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The proper writing of lives. Biography and the Art of Virginia Woolf

Profile image of Claudia Cremonesi

"The proper writing of lives. Biography and the Art of Virginia Woolf" analyses Virginia Woolf’s lifelong interest in the genre of biography and life-writing. Being the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, Woolf was personally connected to the genre of literary life. She made biography the substance of her experimental fiction. In addition to this, biography was the topic of several of her critical writings: Woolf reviewed biographies by contemporary and non-contemporary authors and questioned the literary function and significance of the genre in the context of the modern art of writing. In the wake of these considerations, and by taking into account Woolf’s life and her literary achievement, Claudia Cremonesi’s work traces a different portrait of the modernist writer, less encumbered by the orthodoxy of her age and deeply involved in a constant and fruitful dialogue with the voices of the past. Woolf’s capability to stride over different epochs and to profit from the classical models in the genre biography frames and sustains the present work.

Related Papers

Andre Gerard

This paper will first glance at Virginia’s public criticism of Edmund Gosse, criticism in which she came dangerously close to posthumously outing him as homosexual. It will then go on to briefly look at some of what she had to say about him in her diaries and letters, before exploring the possibility that Virginia used elements of Gosse in both Orlando (1928) and To the Lighthouse (1927). The paper will then conclude with speculations about why Gosse was so important to Virginia.

virginia woolf the art of biography pdf

Back to Bloomsbury: Selected papers from the Fourteenth International conference on Virginia Woolf

Benjamin Harvey

Vistula Working Papers

Irena Ksiezopolska

The essay analyses the style and content of Virginia Woolf’s essays. The genre is reinvented by Woolf, who is famous for writing fiction without plot, and who yet often uses fabula-based structures in her supposedly non-fictional writings. The essay examines several examples of Woolf’s technique, addressing her writings on reading, fiction-writing, biography, travel and the art of seeing the world.

Caroline Marie

Woolfian Boundaries

Emily Kopley

Pamela Eva , Özlem Uzundemir

Kathryn Simpson


Jessica Siu-yin Yeung

Nicole Coonradt

Eric Sandberg

Elise Swinford

Amanda Golden

Virginia Woolf and the Natural World

Elisa Kay Sparks

Emily M. Hinnov, Ph.D.

The Virginia Woolf Miscellany

Teresa Prudente

Contradictory Woolf

Laci Mattison

Rebecca DeWald

Yvonne Richter Canchola

Music and Letters

Christopher Wiley

Literature Compass

Woolf and the City

Virginia Woolf Miscellany 86 (Fall 2014/Winter 2015): 19-21

Gerardo Rodríguez-Salas

Brenda S Helt

Madelyn Detloff , Brenda S Helt

megan quigley

Rachel Trousdale , Priscilla Meyer

David Amigoni

Redeeming "Midnight" for Day: Saxon Sydney-Turner, Virginia Woolf, and the Bloomsbury Group

Dwain Sparling

Anna Snaith

Katerina Kitsi

Matthew Clarke

Virginia Woolf: Art, Education, and Internationalism

Jane de Gay

Max Saunders

Karina Jakubowicz

14 Biography and Autobiography

Laura Marcus is Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. Her book publications include The Tenth Muse: Writing about Cinema in the Modernist Period (2007) (winner of the MLA’s James Russell Lowell prize), Dreams of Modernity: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Cinema (2014) and Autobiography: A Very Short Introduction (2018).

  • Published: 11 August 2021
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This chapter explores the centrality of biography and autobiography to Woolf’s reading and writing life, and to her cultural milieu, in which experiments in life-writing were a crucial aspect of the modernist reaction against the Victorian era. It examines Woolf’s deep engagement in her fiction with life-writing forms, from the bildungsroman of The Voyage Out to the play with conventional biographical forms of Jacob’s Room , Orlando , The Waves , and Flush and the autobiographical foundations of To the Lighthouse . It also examines her biography of Roger Fry, and her own experiment in memoir-writing, the posthumously published ‘A Sketch of the Past’, in the context of concerns with the nature of memory, identity, and sexuality.

Biography and autobiography—as literary genres and as ways of representing the lives and identities of others and of the self—were at the heart of Virginia Woolf’s cultural world and of her writing life. Her Bloomsbury circle was fuelled by the arts of conversation, gossip, and memoir. The ‘Memoir Club’, founded in 1920 and lasting for many decades, was a forum in which Bloomsbury members—the Club’s original members included Leonard and Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Molly and Desmond MacCarthy, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Vanessa and Clive Bell, and Roger Fry—read autobiographical sketches to each other, sustaining their collective identity through their personal, and group, stories and anecdotes. ‘I doubt that anyone will say the interesting things but they can’t prevent their coming out’, Woolf commented of the Club’s first meeting ( D 2 22).

Throughout her life, Woolf read extensively and absorbedly in biographies, autobiographies, journals, memoirs, and collections of letters, and reviewed many such works for the literary journals. A prolific diarist and correspondent, her personal writings were forums for perceptions, observations, and descriptions which also became shaping forces in her fiction and essays. Woolf’s novels are deeply intertwined with life-writing forms, from the bildungsroman of The Voyage Out (1915) to the play with conventional biographical forms of Jacob’s Room (1922), Orlando (1928), The Waves (1931), and Flush (1933) and the autobiographical foundations of To the Lighthouse (1927). Her earliest short stories, including ‘Memoirs of a Novelist’ (1909) and ‘The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn’ (1906), were experiments in the writing of historical and fictional biography, which also, in taking a distance from the conventions of the Victorian ‘lives and letters’ form, began the process by which Woolf, over the course of her writing life, would (as she put it in describing her plans for Orlando ) help to ‘revolutionize’ biography ( L 3 429). One of her final works, the incomplete and, in her lifetime, unpublished memoir ‘A Sketch of the Past’, has become one of the most significant texts of modern autobiography, opening out to questions of identity (‘Who was I then?’), the nature of memory and recall, and the relationship between past and present time and selves (‘I now, I then’) in ways that have come to define the key aspects of twentieth-century autobiographical acts.

The milieu in which Virginia Woolf—then Virginia Stephen—grew up was also one to which biography was central. Her paternal and maternal lineages were eminent: her ancestors and relations were part of the network of intellectual and professional families who shaped Victorian society and knowledge production in its literary, philosophical, religious, cultural, scientific, and political dimensions, and whose members’ lives were deemed entirely worthy of record. Many of their number, both male and female, were also prolific essayists, biographers, autobiographers, and authors of memoirs and reminiscences. The ‘lives of great men’, from which Woolf would come to take a critical and parodic distance, was the substance of the work that occupied her father, the philosopher and essayist Sir Leslie Stephen, for many years of his life and for much of her childhood: the monumental Dictionary of National Biography ( DNB ). The DNB undoubtedly changed the nature of Victorian biographical writing, substituting brevity for the voluminous ‘lives and letters’ form and dismissing undue piety towards the departed with its unwritten motto of ‘no flowers by request’. Nonetheless, its near exclusively masculine focus and its hierarchy of value in relation to lives and careers were aspects that Woolf would repeatedly counter in her chosen focus on women’s lives, ‘the lives of the obscure’, and the importance of ‘Anon’. Of her numerous essays, reviews, and character-sketches, a very substantial proportion are concerned with women and women’s writing, including many works of biography and autobiography, memoir, and reminiscence. A late essay, ‘The Art of Biography’ (1939), returned to the questioning of biography’s commitment to ‘the lives of great men’:

Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worthy of biography—the failures as well as the successes, the humble as well as the illustrious? And what is greatness? And what smallness? He [the biographer] must revise our standards of merit and set up new heroes for our admiration. ( E 6 186)

Into the new century, ‘the moderns’ would mark their distance and difference from the Victorian past both by their irreverent attitudes to the conventions of life-writing and by the complex understandings of identity and selfhood that the new psychologies, including an emergent psychoanalysis, were bringing into being. If Leslie Stephen and his co-editor on the DNB , Sidney Lee (whose writings on biography continued into the 1910s), were among the shaping figures of late Victorian biographical writing, it was in the cultural milieu surrounding Woolf in the first decades of the twentieth century that new modes of life-writing flourished, their popularity intimately connected to the perception that biography had been reinvented for the modern age. Woolf’s close friend Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) was a key text of ‘the new biography’, in its destruction through satire of the reputations of the ‘great men’ (and, in Florence Nightingale, ‘great women’) of Victorian Britain. ‘I have attempted’, Strachey wrote in the Preface to the work, ‘through the medium of biography to present some Victorian visions to the modern eye’, 1 ‘visions’ becoming a synonym for ‘illusions’ and ‘delusions’, not least those of the blind subservience to God and Country that had led to the mass destruction of a world war (which was still, at the time of the book’s publication, running its course).

Strachey followed Eminent Victorians with numerous biographical ‘portraits’ and with his Queen Victoria (1921) and Elizabeth and Essex (1928), the latter published in the same year as Orlando , which has its own representation of the great queen. Other members of Woolf’s intimate and broader circles also produced a significant number of works of biography and biographical criticism. Vita Sackville-West’s biographical works included studies of Aphra Behn (1927) and Joan of Arc (1936); Sackville-West’s husband Harold Nicolson published an experiment in biography, Some People (1927)—the subject of Woolf’s essay ‘The New Biography’—and a study entitled The Development of English Biography (1927) , published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press, which was in production as Woolf worked on Orlando . The French critic André Maurois, who became linked to the Bloomsbury circle in the 1920s, gave a series of lectures that were published as Aspects of Biography in 1929. 2 Maurois debates closely with Nicolson’s critical study in this text, defending his own romanticized biographies of Shelley and Disraeli in his argument that the writing of history and biography belonged to the domains of creativity and imagination and that ‘poetic truth’ should be as central to biography as to any literary genre.

Maurois also addresses the ways in which Woolf had taken up similar questions in ‘The New Biography’ (1927), inventing the term that would come to define modern biographical writing. The essay explores the vexed question of biographical ‘truth’, in relation to (in Sidney Lee’s phrase) ‘the truthful transmission of personality’. 3 Woolf suggests that, whereas Lee failed to perceive the conflict between these two aims, their conjunction in fact constitutes ‘the whole problem of biography as it presents itself to us today’ ( E 4 473). Combining a brief history of biography with a review of Nicolson’s Some People , Woolf suggests that the biographical genre achieved its highest point in the eighteenth century (with Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) as a work in which ‘truth of fact’ and the revelation of ‘personality’ were seamlessly brought together) and its lowest in the Victorian age, when, while ‘truth of fact’ was scrupulously observed, ‘the personality which Boswell’s genius set free was hampered and distorted’, primarily ‘by the idea of goodness’ ( E 4 474). In Victorian biography, Woolf suggested, ‘the living man’ became ‘a fossil’ ( E 4 475), and the writing of life ( bios ) became a death-dealing form. This is the paradox that she played with throughout her mock-biography Orlando , satirizing the ‘cradle to grave’ form of the conventional biography: ‘without looking to right or left, in the indelible footprints of truth; unenticed by flowers; regardless of shade; on and on methodically till we fall plump into the grave and write finis on the tombstone above our head’ ( O 61).

‘The Art of Biography’, in which Woolf discussed Lytton Strachey’s biographical writings, pursued this theme: ‘the majority of Victorian biographies are like the wax figures now preserved in Westminster Abbey that were carried in funeral processions through the streets—effigies that have only a smooth superficial likeness to the body in the coffin’ ( E 6 182). The representation of the living body, and of bodily experience, was for Woolf one of the most important challenges for biographers, failed by most of its practitioners. ‘One might read the lives of all the Cabinet Ministers since the accession of Queen Victoria without realizing that they had a body between them’, Woolf wrote in a review-essay (of the US writer William Roscoe Thayer’s 1919 biography of Theodore Roosevelt) entitled ‘Body and Brain’ ( E 4 224).

The change that came over biography in the twentieth century, Woolf argues, was most visible in its compression and, more fundamentally, in a radical alteration in its point of view. The biographer was now an equal to their subject, no longer obliged to document every element of a life but, as Strachey observed in his Preface, permitted to select. In Woolf’s words: ‘He chooses; he synthesizes; in short, he has ceased to be the chronicler; he has become an artist’ ( E 4 475). Some People , she writes, is a prime illustration of ‘the new attitude to biography’, in that Nicolson ‘has devised a method or writing about people and about himself as if they were at once real and imaginary’ ( E 4 475). The text alternates biographical and autobiographical sketches with the portrayal of invented characters, deploying ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ in both types of portrait. Laudatory as her account is, Woolf nonetheless takes a critical distance from Nicolson’s experiment, suggesting that ‘the truth of real life’ and ‘the truth of fiction’ ( E 4 477), ‘granite and rainbow’, are ultimately incompatible, and expresses reservations about the collapsing of distinctions between biography and fiction in the modern age: ‘if [the biographer] carries the use of fiction too far, so that he disregards the truth, or can only introduce it with incongruity, he loses both worlds; he has neither the freedom of fiction nor the substance of fact’ ( E 4 478).

Despite her doubts about this mixed genre (which, while identified as a new form of writing, in fact developed out of the ‘imaginary portraits’ of the nineteenth century) Woolf herself wrote a number of short fictional portraits or, in S.P. Rosenbaum’s phrase, ‘fantasy memoirs’ ( E 6 515–49), primarily of friends and relatives, including Violet Dickinson and Nelly Cecil (in an early piece entitled ‘Friendship’s Gallery’), Sydney Saxon-Turner, and John Maynard Keynes. The last two works were outlines for sketches, and in the piece on ‘JMK’ Woolf produced a radical, and fantastical, compression of a life. This sketch, unpublished in her lifetime, bears on Woolf’s declared intention for her novels to eliminate ‘waste, deadness, superfluity’ ( D 3 209–10) (as in the ‘prodigious waste’ ( E 4 475) she identified in Victorian biographies in ‘The New Biography’), while pointing up the ways in which lives can contain the most incompatible of elements whose strange and fascinating coexistence is falsified when smoothed out and regulated by chronological narrative form. In ‘JMK’ Woolf placed in parenthesis the assertion that ‘The art of biography is in its infancy. It has not yet learnt to walk without leading strings’ ( The Platform of Time , 223), an argument she developed in ‘The Art of Biography’: ‘Biography thus is only at the beginning of its career; it has a full and active life before it, we may be sure—a life full of difficulty, danger and hard work’ ( E 6 186).

Orlando was Woolf’s most complete creation in the realm of fictional biography, and one in which the ‘fantasy’ element is central. The narrator of Orlando (like that of Jacob’s Room ) is a biographer, or would-be biographer, in pursuit of an elusive subject; one who lives, in the case of Orlando, as man and then woman, through four hundred years of history. Woolf was reading Strachey’s Queen Victoria as she worked on Jacob’s Room and commented in her diary that Strachey’s biography was ‘a remarkably composed & homogenous book’ but that ‘I doubt whether these portraits are true—whether that’s not too much the conventional way of making history’ ( D 2 65). Her ‘experimental mood’ in the construction of Jacob’s Room led to the observation of her central character in ‘glimpses’: repeated throughout the novel is the assertion that ‘It is no use trying to sum people up’ ( JR 37).

In September 1925, Woolf wrote to Vita Sackville-West: ‘I try to invent you for myself, but find I really have only 2 twigs and 3 straws to do it with. [ … ] This proves what I could write reams about—how little we know anyone, only movements and gestures, nothing connected, continuous, profound’ ( L 3 204–5). ‘Inventing’ Vita was precisely what Woolf would go on to do in Orlando , the plan for which was made by October 1927: ‘a biography beginning in the year 1500 & continuing to the present day, called Orlando; Vita; only with a change about from one sex to another’ ( D 3 161). In a letter to Sackville-West on the book’s completion, Woolf asked: ‘will my feelings for you be changed? I’ve lived in you all these months—coming out, what are you really like? Do you exist? Have I made you up?’ ( L 3 474). Questions of identity become particularly complex and uncertain in Orlando ’s final section, set in the present day, as Woolf indicates the ways in which modern psychology posits the existence of the multiple selves that compose a single individual: ‘For [Orlando] had a great many selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have many thousand’ ( O 282). Katherine Mansfield expressed a similar thought in her journals: ‘True to oneself! which self! Which of my many—well really, hundreds of selves … there are moments when I feel I am nothing but the small clerk of some hotel without a proprietor, who has all his work cut out to enter the names and hand the keys to the wilful guests.’ 4

Yet Mansfield also indicated her simultaneous belief in ‘a self which is continuous and permanent’, and Woolf, too, in the closing pages of Orlando , refers to a ‘Captain self, the Key self, which amalgamates and controls’ all the others, and also to ‘what is called, rightly or wrongly, a single self, a real self’ ( O 286). Both Mansfield and Woolf were addressing a question central to both classical and modern thought, as in Henri Bergson’s exploration of the issue of the unity and the multiplicity of selfhood in the philosophy of Plotinus, whose central question was, in Bergson’s words: ‘How can our person be on the one hand one or single, on the other hand multiple’. Plotinus’s answer was, Bergson wrote, that ‘each of us was multiple “in our lower nature” and single “in our higher nature” ’, 5 a hierarchy that Bergson did not embrace, though he acknowledged its force. For Woolf, as for Mansfield, the concept of a single and continuous self was to some extent connected to a model of unconscious life. Orlando, despite his sex change and the radical reshaping of his/her outward appearance and manners by the ‘spirit of the age[s]’ ( O 215) through which he/she lives, remains fundamentally the same.

The concept of the ‘Captain self, the Key self’ also bears on a fundamental tenet of ‘the new biography’: that there is a ‘key to character’ in each life, which provides a structure and a pattern to the life both as lived and as represented by the biographer. For Maurois: ‘A human life is always made up of a number of such motifs: when you study one of them, it will soon begin to impress itself upon you with a remarkable force’. 6 For some of Maurois’s biographer contemporaries, including the German Emil Ludwig and the American Gamaliel Bradford, the narrative of development and the chronological depiction of a life were resisted in favour of a focus on an essential self, transcending time. Biography becomes closely connected to portraiture, an aspect of the genre with which Woolf played in her inclusion in Orlando of portraits (including those of Vita’s Sackville ancestors) and of photographs of Vita at different stages of life. Orlando is written in full awareness of the biographical theories of the time, and both entertains and parodies these.

The text also repeatedly poses the question of sexual identity: ‘she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she shared the secrets, shared the weakness of each’ ( O 147). A fascination with sexuality fuelled much of the concern with ‘character’ in the early twentieth century. Nicolson, in The Development of English Biography , postulated a future for ‘scientific biography’: ‘there will be biographies examining the influence of heredity—biographies founded on Galton, on Lombroso, on Havelock Ellis, on Freud; there will be medical biographies—studies of the influence of character on the endocrine glands, studies of internal secretions’. 7 The sexologist Havelock Ellis had, in his account of ‘scientific biography’, explored homosexuality and the part played by heredity and embryology in the ‘making’ of the homosexual.

Woolf undermined such scientific certainties in her account of Orlando’s sex change—‘Let biologists and psychologists determine. It is enough for us to state the simple fact; Orlando was a man till the age of thirty, when he became a woman and has remained so ever since’ ( O 128)—while interweaving, both seriously and satirically, the narratives of sexual and gender identity of her times. Her assertion that ‘Different though the sexes are, they intermix’ ( O 173), for example, seems to echo Freud’s claims that ‘both in male and female individuals masculine as well as feminine instinctual impulses are found, and … each can equally well undergo repression and so become unconscious’. 8 In her posthumously published journals, Sackville-West repeatedly referred to her ‘dual’ nature—‘I advance, therefore, the perfectly accepted theory that cases of dual personality do exist, in which the feminine and the masculine elements alternately preponderate’ 9   — and one of the ‘gifts’ that Woolf made to her in the writing of Orlando was the narrative embodiment of this theme. Sackville-West alludes in the journals to her own adventures in cross-dressing (in Paris with her lover Violet Trefusis), in which she writes of masquerading as a boy: ‘I never appreciated anything so much as living like that with my tongue perpetually in my cheek, and in defiance of every policeman I passed’. 10

In the final section of the novel/biography, Orlando wins a prize for the poem, ‘The Oak Tree’, which he/she has been writing over the course of the centuries ‘and we must snatch space to remark how discomposing it is for her biographer that this culmination to which the whole book moved, this peroration with which the book was to end, should be dashed from us on a laugh casually like this; but the truth is that when we write of a woman, everything is out of place—culminations and perorations; the accent never falls where it does with a man’ ( O 284–5). Orlando transgresses the absoluteness of the division between the sexes, putting into question what it might be to write ‘of a woman’, or indeed ‘of a man’, but the passage is nonetheless at one with Woolf’s broader commitment to the expression of the ‘difference’ of women’s lives, central to the arguments of A Room of One’s Own , and to exploration of the ways in which the writing of those lives would necessitate a different understanding of the ‘life-course’ to that of conventional biography. ‘To try the accepted forms’, Woolf wrote in a review-essay titled ‘Men and Women’, ‘to discard the unfit, to create others which are more fitting, is a task that must be accomplished before there is freedom or achievement’ ( E 3 195).

Orlando was followed by The Waves and Flush . The Waves developed as a form of group biography, at a time when Woolf was closely considering questions of ageing and changing and the shape of lives. The novel (whose first working title was The Moths ) was also to be a form of ‘impersonal’ autobiography: ‘This shall be Childhood; but it must not be my childhood’, she wrote in her diary ( D 3 236). Biography—the charting of the lives and thoughts of the novel’s six characters—was intertwined with autobiography, a dimension of ‘the new biography’ to which Woolf had pointed with her enjoinder to ‘Consider one’s own life’; that is, to impart to the biographical subject the felt complexities of one’s own selfhood. Of The Waves Woolf wrote that ‘the six characters are supposed to be one’ adding: ‘I come to feel more and more how difficult it is to collect oneself into one Virginia; even though the special Virginia in whose body I live for the moment is violently susceptible to all sorts of separate feelings’ ( L 4 397). The experience of identity and the question of ‘the one and the many’, of unity and multiplicity (discussed earlier in relation to Plotinus and Bergson), are thus pursued throughout The Waves , as Woolf traces the six lives from childhood to adulthood. Bernard, who recounts their stories in the final part of the text to an unnamed auditor, is both a biographer and a biographical subject, though he questions the very notion of ‘stories’ and the adequacy of biographical narration to the intricacies of lives.

On completing The Waves and beginning Flush , her ‘biography’ of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, Woolf wrote in her diary: ‘It is a good idea I think to write biographies; to make them use my powers of representation reality accuracy; & to use my novels simply to express the general, the poetic. Flush is serving this purpose’ ( D 4 40). Flush was inspired by Woolf’s reading of the Browning love letters: ‘the figure of their dog made me laugh so I couldn’t resist making him a Life’ ( L 5 161–2). As in the case of Orlando , Flush is closely connected to the debates about biographical writing of the period, including the question of ‘the ethics of biography’, recently raised in response to Rudolf Besier’s stage-play The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), in which Besier had hinted at Elizabeth Barrett’s father’s incestuous desires for his daughter as the underlying reason for his tyrannical possessiveness towards her. Flush was also in dialogue with Strachey’s biographical methods. As Woolf wrote to David Garnett: ‘Yes, the last paragraph as originally written was simply Queen Victoria dying all over again—but I cut it out, when he was not there to see the joke’ ( L 5 232). (Strachey died in 1932, as Woolf worked on the book.)

Woolf’s perception of biography (for all the fantastical and experimental forms it took in her writing) as a ‘solid world’ ( D 5 141), in contrast to her fictional works, was most fully realized in her one ‘straight’ biography, the life of the art critic and artist Roger Fry, which his family asked her to write after Fry’s death in September 1934. Woolf frequently referred, in her diaries and letters, to the difficulties of its writing, calling it ‘drudgery’ and a ‘grind’. As she wrote in a letter to Ethel Smyth: ‘Odd what a grind biography is. This is my favourite reading: what hard writing’ ( L 6 262). Increasingly concerned as she was throughout the 1930s, as the political situation became ever more exigent, with the nature (and the complexities) of ‘facts’—she first conceived The Years (1937) as a ‘Novel-Essay’, ‘a novel of fact’, and the question of ‘fact’ is central to Three Guineas (1938) — the marshalling of biographical evidence, and in particular the mass of Fry letters that were made available to her, proved a daunting (though ultimately rewarding) task.

Woolf’s comments in her private writings on the choices she made in the biography’s composition open up, in revealing ways, approaches to ‘the art of biography’ (the topic on which she wrote her 1939 essay), and her own doubts about her abilities as a biographer. She followed her own prescriptions, as laid out in her essay ‘The New Biography’, for the biographer’s commitment to ‘the truth of fact’, describing her alternations between the Roger Fry biography and her early work on the novel that would become Between the Acts (1941) as ‘switching from assiduous truth to wild ideas’ ( D 5 159). At moments Woolf considered adopting the more novelistic approach taken by many of the biographers of her generation—‘I think I will go on doggedly till I meet him myself—1909—& then attempt something more fictitious’ ( D 5 155)—but this was ultimately not the line she followed, and she introduces her personal relationship to him in oblique and glimpsing ways: ‘And another impression floated over the first glimpse of Roger Fry in the flesh—a glimpse caught a year or two before on a lawn at Cambridge’ ( RF 149). In the final version of the biography, the early chapters draw heavily on Fry’s autobiographical writings; the biography opens with a fragment that formed part of a paper Fry had given to the Memoir Club, in which he described his early passion for the colour of a cluster of red poppies in his childhood garden ( RF 15–16), so that autobiography enters strongly into the biographical text. In a later section, Woolf offers ‘a skipping summary’ of the pages of his letters ( RF 66), thus refusing the comprehensive, and often numbing, duplication of letters characteristic of the Victorian ‘lives and letters’ mode.

While, then, Woolf did not produce anything like a ‘fictitious’ biography, there are traces of Strachey’s model in the combining of documentation with the biographical subject’s thoughts and feelings and faint echoes of the mock-biographical modes of Jacob’s Room and Orlando . She returned, both in describing her ideas for the biography in her diaries and in the biography itself, to an image of ‘a humming-bird hawk-moth hanging over a flower, quivering yet still’ ( RF 152). In Roger Fry (1940) this description refers to Fry’s relationship to works of art, but it also looks back to the subversions of the biographer’s task in Jacob’s Room : ‘But something is always impelling one to hum vibrating, like the hawk moth, at the mouth of the cavern of mystery, endowing Jacob Flanders with all sorts of qualities he had not at all … Yet over him we hang vibrating’ ( RF 61). The ‘skipping summary’ of the letters in Roger Fry recalls a line in Orlando in which we are told of one ‘episode’ that Orlando ‘skipped it, to get on with the text’, and there are yet stronger echoes of Orlando in Woolf’s account of Fry’s early travels in Italy, in which she draws on his letters home: ‘On he walked. He stayed with peasants in a farmhouse and had “a delightful feeling of being perfectly at home with them”. Adventures befell him. He was taken for a brigand in his great straw hat; for some mysterious reason a man picked a quarrel with him’ ( RF 72). In the writing of Roger Fry , then, Woolf brought into the text elements of earlier works that had been highly subversive of the biographical act, even as she reiterated her commitment to ‘assiduous truth’.

While Roger Fry is ostensibly structured along the lines of the familiar life-course of a man of privilege of his period—early childhood in an eminent family, public school days, Cambridge, European travel, marriage and family, career, and writings—Woolf shows throughout the biography that her subject was never at peace, or at one, with this conventional trajectory: ‘he had a tradition, a background, behind him … But another result of the profound peace was also obvious—it seemed necessary to revolt against it, to break it up’ ( RF 82–3). Fry was, she wrote, ‘a man who lived many lives, the active, the contemplative, the public and the private’ ( RF 200). Woolf also alludes to the homosexual milieu of his early years, as in his friendships with G. Lowes Dickinson at Cambridge and John Addington Symonds and Horatio Brown in Venice. In ‘The Art of Biography’ (1939), written during the composition of Roger Fry , Woolf argued, in the context of a discussion of the centrality of ‘facts’, and their alteration by changes of culture and opinion: ‘What was thought a sin is now known, by the light of facts won for us by the psychologists, to be perhaps a misfortune; perhaps a curiosity, perhaps neither one nor the other, but a trifling foible of no great importance one way or the other. The accent on sex has changed within living memory’ ( E 6 186). More difficult for Woolf were the personal elements of Fry’s life in which she was closely involved, and in particular his love affair with her sister Vanessa Bell, which had begun in 1911: as Woolf wrote to her: ‘I’m flummoxed entirely how to deal with your own letters. [ … ] What am I to say about you. [ … ] Do give me some views; how to deal with love so that we’re not all blushing’ ( L 5 285). Her decision (additionally affected by the fact that the Fry family would be asked to approve the biography) was to omit any reference to the relationship, though it was a shaping force in Fry’s life.

Roger Fry was very well received, both by Woolf’s circle (with the exceptions of Leonard Woolf, who was critical of the methods she had adopted, and Maynard Keynes, who suggested she write ‘the real life’, as opposed to ‘The official life’, for the Memoir Club ( D 5 314)) and by the broader reading public. ‘Of course the great difficulty’, Woolf wrote to Clive Bell, ‘was not to intervene oneself, and yet not to be colourless. I’ve never done anything so devilishly difficult’ ( L 5 411). To her friend the composer Ethel Smyth, Woolf wrote: ‘It was an experiment in self-suppression; a gamble in R’s power to transmit himself. And so rich and to me alive and various and masterly was he that I was certain he would shine by his own light better than through any painted shade of mine’ ( L 5 417).

In December 1940, Woolf wrote to Smyth of the planned next volume of her voluminous autobiography: ‘I’m awfully proud … that you’ve started again on the autobiography, partly owing to me. I was thinking the other night that there’s never been a womans [sic] autobiography. Nothing to compare with Rousseau. Chastity and modesty I suppose have been the reason’ ( L 5 453). As Woolf was working on Roger Fry , she had begun to compose the autobiographical work that would be published posthumously as ‘Sketch of the Past’. On 25 April 1939, she wrote in her diary: ‘My mother, I was thinking, had 2 characters. I was thinking of my memoirs. The platform of time. How I see father from the 2 angles. As a child condemning; as a woman of 58 understanding—I shd say tolerating. Both views true?’ ( D 5 281).

‘The platform of time’ became the structuring principle of the memoir, which includes memories and episodes Woolf had explored in her early journals. In her 1905 Cornwall diary, she had recorded her return with her siblings to the landscapes of her childhood, and their desire that ‘we should find our past preserved, as though through all this time it had been guarded & treasured for us to come back to one day—it mattered not how far distant’ ( PA 281). The questions of time and distance and of loss and reparation lie at the heart of her most autobiographical novel, To the Lighthouse : ‘So much depends then, thought Lily Briscoe [ … ] upon distance’ ( TL 258). In ‘Sketch of the Past’, ‘the present’ becomes a ‘platform to stand on. It would be interesting to make the two people, I now, I then, come out in contrast. And further, this past is much affected by the present moment. What I write today I should not write in a year’s time’ ( MB 75).

As she wrote these lines, war was being threatened, and the writing of the memoir (which is substantially structured in diary form) continued after war had been declared: ‘I continue (22nd September 1940) on this wet day—we think of weather now as it affects invasions, as it affects raids, not as weather that we like or dislike privately’ ( MB 126). The question of how, or if, any semblance of ‘private’ life or of individuality could be sustained in the inevitable shift from the individual to the mass in a society at war—‘ “I” rejected: “We” substituted’—became the key image of her final, posthumously published novel Between the Acts —was a matter of grave concern to Woolf at this time. The writing of Roger Fry’s biography and of her memoir seems to have provided her with some solace and refuge from public events, which she nonetheless assiduously recorded in her diaries.

Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen, and the impact of her death is at the heart of the memoir. The opening passages recall ‘the first memory’ (two memories in fact vie for primordiality) ‘of red and purple flowers on a black ground—my mother’s dress’ and then ‘of lying half-asleep, half-awake, in bed at the nursery at St Ives … It is of lying and hearing this splash [of the waves] and seeing this light [behind a yellow blind], and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here, of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive’ ( MB 64). The first memory is of closeness to the mother, who fills the child’s vision and who is, like the pattern on her dress, both foreground and background. ‘There she was’, Woolf writes later in the memoir, ‘in the very centre of that great Cathedral space which was childhood; there she was from the very first’ ( MB 81). The second (‘first’) memory seems to mark the emergence of self-consciousness, of a sense of separate identity that is also a sense of oneness with the surrounding world. The sensory recall of these first memories is pursued throughout the memoir, as Woolf seeks not only to capture the moment’s immediacy but also to recreate the quickness and vitality of her mother, whose image had become fixed by portraits and photographs and by the grieving Leslie Stephen’s 1895 memoir of his dead wife, known by his children as ‘The Mausoleum Book’. 11

In the late 1939s, Woolf was reading Freud, perhaps for the first time in any depth: the concept that most struck her was that of ‘ambivalence’, the mixture of love and hate, which she applied to her feelings towards her father. Writing of her adolescent years, she notes: ‘it was the tyrant father—the exacting, the violent, the histrionic, the demonstrative, the self-centred, the alternately loved and hated father—that dominated me then’ ( MB 116). ‘Two different ages’, she observed, ‘confronted each other in the drawing room at Hyde Park Gate [her childhood home]. The Victorian age and the Edwardian age … We looked at him with eyes that were looking into the future’ ( MB 147). This division becomes the material of the last part of the memoir, as Woolf describes the life she and Vanessa endured with her grieving and increasingly ‘tyrannical’ father and her conventional (but sexually rapacious) half-brothers in the years after her mother’s death.

Early in the text Woolf describes an episode of sexual abuse that she endured, as a very young child, at the hands of her half-brother Gerald Duckworth, then a young man: ‘I remember resenting disliking it—what is the word for so dumb and mixed a feeling? It must have been strong, since I still recall it’ ( MB 69). The incident and the feelings associated with it are linked to the memory of the guilt she experienced in looking at herself in a hall-mirror at Talland House in St. Ives: ‘the looking-glass shame has lasted all my life’ ( MB 68). Woolf offers several reasons—none of them definitive—for the ‘shame’ associated with both memories, which she suggests might be the product of ‘some ancestral dread’: ‘It proves that Virginia Stephen was not born on the 25th January 1882, but was born many thousands of years ago; and had from the very first to encounter instincts already acquired by thousands of ancestresses in the past’ ( MB 69). Critics have tended to read this assertion as a way of displacing the ‘trauma’ of the childhood sexual experience, but it might also be suggested that Woolf was in fact particularly concerned with the emotion of ‘shame’, not only as an ‘inherited characteristic’ 12 but also as a powerful element in autobiographical writing, including that of Rousseau, who recounts ‘shaming’ memories as formative in his life. Woolf described the episode with Gerald Duckworth to Ethel Smyth in a letter of January 1941, connecting it closely to the question of reticence and candour about sexual matters in autobiographical writings:

[A]s so much of life is sexual—or so they say—it rather limits autobiography if this is blacked out. It must be, I suspect, for many generations, for some; for its like breaking the hymen—if that’s the membrane’s name—a painful operation, and I suppose connected with all sorts of subterranean instincts. I still shiver with shame at the memory of my half brother, standing me on a ledge, aged about 6, and so exploring my private parts. Why should I have felt shame then? ( L 6 459–60)

Truth-telling—which might entail a woman’s writing herself out of shame—thus becomes closely connected to the shaming memory. The relationship between the ‘I now, I then’, which, for Woolf, is both the structure and the problematic of autobiography, is at one with the question of the shaming memory in relation to the shame experienced at the time: ‘Why should I have felt shame then?’ In the letter, and in ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Woolf points towards the complexities of instincts, experiences, sensations, and feelings in ways that certainly suggest an engagement with Freud’s thought, though the broader issue is that of the profound difficulties entailed in answering the question ‘Who was I then?’

For all its immediacy—and Woolf was concerned to recapture ‘the child’s vision’ of what had become the past—the memoir is deeply reflective about the act of memoir-writing, just as Roger Fry encodes in its composition the choices available to biographers. Woolf comments on the question of memory and the act of recall throughout Sketch of the Past —‘I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start’ ( MB 67)—and on the difficulties confronting the memoir writer. The reason why ‘so many are failures’, she suggests, is because ‘they leave out the person to whom things happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: “This is what happened”; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened’ ( MB 65). ‘A Sketch of the Past’ intertwines what Woolf had described in an essay on Thomas de Quincey as ‘the two levels of existence’ that the autobiographer ‘must devise some means’ to record: ‘the rapid passage of events and actions; the slow opening up of single and solemn moments of concentrated emotion’ ( E 5 457).

Woolf had already written about many of the events and experiences described in ‘A Sketch of the Past’: the piece now known as ‘Reminiscences’ 13 was written as an account of Julia Stephen and Vanessa Bell and addressed to Vanessa’s oldest son Julian; ‘22 Hyde Park Gate’ ( E 5 31–42) (delivered in November 1920) was a Memoir Club contribution, in which Woolf offered a comic and unsparing account of the characters of, and life with, her Duckworth half-brothers, Gerald and George, before the Stephen children made their escape to Bloomsbury. These materials, however, take on a different light in ‘A Sketch of the Past’, in which Woolf seeks not only to remember and represent the world of her childhood but also to explore, as I have suggested, fundamental questions of identity and, more specifically, of ‘what makes me a writer’ ( MB 72). The memoir is where Woolf came closest to describing a ‘philosophy’ of life: ‘that behind the cotton wool there is a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art’ ( MB 72). For Woolf, to live and to write were one and the same.

Selected Bibliography

Bell, Alan , ed., Sir Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977 ).

Google Scholar

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Marcus, Laura , ‘ “Some Ancestral Dread”: Woolf, Autobiography, and the Question of “Shame” ’, in Jane de Gay , Anne Reus , and Tom Brecking , eds, Virginia Woolf and Heritage (Clemson, SC: Clemson University Press, 2017 ), 264–79.

Maurois, André , Aspects of Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929 ).

Nicolson, Harold , The Development of English Biography (London: Hogarth Press, 1927 ).

Nicolson, Harold , Portrait of a Marriage (London: Futura, 1974 ).

Strachey, Lytton , Eminent Victorians: Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr Arnold, General Gordon (London: Chatto & Windus, 1918 ).

  Lytton Strachey , Eminent Victorians: Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr Arnold, General Gordon (London: Chatto & Windus, 1918), vii .

  André Maurois , Aspects of Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929) .

Qtd. in André Maurois , Aspects of Biography , trans. S. C. Roberts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 33 .

  Margaret Scott , ed., The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks , vol. 2 (Canterbury, NZ: Lincoln University Press, 1997), 204 .

  Henri Bergson , Mélanges , ed. André Robinet (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1972), 1055 .

  Maurois, Aspects of Biography , 71–2.

  Harold Nicolson , The Development of English Biography (London: Hogarth Press, 1927), 154–5 .

  Freud , ‘A Child is Being Beaten’, The Complete Works of the Standard Edition , vol. 17 (London: Hogarth Press), 202 .

  Harold Nicolson , Portrait of a Marriage (London: Futura, 1974), 118 .

  Nicolson, Portrait of a Marriage , 127.

  Alan Bell , ed., Sir Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977) .

See Laura Marcus , ‘ “Some Ancestral Dread”: Woolf, Autobiography, and the Question of “Shame” ’, in Jane de Gay , Anne Reus , and Tom Brecking , eds, Virginia Woolf and Heritage (Clemson, SC: Clemson University Press, 2017), 264–79 .

Woolf began this memoir in 1907, and it was posthumously published in Moments of Being .

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Hermione lee , the art of biography no. 4, issue 205, summer 2013.


The first time a publisher approached Hermione Lee with the idea of writing a biography of Virginia Woolf, she said no. “I thought it was ridiculous,” Lee recalls. Then a second publisher suggested the same thing. “At that point, I thought, Clearly, people feel it’s the right time to have a new biography of Virginia Woolf, and clearly, more than one person thinks I should be the one to do it.” Lee wouldn’t, though, do it in a traditional, linear way. Instead of a fact—a name, a place, a birthday—she opened  Virginia Woolf  (1996) with a question that Woolf herself asked: “My God, how does one write a Biography?”

Although Lee did keep chronology in view, she approached her subject by theme, topic, and scene. The result was an original and sensitive account of a complex life. The same is true of each of Lee’s biographies:  Willa Cather  (1989) is a hybrid of biography and literary essay;  Edith Wharton  (2007) considers Wharton not only as an American author but as a European one, drawing on a wealth of social, psychological, material, and historical detail. In all three books, Lee weaves masterly discussions of her subjects’ work into the stories of their lives.

Apart from her biographies, Lee has written book-length monographs on Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, and Philip Roth. She has also written short books about life-writing, as well as countless reviews, essays, and introductions. From 1982 to 1986, she hosted a television show about books,  Book Four , on British television’s Channel 4, and she is a frequent contributor to BBC Radio. After Lee graduated from Oxford, she taught at the College of William & Mary, the University of Liverpool, and, for twenty years, the University of York. In 1998, she was appointed to the Goldsmiths’ Chair of English Literature and Fellow of New College at the University of Oxford. In 2008, she was elected president of Wolfson College at Oxford.

Our sessions took place early last spring. It was a busy time for Lee, who had just returned from Brussels, where she had given a talk about Isaiah Berlin’s 1945 encounter with Anna Akhmatova. The following week, Lee traveled to New York and then to Los Angeles to deliver lectures on Edith Wharton. Then she was headed to Yorkshire, where she and her husband, the literary scholar and editor John Barnard, spend part of the year, to finish her life of Penelope Fitzgerald.

We met in Oxford, at a house hidden from view by a high hedge, on a quiet street at the edge of town. The house had an immaculate, rather grand foyer and a kitchen that seemed designed with caterers in mind. Lee was quick to point out that the place is not hers: it comes with her job. “I don’t garden here because”—her voice dropped to an anxious whisper—“I might worry the gardeners.” Her office upstairs, though, revealed her own distinctive taste for elegance and order. Framed photographs of Woolf hung on the wall; a raft of paper clips stood on her nineteenth-century partners desk. The only thing that appeared out of place was an odd pile of boxes and papers covered by a faded, crocheted blanket. It was the Fitzgerald family archive. Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald will be published later this year.

—Louisa Thomas


Virginia Woolf wrote a lot about how difficult it is to know anyone, even— or especially—oneself. When she was working on a memoir, she wrote, “I see myself as a fish in a stream; deflected; held in place; but cannot describe the stream.” How did you find the nerve to write her biography?

What makes her such an alarming prospect is also what makes her a very inviting subject for biography. She herself is deeply interested in the genre. In that memoir, “Sketch of the Past,” and in her fiction and essays and diaries, she keeps returning to the question, How do you tell the life story of a person? I think that’s her prime interest. And because of her own interest in the complexity of the adventure of writing a life, and because of all the material in her gigantic archive, you are privy to how she thinks of herself as well as to how other people think of her and how she’s presenting herself. She’s not one of those difficult subjects for a biography, where you have hardly any information—like Shakespeare or Jesus. And she’s not the kind of resistant subject, such as Willa Cather, who is like a wall of steel, preventing anyone who tries to come near her. The challenge with Woolf is that she has been so mythologized, so written about, so appropriated—and is herself so complex and multifaceted.

Is fear a useful emotion for a biographer?

It can be, when it’s not disabling. You would have to be an idiot to take on board writing the life of Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton without any apprehension. The fear has to be channeled somehow into the energy of the work. While you’re doing it, I think you have to feel that she is yours and you alone understand her. But in order to arrive at that feeling you have to deal with, and master, your apprehension. I had a conversation with the biographer Richard Holmes, ages ago, when I said I always felt rather daunted by the task. I always had voices at the back of my head saying, She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She can’t do this. He said, “You know what I do? I get to my desk every morning and I hear these little voices saying, ‘He doesn’t know what he’s doing!’ and I raise my arm and I just  sweep , I  sweep  them off the desk.” I had a vision of these little jabbering gremlins, like the germs in those advertisements for lavatory cleaners, being swept off and away. No more fear!

What’s gained in learning about the life of an author?

You learn how that person works in all senses of the word  works . You learn something historical. You learn how a book evolves and how it emerges from the muddle and the mess and the complexity and the contradictions of a person’s life. You learn about all the things that human beings are interested in.

But when you read the biography of a writer you love, you also do lose something, there’s no doubt. When I first read Katherine Mansfield, as a child, I had no idea she was a New Zealander. It just seemed to be a magic country—I knew nothing about it. And that was part of the spell. When I was a child, about eight years old, I went to stay with a family and I picked up a copy of  The Waves  that happened to be at my bedside. It was the first book by Virginia Woolf I ever looked at. I read the pages at the beginning, where the children are speaking in single phrases. I just thought, This is my language, even though I had only read two pages and didn’t know what was going on. So I think that primal, childlike reading, where you know nothing, is very important. And reading biography interferes with that.

You wrote about that experience. You called it a “secret language.”  Secret  is a word you use often when you write about women.

In the 1980s, I edited two anthologies of stories by women called  The Secret Self . The title was taken from a line of Katherine Mansfield’s—“One tries to go deep—to speak to the secret self we all have.”

Cather uses it when she’s writing about Katherine Mansfield.

She does. I’m very interested in that idea of secrets. Edith Wharton says, in a story, that a woman’s life is like a great house full of rooms, and you never get to the secret room. I’m fascinated by these no-go areas, these secret places of reserve. At the same time, I’m extremely inquisitive and curious. Perhaps that’s temperamentally why I’ve been attracted to biography. I want to penetrate those secret places, find out everything, and be completely ruthless. It’s paradoxical—I wouldn’t want it done to me, yet I’m very keen to do it to other people. And the thing that attracts me to these people is their secret self.

To what extent are you conscious of being a woman writer, or writing about women subjects?

I haven’t written only about women. Thirty years ago, in 1982, I wrote a short book on Philip Roth, whom I also interviewed for  The Paris Review . I’ve written about Kipling and Trollope, Ford Madox Ford, William Trevor, Alain-Fournier, John McGahern. Still, it’s true that my books have been mainly about women. There is a form of feminism in that, though I don’t set out to write feminist biography. My subjects do have things in common, but those things aren’t essentially to do with their being women. Looking back, I see I’m attracted by subjects who are individualistic, who don’t like joining movements, who have carved out their own ways, who have remarkable minds, and whose marriages or partnerships, when they work well, work as forms of companionship. All my subjects up to now have been childless, but now I’m writing about the English novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, whose three children were very important to her. I’m not saying there is anything autobiographical about my choice of subjects. I’m saying only that these are the kinds of figures who interest me. If they have a feminist agenda, as Woolf did, it’s a very complicated one. Beyond that I can’t go. I certainly can’t say to you, I have set out to be a woman writer writing about women writers.

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The Art of Poetry No. 112


Driving from Santa Fe’s center to its outskirts, you pass through a wide expanse made vibrant by that particular slant of light ­Georgia O’Keeffe coveted. Somehow, the sky is more immense here. Hawks circle over dusty fields strewn with yellow-flowering rabbitbrush. Beyond this plain is the quiet suburb where N. Scott Momaday lives, in a square adobe house. The walls of the living room are lined with prints of Native Americans by Leonard Baskin, which Momaday, a painter and printmaker himself, has collected for decades. On the coffee table sits a bronze sculpture of the Wyoming rock formation known as Devils Tower, with a bear at its base; as an infant, ­Momaday was taken to this sacred site and given his Kiowa name, Tsoai-talee, or “Rock-Tree Boy,” after the story of a boy who turned into a bear, chasing his sisters up the “rock-tree” and into the stars. 

N. Scott Momaday was born in 1934 in Lawton, Oklahoma. During the Depression, his parents, Alfred Morris and Mayme “Natachee” Scott Momaday, found work on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, and, during the war, in Hobbs, around the nearby military base. In 1946, the family moved to another Native community, Jemez Pueblo, where for many years his father taught painting and his mother English. At seventeen, Momaday attended ­military school in Virginia for a year, and he then enrolled at the ­University of New Mexico, where he met his first wife, Gaye Mangold, the mother of three of his four daughters. He entered Stanford ­University’s fellow­ship program in writing, which led to a doctorate and a series of posts at schools including Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Arizona, where for many years he taught poetry and a class on the oral tradition.

Before Momaday began to publish, there was little widespread consciousness of a Native American literature. House Made of Dawn , his first novel, appeared in 1968, and won the ­Pulitzer Prize. The story of a traumatized Second World War veteran who struggles to resume his life on the pueblo, it shrewdly combines Modernist techniques and Native traditions. Momaday’s exploration of genre continued in The Way to Rainy ­Mountain (1969), a hybrid of Kiowa folklore, historical commentary, and memoir; The Names (1976), a family history that glides through streams of consciousness; and his second novel, The Ancient Child (1989), a swirl of fragments that features Billy the Kid, abstract painting, and “bear medicine.”  

But Momaday thinks of himself first as a poet, and his early collections Angle of Geese (1974) and The Gourd Dancer (1976)demonstrate a restless sensibility, the poems moving between metrical verse and incantatory repetition, landscape and legend. He frequently includes his older poems in new collections, encompassing them, like the rings of a tree, in fresh material. Since retiring from professorship, Momaday has become only more productive, publishing three books in the past three years. The Death of Sitting Bear (2020) contains some of his most complex poetry, and is characterized by a wintry, Stevensian reserve. Earth Keeper (2020), a taut book of prose poems, urges a greater steward­ship of the environment.

Momaday is a big man with a wry sense of humor, his large frame matching his deep and sonorous voice. In the conversations for this interview, which Layli Long Soldier began on the phone in 2021 and which I continued over several clear-skied afternoons earlier this year, he was gregarious and generous, though he felt no need to answer a question he considered inapt. His daughters Jill and Brit sometimes sat in—Jill taking pleasure in pushing him to clarify his version of events—and Quanah, a tabby cat named after a famous peyote priest, occasionally jumped up to demand his affection. Momaday was as willing to perform the stories he has told many times as he was to consider them anew. This continual redescription of his experience, in person and on the page, seems to reflect a lasting passion for being on earth. As he writes in “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee,”  

  I am an angle of geese in the winter sky I am the hunger of a young wolf I am the whole dream of these things You see, I am alive, I am alive

—David S. Wallace

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Virginia woolf  and david bradshaw.

According to Virginia Woolf, the goal of the essay ‘is simply that it should give pleasure…It should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last.’ One of the best practitioners of the art she analysed so rewardingly, Woolf displayed her essay-writing skills across a wide range of subjects, with all the craftsmanship, substance, and rich allure of her novels. This selection brings together thirty of her best essays, including the famous ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, a clarion call for modern fiction. She discusses the arts of writing and of reading, and the particular role and reputation of women writers. She writes movingly about her father and the art of biography, and of the London scene in the early decades of the twentieth century. Overall, these pieces are as indispensable to an understanding of this great writer as they are enchanting in their own right.

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  • Oxford World’s Classics: Selected Essays
  • Biographical Preface
  • Introduction
  • Note on the Text
  • Select Bibliography
  • A Chronology of Virginia Woolf
  • The Decay of Essay-Writing Virginia Woolf
  • Modern Fiction Virginia Woolf
  • The Modern Essay Virginia Woolf
  • How it Strikes a Contemporary Virginia Woolf
  • Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown Virginia Woolf
  • Character in Fiction Virginia Woolf
  • ‘Impassioned Prose’ Virginia Woolf
  • How Should one Read a Book? Virginia Woolf
  • Poetry, Fiction and the Future Virginia Woolf
  • Craftsmanship Virginia Woolf
  • The New Biography Virginia Woolf
  • On Being Ill Virginia Woolf
  • Leslie Stephen Virginia Woolf
  • The Art of Biography Virginia Woolf
  • The Feminine Note in Fiction Virginia Woolf
  • Women Novelists Virginia Woolf
  • Women and Fiction Virginia Woolf
  • Professions for Women Virginia Woolf
  • Memories of a Working Women’s Guild Virginia Woolf
  • Why? Virginia Woolf
  • Thunder at Wembley Virginia Woolf
  • The Cinema Virginia Woolf
  • Street Haunting: A London Adventure Virginia Woolf
  • The Sun and the Fish Virginia Woolf
  • The Docks of London Virginia Woolf
  • Oxford Street Tide Virginia Woolf
  • Evening Over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car Virginia Woolf
  • Flying Over London Virginia Woolf
  • Why Art Today Follows Politics Virginia Woolf
  • Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid Virginia Woolf
  • Explanatory Notes
  • Oxford University Press

date: 22 February 2024

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Collected Essays Vol. 2

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Book Source: Digital Library of India Item 2015.460958 Woolf, Virginia 2015-09-22T14:56:29Z 2015-09-22T14:56:29Z 2014/02/24 1924 dc.identifier.barcode: 07019990357447 dc.identifier.copyno: 1 dc.identifier.uri: dc.description.scannerno: 01 dc.description.scanningcentre: North Eastern States Libraries dc.description.main: 1 dc.description.tagged: 0 dc.description.totalpages: 313 dc.language.iso: English dc.publisher.digitalrepublisher: Digital Library Of India dc.publisher: The Hogarth Press, London dc.rights: In Public Domain dc.source.library: Birchandra State Central Library, Tripura dc.subject.classification: Literature dc.subject.classification: English Essay dc.subject.keywords: Hours In Library dc.subject.keywords: Walter Sickert dc.subject.keywords: Middlebrow dc.subject.keywords: The Leaning Tower dc.subject.keywords: Phases Of Fiction dc.title: Collected Essays Vol. 2 dc.type: Print - Paper dc.type: Book dc.description.diskno: NE-DLI-TR-4555

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Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain

Virginia Woolf: A Short Biography

In 1926 Virginia Woolf contributed an introduction to  Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women  by Julia Margaret Cameron. This publication may be seen as a springboard from which to approach Woolf’s life: Virginia saw herself as descending from a distinctive male and female inheritance; Cameron was the famous Victorian photographer and Woolf’s great-aunt; Woolf’s friend Roger Fry also contributed an introduction and leads us to the Bloomsbury Group; and the book was published by the Hogarth Press which Virginia had started with her husband Leonard in 1917.

Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on 25 January 1882 in London. Her father, Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), was a man of letters (and first editor of the  Dictionary of National Biography ) who came from a family distinguished for public service (part of the ‘intellectual aristocracy’ of Victorian England). Her mother, Julia (1846–95), from whom Virginia inherited her looks, was the daughter of one and niece of the other five beautiful Pattle sisters (Julia Margaret Cameron was the seventh: not beautiful but the only one remembered today). Both parents had been married before: her father to the daughter of the novelist, Thackeray, by whom he had a daughter Laura (1870–1945) who was intellectually backward; and her mother to a barrister, Herbert Duckworth (1833–70), by whom she had three children, George (1868–1934), Stella (1869–97), and Gerald (1870–1937). Julia and Leslie Stephen had four children: Vanessa (1879–1961), Thoby (1880–1906), Virginia (1882–1941), and Adrian (1883–1948). All eight children lived with the parents and a number of servants at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington.

Long summer holidays were spent at Talland House in St Ives, Cornwall, and St Ives played a large part in Virginia’s imagination. It was the setting for her novel  To the Lighthouse , despite its ostensibly being placed on the Isle of Skye. London and/or St Ives provided the principal settings of most of her novels.

In 1895 her mother died unexpectedly, and Virginia suffered her first mental breakdown. Her half-sister Stella took over the running of the household as well as coping with Leslie’s demands for sympathy and emotional support. Stella married Jack Hills in 1897, but she too died suddenly on her return from her honeymoon. The household burden then fell upon Vanessa.

Virginia was allowed uncensored access to her father’s extensive library, and from an early age determined to be a writer. Her education was sketchy and she never went to school. Vanessa trained to become a painter. Their two brothers were sent to preparatory and public schools, and then to Cambridge. There Thoby made friends with Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes. This was the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group.

Leslie Stephen died in 1904, and Virginia had a second breakdown. While she was sick, Vanessa arranged for the four siblings to move from 22 Hyde Park Gate to 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. At the end of the year Virginia started reviewing with a clerical paper called the  Guardian ; in 1905 she started reviewing in the  Times Literary Supplement  and continued writing for that journal for many years. Following a trip to Greece in 1906, Thoby died of typhoid and in 1907 Vanessa married Clive Bell. Thoby had started ‘Thursday evenings’ for his friends to visit, and this kind of arrangement was continued after his death by Vanessa and then by Virginia and Adrian when they moved to 29 Fitzroy Square. In 1911 Virginia moved to 38 Brunswick Square. Leonard Woolf had joined the Ceylon Civil Service in 1904 and returned in 1911 on leave. He soon decided that he wanted to marry Virginia, and she eventually agreed. They were married in St Pancras Registry Office on 10 August 1912. They decided to earn money by writing and journalism.

Since about 1908 Virginia had been writing her first novel  The Voyage Out  (originally to be called  Melymbrosia ). It was finished by 1913 but, owing to another severe mental breakdown after her marriage, it was not published until 1915 by Duckworth & Co. (Gerald’s publishing house). The novel was fairly conventional in form. She then began writing her second novel  Night and Day  – if anything even more conventional – which was published in 1919, also by Duckworth.

From 1911 Virginia had rented small houses near Lewes in Sussex, most notably Asheham House. Her sister Vanessa rented Charleston Farmhouse nearby from 1916 onwards. In 1919 the Woolfs bought Monks House in the village of Rodmell. This was a small weather-boarded house (now owned by the National Trust) which they used principally for summer holidays until they were bombed out of their flat in Mecklenburgh Square in 1940 when it became their home.

In 1917 the Woolfs had bought a small hand printing-press in order to take up printing as a hobby and as therapy for Virginia. By now they were living in Richmond (Surrey) and the Hogarth Press was named after their house. Virginia wrote, printed and published a couple of experimental short stories, ‘The Mark on the Wall’ and ‘Kew Gardens’. The Woolfs continued handprinting until 1932, but in the meantime they increasingly became publishers rather than printers. By about 1922 the Hogarth Press had become a business. From 1921 Virginia always published with the Press, except for a few limited editions.

1921 saw Virginia’s first collection of short stories  Monday or Tuesday , most of which were experimental in nature. In 1922 her first experimental novel,  Jacob’s Room , appeared. In 1924 the Woolfs moved back to London, to 52 Tavistock Square. In 1925  Mrs. Dalloway  was published, followed by  To the Lighthouse  in 1927, and  The Waves  in 1931. These three novels are generally considered to be her greatest claim to fame as a modernist writer. Her involvement with the aristocratic novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West led to  Orlando  (1928), a  roman à clef  inspired by Vita’s life and ancestors at Knole in Kent. Two talks to women’s colleges at Cambridge in 1928 led to  A Room of One’s Own  (1929), a discussion of women’s writing and its historical economic and social underpinning.

See also:  Virginia Woolf’s Holiday Homes in the Country

For a more detailed discussion of Virginia Woolf’s breakdowns, see: Virginia Woolf: Writing the Suicide by Malcolm Ingram

Text copyright© S. N. Clarke & VWSGB 2000

• Sea view from the window of Talland House, St Ives (1999) • Front view of Talland House (1999) • Asheham House, Sussex (1977) • Wooden gate of Monks House entrance, Rodmell, Sussex (1977) • Looking out of the Woolfs’ sitting room, Monks House (2001) • Church view from balcony outside Leonard’s study, Monks House (2001) • Garden view from balcony outside Leonard’s study, Monks House (2001) • Entrance of Monk’s House (1977) • Virginia’s writing lodge, Monk’s House (1977)

Photos copyright© S. N. Clarke & H. Fukushima

Note: If you quote from this page, please cite the web address.

Book cover

Imagining Gender in Biographical Fiction pp 49–73 Cite as

“Everything Is Out of Place”: Virginia Woolf, Women, and (Meta-)Historical Biofiction

  • Diana Wallace 5  
  • First Online: 16 December 2022

219 Accesses

Part of the Palgrave Studies in Life Writing book series (PSLW)

Starting from Virginia Woolf’s assertion in Orlando: A Biography (1928) that “when we write of a woman everything is out of place ,” this chapter argues that Woolf’s spatial metaphor foregrounds the gendered nature of traditional prose narratives and the need for new (meta-)narratives for women. As a meta-historical biofiction, Orlando itself offers a model of a trialectical narrative which brings together biography, history, and fiction. Beginning with an engagement with recent theories of biofiction, the chapter is then divided into three sections. The first section discusses the theorisation of historical biographical fiction and borrows the term “trialectic” from cultural geography to argue for a trialectical reading of historical biofiction which can hold in balance the three modes of writing—fiction/biography/history. The second section discusses Woolf’s Orlando and Flush (1933) as meta-historical biofictions which develop Woolf’s innovative thinking about the relationship between fiction, biography, and history. The third section focuses on what has become a biofictional genre in its own right: novels which take Virginia Woolf herself as a character. It reads a selection of novels to show how they move Woolf and/or her characters “out of place” and then warns of the dangers of putting Woolf “in her place.”

  • Historical fiction
  • Meta-historical biofiction
  • Historiography
  • Virginia Woolf

This chapter was originally delivered as a keynote lecture at the Herstory Re-Imagined Conference at King’s College, London, 16–17 December 2019. I would like to thank the organisers for allowing me to rework it for inclusion here.

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Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998), 297–98.

In using the term “meta-historical biofiction,” I aim to foreground not only the three key narrative modes under discussion—history, biography, and fiction—but also the meta-discursive level of these texts. Patricia Waugh defines metafiction as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.” Waugh, Metafiction (London: Routledge, 1984/1988), 2. For an informed discussion of the recent proliferation of genre designations in this area, see the introduction to Lucia Boldrini and Julia Novak, eds., Experiments in Life-Writing: Intersections of Auto/Biography and Fiction (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 1–35. And for an excellent overview of key debates around biography which acknowledges the close relationship between biography, fiction, and historiography, see Caitríona Ní Dhúill, Metabiography: Reflecting on Biography (Cham: Palgrave, 2020). Crucially, Ní Dhúill notes, “metabiography is a way of reading biography,” 4.

Alison Light, “Young Bess: Historical Novels and Growing Up,” Feminist Review 33 (Autumn 1989): 57–71. See also Diana Wallace, The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900–2000 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005).

Michael Lackey, “The Rise of the Biographical Novel and the Fall of the Historical Novel,” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 31, no.1 (2016): 33–58.

Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). See also Michael Lackey, Biographical Fiction : A Reader (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 234.

Michael Lackey, Biographical Fiction , 1–2.

See Paul Fagan’s chapter in the current volume for a discussion of these two Henry James biofictions.

His key writers include Bruce Duffy, Zora Neale Hurston, Lance Olsen, Jay Parini, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Arna Bontemps, William Styron, and David Ebershoff.

Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 4, 5.

Lackey, American Biographical Novel , 6, emphasis added .

Michael Lackey and Todd Avery, eds., “To the Readers,” Special Issue on Virginia Woolf and Biofiction, Virginia Woolf Miscellany 93 (2018): 1–2.

Michael Lackey, “Usages (Not Representations) of Virginia Woolf,” Special Issue on Virginia Woolf and Biofiction, Virginia Woolf Miscellany 93 (2018): 12–14, 12.

Max Saunders, Self Impression: Life-writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 438.

Lackey, “Rise,” 33–58. Lackey’s two exemplary novels here are also by male authors: Lance Olsen’s Nietzsche’s Kisses (2006) and Jay Parini’s Benjamin’s Crossing: A Novel (1997).

Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero-Worship in Selected Writings (London: Penguin, 1986), 233.

Jacques Derrida, “The Law of Genre,” in Modern Genre Theory , ed. David Duff (Harlow: Longman, 2000), 222.

For a concise introduction see Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel (London: Routledge, 2010); and on gender, see Wallace, The Woman’s Historical Novel .

Hermione Lee, Body Parts: Essay in Life-Writing (London: Pimlico, 2005/2008), 200, emphasis added.

Lee, Body Parts , 3.

Avrom Fleishman, The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971), 3.

Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel , trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 300–01.

Ibid., 314.

Ibid., 310.

Ibid., 321.

Fleishman, The English Historical Novel , 234.

See Diana Wallace, Modernism and Historical Fiction: Writing the Past , forthcoming from Palgrave.

Lukács, Historical Novel , 32.

Henri Lefebrve, La Presence et l’absence (1980), quoted in Edward Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Lost Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 53.

Soja, Thirdspace , 15.

Ibid., 174.

Ibid., 44, 45.

Ibid. , 5, 10.

Ibid., 183.

Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel 1800–1900 (London: Verso, 1998/1999), 70.

Lackey, American Biographical Novel , 5.

Virginia Woolf, “The Art of Biography” (1939), Collected Essays , vol. 4 (London: Hogarth, 1967), 221.

Virginia Woolf, “The New Biography” (1927), Collected Essays , vol. 4 (London: Hogarth, 1967), 229, 234, emphasis added.

Monica Latham, “‘Serv[ing] Under Two Masters’: Virginia Woolf’s Afterlives in Contemporary Biofictions,” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies (2012), reprinted in Lackey, Biographical Fiction , 408.

Saunders, Self Impression , 467.

Woolf, “New Biography,” 235.

Woolf, “Art of Biography,” 224.

Ibid., 226, emphasis added.

Woolf, Orlando , 294–5.

Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry: A Biography (London: Hogarth, 1940), 153, emphasis added.

Woolf, Roger Fry , 200–1.

Woolf, “Art of Biography,” 228.

Saunders, Self Impression , 449.

See Elizabeth Cooley, “Revolutionising Biography: Orlando , Roger Fry and the Tradition,” South Atlantic Review 55, no. 2 (May 1990): 71–83, for a discussion of Woolf’s parody of the Victorian biographer.

Woolf, Orlando , 297–8, emphasis added.

Saunders, Self Impression , 444; Cooley, “Revolutionising Biography,” 76.

Moretti, Atlas , 70.

Woolf, Orlando , 5.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, “History,” in Lays of Ancient Rome and Miscellaneous Essays (London: Dent, 1968), 36.

Woolf, Orlando , 232.

Lukács, Historical Novel , 19.

Virginia Woolf, October 9, 1927, in The Letters of Virginia Woolf , vol. 3, ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (London: Hogarth, 1977), 429.

Critics vary in how far they see Orlando as a “biography” of Sackville-West. Pamela Caughie writes that “ Orlando is a biography of Vita—a curriculum vitae as it were”: “ Curriculum Vitae : Transsexual Life Writing and the Biofictional Novel,” Virginia Woolf Miscellany 93 (2018): 25. Monica Latham calls it a “mock biography” of Sackville-West: “‘I Have Been Dead and Yet Am Now Alive Again’: Virginia Woolf on the Contemporary Stage,” Virginia Woolf Miscellany 93 (2018): 22. Saunders calls it “biografiction,” Self Impression , 379.

For accounts which show how formative the relationship with Vita Sackville-West was for Woolf, see Sherron E. Knopp, “‘If I Saw You Would You Kiss Me?’: Sapphism and the Subversiveness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando ,” PMLA 103, no.1 (January 1988): 24–34; and Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto and Windus, 1996), “Chapter 28: Vita,” 484–511.

Woolf, Orlando , 318–40.

Marie-Luise Kohlke proposes the term “glossed biofiction” for a text which “relies on supposedly non-referential, made-up characters and plots, which are nonetheless extensively modelled on famous historical subjects, their lives, writings and/or art, often with little or no attempt at any effective disguise.” Kohlke, “Neo-Victorian Biofiction and the Special/Spectral Case of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Hottentot Venus .” Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies 18, no. 3 (2013): 11.

Reproduced in the Oxford edition.

I am indebted to Meredith Miller for enabling me to clarify this point.

Saunders usefully reads Orlando as “composite portraiture.” Self Impression , 470–76.

Julia Novak makes a convincing case for treating Flush as metabiography in “The Notable Woman in Fiction: The Afterlives of Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 31, no.1 (2015): 83–107.

Virginia Woolf, Flush [A Biography] (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998), xvi.

Kate Flint, “Introduction,” in Woolf, Flush , xliii.

Woolf, Flush , 114.

Lukács, Historical Novel , 37, 33.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Hogarth, 1929/1977), 108.

Monica Latham, Virginia Woolf’s Afterlives: The Author as Character in Contemporary Fiction and Drama (New York: Routledge, 2021), 3.

Brenda R. Silver, “Virginia Woolf Icon,” in The Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and the Arts , ed. Maggie Humm (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 239-413.

Theodore Dalrymple, “Virginia Woolf and the Triumph of Narcissism,” The Guardian Review , August 17, 2002, 5–6.

Philip Hensher, “Virginia Woolf Makes Me Want to Vomit,” Daily Telegraph , January 24, 2003, .

Lee, Virginia Woolf , 769.

See Hermione Lee, “Biomythographers: Rewriting the Lives of Virginia Woolf,” Essays in Criticism 46 (April 1996): 95–114; and Latham, Afterlives , 219–22.

Latham, Afterlives , 219–22.

Silver, “Virginia Woolf Icon,” 410.

Latham, Afterlives , 22.

Michael Cunningham, The Hours (London: Harper, 2006).

Emma Brockes, “Michael Cunningham: A Life in Writing,” The Guardian , February 27, 2011, .

Cunningham, The Hours , 211.

Sigrid Nunez, Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury (New York: Soft Skull, 2019), 38.

Ibid., 147.

Bethany Layne, “The ‘Supreme Portrait Artist’ and the ‘Mistress of the Phrase’: Contesting Oppositional Portrayals of Woolf and Bell, Life and Art, in Susan Sellers’s Vanessa and Virginia ,” Woolf Studies Annual 21 (2015): 82, 89.

Susan Sellers, Vanessa and Virginia (Ullapool: Two Ravens Press, 2008), 177.

Claire Morgan, A Book for All and None (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001).

Ibid., 360.

Maggie Gee, Virginia Woolf in Manhattan (London: Telegram, 2014), 381.

Maggie Gee, “Clinging to the Coat-Tails of Fact,” Times Literary Supplement , September 12, 1997, 10.

Maggie Gee, interview by Mine Ozyurt Kilc, Maggie Gee: Writing the Condition of England Novel (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 153–62.

Gee, Virginia Woolf , 463.

Ibid., 475.

Ibid., 440.

Ibid., 242.

Latham, Afterlives , 32, emphasis added.

Gee, Virginia Woolf , 475.

Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Hogarth, 1929/1977), 108; Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar borrow Woolf’s phrase “Milton’s bogey” to explore the shadow cast by Milton over women writers in The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979/1984).

Latham, Afterlives , 229.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry . New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Google Scholar  

Boldrini, Lucia, and Julia Novak, eds. Experiments in Life-Writing: Intersections of Auto/Biography and Fiction . Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Brockes, Emma. “Michael Cunningham: A Life in Writing.” The Guardian , February 27, 2011. .

Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes and Hero-Worship in Selected Writings. London: Penguin, 1986.

Caughie, Pamela, “ Curriculum Vitae : Transsexual Life Writing and the Biofictional Novel.” Virginia Woolf Miscellany 93 (2018): 23–26.

Cooley, Elizabeth. “Revolutionising Biography: Orlando , Roger Fry and the Tradition.” South Atlantic Review 55, no. 2 (May 1990): 71–83.

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours . London: Harper, 2006.

Dalrymple, Theodore. “Virginia Woolf and the Triumph of Narcissism." The Guardian Review , August 18, 2002, 4–6.

De Groot, Jerome. The Historical Novel . London: Routledge, 2010.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Law of Genre.” In Modern Genre Theory , edited by David Duff, 219–31. Harlow: Longman, 2000.

Fleishman, Avrom. The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.

Gee, Maggie. “Clinging to the Coat-Tails of Fact.” Times Literary Supplement , September 12, 1997, 10.

———. Virginia Woolf in Manhattan . London: Telegram, 2014.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic . New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

Hensher, Philip. “Virginia Woolf Makes Me Want to Vomit.” Daily Telegraph , January 24, 2003. .

Kilc, Mine Ozyurt. Maggie Gee: Writing the Condition of England Novel . London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Kohlke, Marie-Luise. “Neo-Victorian Biofiction and the Special/Spectral Case of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Hottentot Venus .” Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies 18, no. 3 (2013): 4–21.

Knopp, Sherron E. “‘If I Saw You Would You Kiss Me?’: Sapphism and the Subversiveness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. ” PMLA 103, no. 1 (January 1988): 24–34.

Lackey, Michael. The American Biographical Novel . New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

———, ed. Biographical Fiction: A Reader . New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.

———. “The Rise of the Biographical Novel and the Fall of the Historical Novel.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 31, no. 1 (2016): 33–58.

———. “Usages (Not Representations) of Virginia Woolf.” Special Issue on Virginia Woolf and Biofiction. Virginia Woolf Miscellany 93 (2018): 12–14.

Lackey, Michael, and Todd Avery, eds. “To the Readers.” Special Issue on Virginia Woolf and Biofiction. Virginia Woolf Miscellany 93 (2018):1–2.

Latham, Monica. “‘Serv[ing] Under Two Masters’: Virginia Woolf’s Afterlives in Contemporary Biofictions.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies (2012). Reprinted in Lackey, ed., Biographical Fiction , 408–25.

———. “Virginia Woolf on the Contemporary Stage.” Virginia Woolf Miscellany 93 (2018): 21–23.

———. Virginia Woolf’s Afterlives: The Author as Character in Contemporary Fiction and Drama . New York: Routledge, 2021.

Book   Google Scholar  

Layne, Bethany. “The ‘Supreme Portrait Artist’ and the ‘Mistress of the Phrase’: Contesting Oppositional Portrayals of Woolf and Bell, Life and Art, in Susan Sellers’s Vanessa and Virginia .” Woolf Studies Annual 21 (2015): 78–106.

Lee, Hermione. “Biomythographers: Rewriting the lives of Virginia Woolf.” Essays in Criticism 46 (April 1996): 95–114.

———. Body Parts: Essay in Life-Writing . London: Pimlico, 2008.

———. Virginia Woolf . London: Chatto and Windus, 1996.

Light, Alison. “Young Bess: Historical Novels and Growing Up.’” Feminist Review 33 (Autumn 1989): 57–71.

Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel . Translated by Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. “History.” In Lays of Ancient Rome and Miscellaneous Essays , 1–39. London: Dent, 1968.

Morgan, Claire. A Book for All and None . London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001.

Moretti, Franco. Atlas of the European Novel: 1800–1900 . London: Verso, 1999.

Ní Dhúill, Caitríona. Metabiography: Reflecting on Biography . Cham: Palgrave, 2020.

Novak, Julia. “The Notable Woman in Fiction: The Afterlives of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 31, no.1 (2015): 83–107.

Nunez, Sigrid. Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury . New York: Soft Skull, 2019.

Saunders, Max. Self Impression: Life-writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Sellers, Susan. Vanessa and Virginia . Ullapool: Two Ravens Press, 2008.

Silver, Brenda R. “Virginia Woolf Icon.” In The Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and the Arts , edited by Maggie Humm, 239–413. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2010.

Soja, Edward. Thirdspace: Journeys to Lost Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction . London: Routledge, 1988.

Woolf, Virginia. “The Art of Biography.” In Collected Essays , vol. 4, 221–35. London: Hogarth, 1967.

———. Flush [A Biography] . Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998.

———. The Letters of Virginia Woolf , edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. London: Hogarth Press, 1977.

———. “The New Biography.” In Collected Essays , vol. 4, 229–34. London: Hogarth, 1967.

———. Orlando: A Biography . Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998.

———. Roger Fry: A Biography . London: Hogarth, 1940.

———. A Room of One’s Own . London: Hogarth, 1977.

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Wallace, D. (2022). “Everything Is Out of Place”: Virginia Woolf, Women, and (Meta-)Historical Biofiction. In: Novak, J., Ní Dhúill, C. (eds) Imagining Gender in Biographical Fiction. Palgrave Studies in Life Writing. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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virginia woolf the art of biography pdf

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book: Biography in Theory

Biography in Theory

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  • Language: English
  • Publisher: De Gruyter
  • Copyright year: 2017
  • Audience: Students and teachers of Literary Studies and History
  • Front matter: 8
  • Main content: 288
  • Keywords: Biography ; literary theory ; historiography ; life writing
  • Published: August 7, 2017
  • ISBN: 9783110516678
  • ISBN: 9783110501612


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  1. Virginia Woolf, The Art of Biography

    I The art of biography, we say—but at once go on to ask, is biography an art? The question is foolish perhaps, and ungenerous certainly, considering the keen pleasure that biographers have given us. But the question asks itself so often that there must be something behind it.

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    the cambridge edition of the works of Virginia Woolf general editors Jane Goldman University of Glasgow Susan Sellers University of St Andrews editorial advisory board Tuzyline Jita Allan City University, New York Gillian Beer University of Cambridge Ian Blyth University of St Andrews Rachel Bowlby University College London David Bradshaw Worcester College, Oxford ...

  3. Virginia Woolf

    Virginia WOOLF(1882-1941) Virginia Woolf was an English writer and essayist. We have most of her works at this site and they consistently rank as some of the most popular ebooks accessed. At the bottom of this page you will find a few snippets of her writing. The article on Woolf at Wikipedia states that she "is considered one of the greatest ...

  4. "the proper writing of lives ": biography and the art... (PDF)

    Flush, the biography of a cocker spaniel, 132 139 Chapter 4 Practising biography: Virginia Woolf as a critic and a biographer 4.1 Virginia Woolf as a critic, 139 - 4.2 Virginia Woolf's reviews of other writers' biographies, 145 - 4.3 Biography and the media, 154 - 4.4 Granite & Rainbow, 156 - 4.5 "The Art of Biography," 164 ...

  5. Virginia Woolf : a biography : Bell, Quentin : Free Download, Borrow

    Metropolitan Museum Cleveland Museum of Art. Featured. All Images; This Just In; Flickr Commons; Occupy Wall Street Flickr; Cover Art; USGS Maps; Top. ... Virginia Woolf : a biography by Bell, Quentin. Publication date 1972 Topics Woolf, Virginia, 1882-1941 -- Biography ... Pdf_module_version 0.0.19 Ppi 300 Republisher_date

  6. (PDF) The proper writing of lives. Biography and the Art of Virginia

    Biography and the Art of Virginia Woolf" analyses Virginia Woolf's lifelong interest in the genre of biography and life-writing. Being the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, Woolf was personally connected to the genre of literary life. She made biography the substance of her experimental fiction.

  7. Virginia Woolf

    Category: Arts & Culture Original name in full: Adeline Virginia Stephen Born: January 25, 1882, London, England Died: March 28, 1941, near Rodmell, Sussex (aged 59) Notable Works: "A Room of One's Own" "Between the Acts" "Flush" "Freshwater" "Jacob's Room" "Kew Gardens" "Modern Fiction" "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" "Mrs. Dalloway"


    THE ART OF BIOGRAPHY Virginia Woolf e-artnow, Dec 6, 2017 - Literary Collections - 187 pages This collection contains 15 essays on The Art of Biography by Virginia Woolf. Contents:...

  9. Biography and Autobiography

    This chapter explores the centrality of biography and autobiography to Woolf's reading and writing life, and to her cultural milieu, in which experiments in life-writing were a crucial aspect of the modernist reaction against the Victorian era.

  10. Paris Review

    Hermione Lee, The Art of Biography No. 4 Interviewed by Louisa Thomas Issue 205, Summer 2013 In the Lake District, 1994. The first time a publisher approached Hermione Lee with the idea of writing a biography of Virginia Woolf, she said no. "I thought it was ridiculous," Lee recalls. Then a second publisher suggested the same thing.

  11. The Art of Biography (1939)

    Biography as Exposure: Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians. Literature and Biography (1923) In Search of the Literary Fact: Boris Tomashevsky and the Limits of the Biographical Approach. The Biography of the Object (1929) In the Name of the Collective: Sergei Tretiakov's Plea for a Biography of the Object. The Biography as an Art Form of ...

  12. Selected Essays

    Abstract. According to Virginia Woolf, the goal of the essay 'is simply that it should give pleasure…It should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last.'. One of the best practitioners of the art she analysed so rewardingly, Woolf displayed her essay-writing skills across a wide range of ...

  13. The Lives of Houses: Woolf and Biography

    Summary. Virginia Woolf was immersed in Victorian and Modernist practice of biography, and her life may be retraced in the social arrangements of her homes, from London to Sussex, from the large Victorian family to the more equal society of siblings and friends to the collaboration of Leonard and Virginia Woolf on the Hogarth Press.

  14. Collected Essays Vol. 2 : Woolf, Virginia : Free Download, Borrow, and

    Book Source: Digital Library of India Item Woolf,

  15. Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Quentin Bell (1974)

    Quentin Bell (1910-1996), the author of Virginia Woolf: A Biography, was the son of Virginia Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell. He was an artist like his mother, working across several media, and like his father Clive Bell, he was a writer and art critic. He once recalled: "Virginia Woolf was my aunt and as a child I illustrated and to some ...

  16. The New Biography

    Other articles where The New Biography is discussed: Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, A Room of One's Own and other major works of Virginia Woolf: …Art of Fiction" and "The New Biography," she wrote that fiction writers should be less concerned with naive notions of reality and more with language and design. However restricted by fact, she argued, biographers should ...

  17. Virginia Woolf: A Short Biography

    Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on 25 January 1882 in London. Her father, Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), was a man of letters (and first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography) who came from a family distinguished for public service (part of the 'intellectual aristocracy' of Victorian England). Her mother, Julia (1846-95), from ...

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    The Impossible Art: Virginia Woolf on Modern Biography Authors: Elena Gualtieri Discover the world's research Public Full-text Content uploaded by Elena Gualtieri Author content Content may be...

  19. Everything Is Out of Place : Virginia Woolf, Women, and (Meta

    Barrett Browning, who is Woolf's "actual historical personage." 10. Drawing on Woolf's "The Art of Biography" (1939) and her letters about . Roger Fry (1940), Lackey concludes that Woolf " could not imagine her way. to the biographical novel because she could not allow herself to take the lib-

  20. PDF Exploring the Art of Queer Life Writing Through Virginia Woolf'S

    Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography (1928) is a fictional literary biography that archives the lived experiences of a queer, non-dying person, a novel that would understandably complicate fact, fiction, truth, life writing, theory, and empiricism within academia. However, queer theory has often been inattentive to queer life writing such as

  21. PDF Virginia Woolf and the Art of Recovery

    In a review of a biography of Laurence Sterne, Woolf deplored the low state of biography that had led critics to draw a line between a writer's life and the writing itself. Hermione Lee reveals a passage from Woolf's unpublished papers that suggests the biographer might first Mitchell Leaska, Granite and Rainbow: The Hidden Life of Virginia Woolf.

  22. [PDF] Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View

    Life before "The New Biography": Modernist Biographical Methods in The Hogarth Press's "Books on Tolstoi," 1920-24. Claire Battershill. History. 2016. ABSTRACT In the early 1920s, before Virginia Woolf wrote her now well-known essays, "The New Biography" and "The Art of Biography," the Hogarth Press published four biographies ...

  23. Biography in Theory

    Licensed Download PDF. 287. (Deutsch) This textbook is an anthology of significant theoretical discussions of biography as a genre and as a literary-historical practice. Covering the 18th to the 21st centuries, the reader includes programmatic texts by authors such as Herder, Carlyle, Dilthey, Proust, Freud, Kracauer, Woolf and Bourdieu.