Books: Letting the Woolf off the hook

Do we think of Virginia Woolf as a sensitive lady novelist? Or as an anti-Semitic snob? Miranda Seymour reports; Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee, Chatto, pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
In 1928, Virginia Woolf was 46 years old and able, at last, to say that she had laid the ghosts of the past in her novel, To the Lighthouse, published the previous year. Noting on her father's birthday that it would have been his 96th, she thanked God for his death in 1904, when she was still a young woman. "His life would have entirely ended mine," she wrote in her diary. "What would have happened? No writing, no books - inconceivable."

Sir Leslie Stephen was a difficult father, dour and demanding, but one of the many merits of Hermione Lee's scrupulous and detailed biography is the emphasis it places on other factors which contributed to Virginia's enduring sense of nervousness and insecurity. The details of sexual abuse by her half-brothers, Gerald and George Duckworth, are carefully examined and serious consideration is given to the likely effect on her of the regular intrusions of her mad cousin James, a would-be suitor to her older half-sister Stella (and one of the many candidates for the role of Jack the Ripper). Quentin Bell's two-volume life of his aunt dealt lightly with the presence in the house of Laura, the autistic daughter of Leslie Stephen's first marriage. She was, in his view, a family joke. Lee is more sensitive in judging the likely effect on Virginia and Vanessa. Can the impact of Laura and of James be separated from Virginia's later view of mental defectives when she wrote, "They should certainly be killed"?

Julia Stephen, her mother, died when Virginia was 13; Stella, already a young woman, became substitute wife and mother until, in the face of vigorous opposition from Sir Leslie, she escaped into marriage. Her tragically premature death in 1897 marked the opening of the grimmest period of Virginia's early life and the last six years of her father's, during which he confined his daughters to a regimen of resentful docility.

Virginia was 22 when Sir Leslie's death liberated the sheltered, home- educated sisters to a new life and to their first - mildly disappointing - encounters with "Bloomsbury" in the form of their brother Thoby's university friends. Thoby's death in 1906 and Vanessa's choice, that year, of a rich, middle-class husband, Clive Bell, increased Virginia's sense of isolation and despair. Vanessa was, in Lee's view, largely responsible for engineering her sister's marriage, in 1912, to Leonard Woolf.

Woolf was a sensitive, courageous man whose own extreme unhappiness when young enabled him to empathise with Virginia's frequent and overwhelming periods of despair, melancholy and madness. He is given rather a rough ride by Ms Lee. Virginia's unrepressed anti-Semitism and her snobbish patronage of his family are excused as being typical of the period. But they are not, surely, so easily excusable in a wife. Woolf's careful guardianship of a brilliant but terrifyingly volatile woman, his steady support of her work and his subordination of his own needs to hers - all these are, I think, too readily dismissed here. Leonard is blamed for refusing to allow his wife to bear a child. No consideration is given to the possibility that the Hogarth Press could have been devised by him as a valuable form of therapy for Virginia; yet Leonard might well have seen the "excruciatingly'' slow labour of typesetting as soothing work for a highly-strung mind.

Virginia Woolf was 33 when she published her first novel, The Voyage Out; Mrs Dalloway, published 10 years later, marked the moment when she could see herself regarded as a writer whose reputation would endure. Neurotically ill- at-ease with her physical appearance (although she knew that many thought her beautiful), she was both competitive and insecure about her work. As a young girl she watched and learned from her sister's painting techniques, honing her prose on landscapes. Maturing into a novelist, she kept a beady eye on the competition and felt triumphant when the younger Katherine Mansfield seemed to have lost her touch in the story "Bliss''. "She's done for!'' Virginia wrote with glee. Only after Mansfield's premature death in 1923 did she begin, a little grudgingly, to acknowledge that the younger woman's work deserved serious consideration. Colette, different enough not to be perceived as a rival, was the only woman writer for whom Woolf's praises were not carefully qualified.

Lee is anxious to rescue Virginia from the image of sensitive lady novelist, although I wonder if that is really how we still perceive her. To emphasise Woolf's engagement with politics and contemporary culture, she is restrained in her use of the diaries and letters which show the malicious and often wickedly entertaining side of her nature. Instead, she seeks to exonerate her from accusations of fascism (the image of Virginia waving to Nazi crowds in Germany in the Thirties has created a degree of uncertainty) and presents Three Guineas (in which she startlingly compared Hitler to St Paul) as powerfully subversive. Lee's arguments are strongly made, but it is hard to see a democratic spirit in a woman who wrote during the war of her disgust with the local villagers' fund-raising theatricals: "... these plays which they can't act unless we help. I mean, the minds so cheap, compared with ours, like a bad novel - that's my contribution - to have my mind smeared by the village and WEA mind; & to endure it, & then simper.''

Rich, intelligent and persuasive though this new biography is, I would hesitate before calling it definitive. Its meticulous examination of Woolf's career will make it an invaluable source for students and devotees, but readers who are less thoroughly familiar with the subject may be frustrated by Lee's decision to compartmentalise the life. Chapters on "Madness", "Bloomsbury" and "Reading" are more akin to closely-worked essays than to the subtle process of development which most of us look for in a biography. For that, the reader should still turn to Woolf's own writings, and to the life written in 1972 by Quentin Bell.