Every year, the Bloomsbury industry pours out a stream of gossipy biogs, but Hermione Lee's thoughtful new Life of Virginia Woolf is a welcome change

Overcome in the closing months of her life by distaste for journalistic reviewing (and academic lecturing, and literary prizes), which she called "intellectual harlotry", Virginia Woolf admired increasingly those writers who had no face, no portrait, who offered no grip to publicity. She applauded in Gilbert White his "utter lack of self-consciousness", his interest only in the vegetable and animal history of Selborne: "the gossip is about the habits of vipers and the love interest is supplied chiefly by frogs".

This characteristically aslant summing-up might have been applied to a certain tone of Bloomsbury gossip-biography that has arisen in the years since the death of most of the members of its so-called "group". (One must not forget that, for example, Quentin Bell, Frances Partridge and George Rylands are still alive.) These biographical farragoes culminated, it is to be hoped, in the recent regrettable biography of Virginia Woolf by James King, which was startling in its prurience and bulky limitations, chiefly a deafness to the capacities of English prose so entire that it gave rise to the certainty that King was interested not in the writing but the writer, that same vulgar handle on artistic mystery that Virginia Woolf so abhorred. Some Bloomsburiana has indeed implied that Bloomsbury was all gossip, viperish habits and love-making frogs and toadies.

So it is refreshing to be offered Hermione Lee's assured and decorous book, which achieves that chief desideratum when a subject is so elusive and myth-misted as Virginia Woolf, common sense. Not that this massive work is brisk, or schoolmarmish. It simply seeks the truth, if a life can ever be caught and shown in its, as it were, troutlike "blueness", fresh and recognisable, not stupefied and caught like a moth by a pin, to use a recurring image of Virginia Woolf's. As a child, she would stalk and sedate moths with her brothers and sister; she was "name-finder" to the Stephen children's Entomological Society.

One reason for the size of this book is the iridescence of Virginia Woolf's personality and the contradictions that lie within it. In attempting to catch this multicoloured light, Hermione Lee has taken the very proper decision to be unalarmed by weight. Yet her book is for the considerable part a great pleasure to read. There are slubs in the silk, but it is an extravagant bolt of achievement, imaginative spinning, weaving and cutting. For example, just as Virginia Woolf was craving as never before the "darkness of the workshop", that is, writerly privacy, Britain was at war with Germany for the century's - and her life's - second time, and she was feeling the need to draw shoulder to shoulder with her fellow citizens, "intensely aware", as Hermione Lee says, "of the dissolving of her private feelings". She was also reading Freud, whom she had previously consistently regarded with a satirical eye. She was making a conscious attempt to "enlarge the circumference of her mind" and she was finding his work upsetting in its conviction of the persistence of "primal" or "primitive" mental instincts.

Particularly to an individual so mentally frail as Virginia Woolf ("a sane woman", as Hermione Lee remarks, "who had an illness"), the notion of the persistence of the pre-history of the personality, of "forgotten traumata" relating to "life in the human family" touched the wick of her own experience. Increasingly, her memories and long-laid-down pain - and revelations too - came out of the night to get her. She used them repeatedly as her muse and they glow within her works, but the deaths of her mother and father, her half-sister, her brother Thoby and her nephew Julian, and of her dear friends, and the fumblings of her Duckworth step-brother, and her passionate attachment to and, I believe, chaste courtship of her sister Vanessa all burned in her head. Freud's atheism she could share and applaud with her cool, unafraid intellect, but in her own self, in the life she accumulated and told over constantly, she felt forced by his interpretation to see the bloody trap we cannot escape, least of all by the agency of intelligence, and she was dazzled by terror.

Hermione Lee is able to tease out such knots as these in a character that was - consciously - even more complicated than most. She makes the time to do so by using a style for the most part at once plain and fleet, acute and open to an imaginative dwelling-on that does not become either irresponsibly speculative or biographically fallacious, as with the technique of biographers who need to tune up incidents in order to propel the narrative. A life needs no propulsion; it lives itself; it is all drama, even should nothing happen. Virginia Woolf epitomised this knowledge in her work - and most dailily in her diaries and letters - and Hermione Lee has honoured it, giving a masterly account of the relation between the life and its work.

Even as the Woolfs and their circle discussed the necessity for suicide should the Germans invade, and as France fell and her depressions deepened, Virginia Woolf was attempting a Senecan stoicism. "I think of Montaigne," she wrote to her old admirer Dame Ethel Smythe, "let death find me planting cabbages." She saw in the heart of misery the goodness of life and declared "I don't want to go to bed at midday", a defiantly litotic attack on the giant despair.

There are two palliatives for a literary intelligence in extremis, literature itself and the consoling possibility of suicide, kept like a stone in the back pocket. One is as eternal as anything made by man can be; the other, enacted, is unknowable, completely courageous and, possibly, terminally timid. Virginia Woolf towards her own suicide by drowning "read herself into a state of immunity". She was escaping too through dedication to work - essays, talks, articles, the current novel, diaries, gallant chipper letters to her many friends and relations, whose most used adjective about her in the condolent letters to Leonard Woolf was "kind". Hermione Lee does put to rest the meta-persona of the malicious beauty, the naughty aunt, which she believes has been perpetuated by the "in-joking" of her family, who of course actually knew her in a more rounded fashion.

The practised scholar in Hermione Lee descants upon the comfort offered late in Virginia Woolf's life, as she pondered her tyrannical polymathic father, by Coleridge, the voice of easy wide knowledge, whose silence even a little child was said to have regretted, and of whose conversation Keats said, "I heard his voice as he came towards me - I heard it as he moved away - I had heard it all the interval."

Versions of people, as Virginia Woolf knew, are all that biographies can aspire to be. We live now in a time when there is no Common Reader, as Virginia Woolf understood it. Life "melts more than ever", in her own phrase, "in the hand". She was born into a very communicative, literate, letter-writing, visiting, articulate late-19th-century world, as she says; we have by contrast lost most habits of written record. One of the problems for a biographer of Virginia Woolf is the enormous amount of documentation.

There is, for people with some public reputation, the prospect of "cheap posthumous life", as Virginia Woolf wrote of Katherine Mansfield. Hermione Lee has nobly pulled a fantastic web of reminiscence, record, association and memory together, and in so doing has set straight on course once more the high airy elusive - but not ladylike - genius of Virginia Woolf that has been tethered too often to the causes of special interest. Hermione Lee deals with this in a small and dignified appended essay about her own relation to her subject, how her own bookish London childhood led her through shared walks and common streets to a curiosity about and devotion to the work of Virginia Woolf. The last words of Virginia Woolf's mother to her were, "Hold yourself straight, my little Goat" (all her life Virginia Woolf played at being a creature; it was one of the many secret and simple bonds with Leonard Woolf). This is her account of her mother's death:

"I remember very clearly how even as I was taken to the bedside I noticed that one nurse was sobbing, and a desire to laugh came over me, and I said to myself as I have often done at moments of crisis since, 'I feel nothing whatever', then I stooped and kissed my mother's face. It was still warm. She [had] only died a moment before. Then we went upstairs into the day-nursery."

The division in the mind, so truly recorded, is what distinguishes and isolates a born writer, who is trying always to catch and convey the moment, at whatever cost to his own self. How facile the sliver of ice in the heart of Graham Greene is made to seem: more like a few cubes.

This consciousness of her own brain's state was fuel and discomfort to Virginia Woolf. She had a horror of the "dark cupboard of illness", but she knew she could be a writer of "such English as shall one day burn the pages", that she could record better perhaps than any English writer since Shakespeare "this vague and dreamlike world without love or heat or passion or sex" - the world she "really cared about", that was for her distilled in Cymbeline by the words "Hang there like fruit, my Soul, till the tree die!"

Like many intellectuals of intellectual stock, Virginia Woolf felt herself too rarefied, although it is a fine straightforward assumption of Hermione Lee's that Virginia Woolf was until her life's end in some ways very practical. She wrote: "We Stephens are difficult, especially as the race tapers out towards its finish - such cold fingers, so fastidious, so critical, such taste. My madness has saved me"; and she wrote of her antecedents - difficult achievers of great use to the furtherance and administration of Empire, who came to sum up the cold masculine world of egotism, war and effectiveness to which her art stood in balancing, she intended annealing, opposition - "How I wish they had hunted and fished instead [of dictating despatches and writing books]."

"I feel my brains like a pear to see if it's ripe; it will be exquisite by September". This typically concrete image is couched in language so precise there can be no other way of putting what the writer has to say. In so doing, she transmits into the mind of her reader what it is she has thought, how it has felt, how it looks. As she wrote to her friend Elizabeth Bowen of her novel The House in Paris, "the cleverness pulls its weight instead of lying to dazzle on the top".

With this loaded book full of sidelong glances - at Katherine Mansfield, T S Eliot, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Walter Scott, and always Shakespeare - that provide context and mood as happily as a wedding party that succeeds, Hermione Lee has ensured, to use her own lovely old-fashioned word, a reputation irrefrangible.

I find the book's pastelly, illustrative cover coy, unnecessary and owlish, and would quarrel - on very few occasions - with the odd usage. "Posh" is an unhappy word in the context of Virginia Woolf, who was a certain kind of snob only, and who was frugal if glamorised by lineage. It is the smallest slip among very few in a book whose story is too well known, and whose truth has never been so carefully presented as through the clear and also prismatic critical mind of Hermione Lee.

'Virginia Woolf' by Hermione Lee will be published by Chatto & Windus on 19 September at pounds 20

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