Saturday, April 4, 2009

As Big as the Bible


It took me forever to read this.

This exhaustive biography is more than just a biography; it is a life study which makes commentary on the art of biography. A fortunate subject for Lee, Virginia Woolf was a prolific self-chronicler and had very definite conceptions of biography, had engaged the idea of biography within her novels (Orlando) and had refused and accepted to write biographies (her father, Roger Fry respectively).

Virginia Woolf is not strictly chronological but moves in circles towards her end in 1941, dealing with dates and years by concepts – parents, childhood, wars. The reader is left with a thorough picture of Virginia Woolf’s world – not just her interior world: her acquaintances, her reading habits, the social and familial circles that she definitively inhabited, the social inheritance of her parents Leslie and Julia Stephens, her siblings and step-siblings, her attraction to women and the lives of those women, and finally her lifelong dependable, saving marriage to Leonard Woolf.

Lee draws extensively from Woolf’s writings, diaries and correspondences, and also the writings, diaries and correspondences of her peers, often showing a single trivial event through the eyes of two or more diarists. When our present generation is dead, a generation fluent in the arts of texting, blogging, emailing and facebooking, I can’t imagine that we’ll have carefully notated minutiae left to those who follow as VW’s.

Most useful information gained from reading this book (and then Wikipedia) – the River Ouse (where VW drowned herself) is pronounced “Ooze” not “Wheeze.” At last, I can say it with confidence.

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