Saturday, 30 May 2009

The Afterlives of Virginia Woolf - Hermione Lee

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Hermione Lee speak at the University of Essex. She gave a lecture entitled “Taking Possession and Letting Go: Virginia Woolf and Biography” as part of The Afterlives of Virginia Woolf season that is running at the University.

Professor Hermione Lee has written a wonderful biography of Virginia Woolf in which she discusses all aspects of her life and work. I am currently reading it and in it she brings to the factual details of Virginia Woolf’s life a wonderful insight into the motivation for her writing; her style of speaking is equally insightful. I felt a little out of place being at the lecture as I am not an academic (as the rest of the audience was) but Professor Lee speaks in such an eloquent and passionate way that it was actually a very enjoyable experience.

The room that the lecture was being held in was very ‘Bloomsbury’, there were purple and white stocks on the table and Professor Lee was wearing a scarf that would not look out of place in the Omega workshops or Charleston. The lecture began with a discussion of the many ways in which Virginia Woolf has been perceived since her death and how, as new approaches to looking at her work and life have evolved, so attitudes towards her as a writer have changed. Professor Lee discussed how Virginia Woolf has this odd characteristic of being “Near and far away at the same time”, both a Victorian daughter and a modern feminist, and how her diaries seem to speak directly to people.

The discussion moved on to the book and film The Hours by Michael Cunningham, another type of afterlife. Professor Lee appeared to like the book, but I am not entirely sure if she liked the film or not. I thought that maybe she liked the essence of the book, taking inspiration from Woolf and reinventing it in a new way, but that the film fell short in many ways including; the social inaccuracies, the house and lifestyle of the Woolf’s being too grand, Vanessa being too posh, Nicole Kidman being too young, that Virginia Woolf is portrayed as perpetually scowling, ferocious rather than charming, that she was played as “a doomed victim”, that more could have been shown of Virginia Woolf’s involvement with the press and setting type, as well as several other things. But apart from that she still seemed to speak very positively about The Hours, recognising that the nature of making a film has limitations with being completely accurate to historical fact.

I think that she felt the film gave a romantic but not realistic picture of Virginia Woolf. The idea that a first sentence just came to Virginia Woolf and a book flowed from it is very different to Virginia Woolf’s own account of her writing in which she revised her work again and again (sometimes even after publication) until she got it exactly as she wanted it. The most striking example of this romanticising was Professor Lee’s brief mention of Virginia Woolf’s suicide which, in the film, is shown as Nicole Kidman walking gracefully into a gentle river in a tweed coat on a bright sunny day. Professor Lee contrasted this with the image of Virginia Woolf on a cold, March day, wearing an old coat, Wellington boots and a hat kept on with an elastic band. The river is actually very fast flowing so that nothing grows on the banks and the trees would have been bare. We don’t know how Virginia Woolf entered the water as no one was there. A very stark image to describe.

She read out an interesting e-mail correspondence with Michael Cunningham in which he discusses the oddity of people becoming possessive over Virginia Woolf when she does not belong to anyone!

The lecture moved on to discuss the approach taken towards biographies of Virginia Woolf, how Professor Lee approached her biography and the style used by Virginia Woolf when she approached biographical writing. I found this section particularly interesting as the last two Virginia Woolf pieces I have read (Memoirs of a Novelist and Reminiscences) have both focused on the concept of biography.

I can’t really begin to capture Professor Lee’s style but I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture. It was followed by a question and answer session in which Professor Lee was able to take the questions being asked by the audience and elaborate them into mini lectures of their own. I was quite blown away by the ease at which she was able to recall examples in Woolf’s work that was relevant, it really was very impressive. The question and answer session was led by
Dr. Sanja Bahun and Professor Marina Warner who also gave very interesting insights into Virginia Woolf and asked Professor Lee some great questions that prompted some interesting responses. Virginia Woolf's writing style was discussed, the way in which she used words and the rhythm of the sentences to turn her work into a “performance”.

It was a real privilege to hear Hermione Lee speak, not only as she is such a good speaker but because of her passion yet subjective approach towards Virginia Woolf. She hinted that there were books that she liked less than others and she approaches Virginia Woolf as a critic whilst at the same time enjoying her as a writer.

I don’t think that this post can really do justice to professor Lee’s lecture, but I hope that it expresses how much I enjoyed it and the inspiration it has given me to continue reading Virginia Woolf. One of the main points of the lecture was that Virginia Woolf’s afterlife is still very much alive; some of her work has yet to be published and Hermione Lee is just one of many who, through publishing very readable books and speaking so passionately about her, ensure that her afterlives will continue for many years to come.


  1. I wish I could have been there. I enjoyed your account very much. I wonder which books HL did not like, and why. Perhaps the lecture will be published somewhere, or a copy can be obtained.

  2. I'll keep an eye out for it being publshed as I would love a copy too. HL did mention her new book which looks interesting

  3. I thought very much as Margaret did about publication of the lecture as I'd like to read it too.

  4. What a great account! Thanks for sharing. I'm actually going back to school to audit a couple of courses on 20th century British & Irish literature so I'm looking forward to posting my thoughts and ideas soon. I've been thinking about creating a literature page, but it's so much to keep up! I think I'll come here to discuss any Woolf analysis, which I'm certain we'll cover. I'm actually really excited! :)))

  5. Hi Cindy

    I'm looking forward to hearing your Woolf analysis. I have almost finished The Voyage Out so I will be posting about it soon

  6. If you would like to hear more of HL lecturing, there are three lectures available for viewing at

    Only one is on Woolf. The chapter of the HL's book Body Parts, based on the Woolf lecture above, focusses quite a bit on the reception of Cunningham and the movie The Hours, so that may be a bit repetitive for you.

    There are also some wonderful shorter essays on Woolf and her views on life-writing in a book by Julia Briggs, called Reading Virginia Woolf.

    Best of luck with your project!

  7. I thought the film had over-embellished Virginia Woolf's household, otherwise the depiction is quite accurate.