Virginia Woolf: A woman's view

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The Independent Online
First Person

Hermione Lee, Professor of English Literature at York University, has devoted five years to a biography of Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in 1941 during an attack of mental illness. Virginia Woolf is published next month by Chatto, price pounds 10

Surprisingly, I'm the first English woman writer to write a full scholarly biography of Virginia Woolf. There hasn't been a full-scale one using a lot of primary material written in England since the book by her nephew Quentin Bell in 1972. He rather depoliticised her - we have a friendly argument about that.

I've tried to react against some of the standard lines on her that have become accepted in the last 10 or 15 years. I resist the image of Virginia Woolf as someone whose life was destroyed by madness and rendered painful all the way through by things which happened to her in her childhood - her mother died when she was 13 and her half-brothers had an oppressive relationship with her, with a lot of unwanted physical contact - or as someone repressed by her husband.

In fact, she was very funny and had a very sharp eye for political events. So in my book you get her reading of the General Strike, her views on the abdication crisis, and her reaction to the rise of fascism.

There's a lot of unpleasantness around Virginia Woolf and I don't try to walk around it. She was notoriously spiteful and malicious and could be very unkind. But she was more critical of herself than anyone else could ever be.

The book draws on new evidence. There are a number of her letters which haven't been published, for example the correspondence in Hull with Winifred Holtby who wrote Woolf's biography during her lifetime.

You can see Virginia was half not wanting to tell her anything and half flattered and pretending she hadn't read it.

There is also a lot of correspondence which refers to her. Clive Bell, Woolf's brother-in-law, had a long relationship with Mary Hutchinson - although they were both married to other people - and Clive often made unkind references to Virginia Woolf. One letter has a rather good description of her having her first driving lesson from her husband Leonard, backing into a brick wall and saying crossly: 'I would be able to do this perfectly well if no one was watching me!