay out Woolf's painful bouts of mental illness with some sympathy, he never attends to her mysterious comment that her madness had saved her, and he chooses not to raise the potential (and admittedly problematic) connection between her creativity and her breakdowns when, as she wrote to her friend Ethel Smyth, she came up with "profound and to me inspired phrases." In depicting the Woolfs' marriage, as he does with so many of her relationships and habits, Leaska stresses what he sees as its pathology: the lack of physical connection; Leonard's tendency to be "rigid, persistent, morally unyielding"; Virginia's childish (and childlike) behavior; and the way her mental illness dominated their lives. He gives little time to the unusual emotional and practical pliability of this partnership: Here, after all, were two people, two friends and lifelong companions, who were dauntingly prolific in their separate writing careers and their joint publishing enterprise alike; who traveled compatibly; who shared an enthusiastic social life and a compelling domestic life; and who maintained that the marriage brought both of them the "greatest possible happiness," as Woolf phrased it in her suicide note.
It is certainly one of the infrequently acknowledged secrets of the genre: Biographers can sometimes grow disenchanted--even disgusted--with their subjects' personalities. Some of this disaffection, surely, is behind Leaska's tendency to interpret the Virginia-Vanessa relationship, for example, in such unremittingly negative terms. Yes, Virginia at times felt rivalrous with her sister, was jealous of Vanessa's children and boasted of her own greater artistic success. But she was also a loving sibling who valued her sister's friendship, was supportive of Vanessa's painting and was capable of immense generosity in times of need and distress. After Vanessa's son Julian was killed during the Spanish Civil War, Virginia was such a consolation to her sister that Vanessa later wrote to Sackville-West, "I cannot ever say how Virginia has helped me" and to Virginia herself, "I couldnt get on at all if it werent for you." Leaska's analysis of Virginia's devoted behavior? "Vanessa's loss had become Virginia's gain. . . . It is almost as if Virginia were reclaiming the right to all of Vanessa now that Julian was out of the way." This is shockingly unfeeling, bad psychology and poor writing to boot.
Missing entirely from "Granite and Rainbow" is an appreciation of Woolf's great and prodigious productivity, which she often sustained during periods of considerable struggle and despite both mental and physical illness, and her relentless perfectionism, which holds lessons for all writers and artists. (Leaska sees Woolf's commitment to her art as an illness: When she carries a notebook with her on her walks through London, she is "like a cardiac patient who would never be without nitroglycerine.") Also absent are her capacity to delight her friends with her irony, her humor, her verbal pyrotechnics; her inquisitiveness, which was matched by her gift for listening; her fascination for, and with, small children; her fondness for beautiful houses and gardens; her almost mystical love of the English countryside, which she covered in long, vigorous daily tramps; and her passionate devotion to the English language.
Perhaps it is not completely fair to lament what a writer omits. Leaska's most egregious inclusion in this biography is his rendering of Woolf's relationship with her half-brother George Duckworth, whom Woolf identified at several points in her life (in memoirs and letters) as her sexual abuser. Leaska believes he has found Woolf out in another untruth. Why, he wonders, when George Duckworth died in 1934 did Woolf feel, as she wrote in her diary, "incongruous shades of feeling," many of them nostalgic for the George Duckworth of her childhood? "One would have expected his death to come as a relief," Leaska reasons, "that she was at last free of that nasty pedophilic sex offender." Leaska argues further that Woolf, in diaries written during her youth, did not sound like "a sexually abused victim writing about her abuser." For an explanation, he turns to "The Years," where (reading fiction for psychological fact) he believes he has decoded Woolf's own incestuous fantasies for her father. Hence, "it was easier to lay the weight of those unmentionable crimes on to the shoulders of her half brothers than to acknowledge . . . the private shame generated by her equally unmentionable incestuous fantasies."
This goes against all of our hard-won understanding of the nature of abuse, and it goes against human nature too. Is the evidentiary record inconclusive? To a degree. What Woolf called George's "malefactions" are inconsistently recorded, sometimes more explicit, sometimes less so, but they were mentioned to outsiders (Vanessa reported them to George Savage, their family doctor, in conjunction with Virginia's breakdown in 1904, and Virginia herself discussed them with her friend Ottoline Morrell, who made a record of the conversation in her diary in 1932). To say that the abuse did not happen because its victim felt ambivalent about her abuser upon his death, or didn't record the event in her diary during her girlhood, or wrote a charged, possibly incestuous scene in a novel later in life, is spurious, irresponsible and psychologically very unsound.
Sadly, this is but one of the farfetched conjectures Leaska makes in "Granite and Rainbow." Safely, however, for Virginia Woolf, she is stronger than all of her biographers, good and bad alike. As Woolf once observed of Shelley, "There are some stories which have to be retold by each generation." Hers, unquestionably, is among them. It has been told well before and doubtless, one day, it will be again.