Books: Biting back at the Woolf pack

Virginia and her pals still bewitch writers of fact and fiction. Ray Monk points out the pitfalls of Bloomsbury biography
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Granite and Rainbow is such a perfect title for a life of Virginia Woolf that it is a wonder it has not been used by one of the previous dozen or so biographies. The phrase comes from her essay, "The New Biography", in which she expressed her scepticism about the whole genre. Quoting Sir Sidney Lee's remark that "the aim of biography is the truthful transmission of personality", she wrote: "No such single sentence could more neatly split up into two parts the whole problem of biography as it presents itself to us today. On the one hand there is truth; on the other there is personality. And if we think of truth as something of granite-like solidity and of personality as something of rainbow-like intangibility and reflect that the aim of biography is to weld these two into one seamless whole, we shall admit that the problem is a stiff one and that we need not wonder if biographers have for the most part failed to solve it."

In "The Art of Biography", Virginia Woolf criticised Lytton Strachey's Elizabeth and Essex for attempting to solve this problem by combining fact and fiction. Lacking documentary evidence for the "tragic history" he claimed to see lying, half-revealed and half-concealed in the available facts about Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, Strachey simply invented what he could not prove. This, Woolf insists, will not do, for fact and fiction, the granite and the rainbow, "destroy each other". Strachey's book is a failure but "It was not Lytton Strachey who failed; it was the art of biography".

Biography, constrained by the granite-like world of observable fact, is not an art but a craft. To convey successfully the rainbow-like world of personality, the intangible nature of thoughts and feelings, one has to enjoy the artistic freedom of the novelist. That is why, paradoxically, "fiction is likely to contain more truth than fact".

Very few novelists or biographers have thought about, or felt, the problem of biography more deeply than Virginia Woolf. The question "how does one understand and convey the inner life of another human being?" dominates her criticism, her novels and, arguably, her life. To understand her thinking about biography is, to a surprisingly large extent, to understand her.

Hermione Lee saw this very clearly, which is why her recent biography of Woolf begins with a chapter discussing Woolf's views on the genre. Disappointingly, Mitchell Leaska's book, despite its wonderfully apt title, does scant justice to the intensity and subtlety with which Woolf thought about the problem of biography. His book begins with a confused introduction, in which he woefully misuses Woolf's metaphor by insisting that his task as a biographer is to uncover the "granite behind the rainbow", the "real thing behind appearances". This is bad enough (for the whole point is that the rainbow, though intangible, is every bit as real as the granite), but it gets much worse when one realises that this is no mere momentary slip, but rather symptomatic of a general confusion on Leaska's part.

The central weakness is that, whenever he attempts to summarise Virginia Woolf's thoughts about fact, fiction and reality, Leaska comes hopelessly adrift. He attributes to her an extreme form of subjective relativism, according to which, "something was only true... if you believed it". Woolf, he claims, believed that truth was "both relative and contingent upon the reader's subjective perception of the world", and that each perception was different, so that "reality was no longer public" but "private, personal, idiosyncratic, subjectively construed".

The odd thing is that time and time again, Leaska himself provides the evidence that Woolf believed no such thing (she could hardly have objected to Strachey's mixing of fact and fiction if she did). He summarises the plot of Woolf's short story, "The Unwritten Novel", in which the unnamed narrator, sitting opposite a woman on a train, begins to fantasise the life story of this woman. When the train reaches its destination, the woman alights to join her waiting son and the narrator's guesswork is revealed to be wrong. However, Leaska does not appear to notice that, if Woolf believed what he claims she believed, she could not have written this story. For, on his account, there would be no room for the notion of getting it wrong; thoughts and beliefs about reality would be indistinguishable from the facts and therefore not amenable to verification or falsification.

The purpose of Woolf's metaphor of granite and rainbow was to highlight, not obliterate, the difference between the truth of fact and the truth of fiction. Leaska's confusion on this point is not a minor flaw, but runs like a fault-line throughout his book, threatening to reduce it to incoherence. It undermines, for instance, his many, otherwise enlightening parallels between the events in Woolf's life and the incidents described in her novels.

To describe the ways in which Woolf drew on her memories of her mother, Julia, in creating Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse is to perform a useful service to scholarship; but to claim, as Leaska does, that in doing so he is revealing the granite behind the rainbow, the "real thing behind appearances", is to miss the point.

To the Lighthouse is a novel, an artistic creation. If it expresses important truths, this cannot be because it includes facts about Julia Stephen. The biographer's obligation is to the facts; the novelist's to the integrity of creation. These two are not related as appearance to reality. The rainbow is not the appearance of the granite; it is made of different stuff.

Leaska's crude confusions make his book easy prey to the fashionable, facile dismissal of biography. When people insist that the facts of a writer's life cannot explain the work, they are right. Where they are wrong is in thinking that the task of the literary biographer is to explain a writer's work. It is not; it is, rather, to understand the writer. When a biographer makes the same mistake, he is in trouble.

Leaska's misunderstandings of Virginia Woolf's thinking and his reductionist view of biography impose severe limitations on his ability to understand Woolf herself. To that extent, his book suffers by comparison with the biographies of Quentin Bell and Hermione Lee, both of whom showed a far subtler grasp of Virginia Woolf's intricate and fascinating personality. However, this is not to say that Leaska's book is entirely without merit.

It is the product of immense scholarship, which Leaska builds into his narrative with an impressively light touch, frequently drawing the reader's attention not only to the finished texts of Woolf's novels, but also to early drafts and alterations. Moreover, when he is not discussing metaphysics, Leaska writes extremely well, and the book is, for all its limitations, an absorbing page-turner - particularly in its treatment of Woolf's final breakdown and suicide, which is heartbreakingly moving.

He is also very good on her parents, who are portrayed more vividly than in any other book I know. Equally vivid is his account of Woolf's romantic relationship with Vita Sackville-West; though, characteristically, Leaska misses the fact that Orlando is not just about Vita. It is also, crucially, about the limits of biography.

"If only subjects had more consideration for their biographers!" Woolf wrote in Orlando. "What is more irritating than to see one's subject, on whom one has lavished so much time and trouble, slipping out of one's grasp altogether and indulging [in thought]. If the subject of one's biography will neither love nor kill, but will only think and imagine, we may conclude that he or she is no better than a corpse and so leave her". This is precisely the problem a biographer of Woolf has to face. So much of her life was spent thinking and imagining that, unless one has a very rare insight into her mind, all the time spent in ascertaining the facts of her family, loves and so on will not prevent her from eluding one's grasp. With his eye fixed on the granite, Leaska has missed the rainbow and, therefore, most of what is really interesting about Woolf. The result is a "hidden" life in quite a different sense to the one intended.

Ray Monk is the biographer of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell

Granite and Rainbow: the life of Virginia Woolf

by Mitchell Leaska

Picador, pounds 20, 513pp