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.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

Memoirs of a Novelist 1909

Memoirs of a Novelist raises the question of why people write biographies and what right they have to look into the inner and private lives of people, in particular after their death.

A very recent example is the publication of ‘The Other Elizabeth Taylor’ by Persephone Books founder Nicola Beauman. As discussed on the Blog Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover, it seems that the children of Elizabeth Taylor were not happy about certain aspects of their mother’s life being published even though her husband had give consent to the book being written.

I have found it uncomfortable reading about certain aspects of Virginia Woolf’s private life. The factual events; births, marriages and deaths are ok but reading about things which would be private if the individual were still alive is very voyeuristic. There is a fine line between what is comfortable and what is not. Reading about the inner life of the Bloomsbury Group; what they discussed at their get togethers and the relationships between them is interesting but it begins to feel intrusive when you read their personal letters and very private experiences.

Memoirs of a Novelist is a comment on a biography by Miss Linsett written about her novelist friend Miss Willat, although all of the characters in the piece are fictitious.

You don’t actually learn very much at all about Miss Willat or Miss Linsett, instead the piece focuses on some of the many issues involved in writing a biography.

What is interesting is that the characters of Miss Willat and Miss Linsett are fictitious, and therefore when Virginia Woolf quotes passages from their books this is written by her as well. In a similar vein to Joan Martyn she is writing a story about a character who in turns reads/writes about another person in biography form all of which are actually written by Virginia Woolf.

As in most of the pieces I have read so far the central characters of this story are women and more specifically women writers. Virginia Woolf was very clear that she thought the lives of women were as important of those of men and that there was just as much you could say and write about a woman as a man. I don’t know how important it is that all of these women were either spinsters (Miss V., Miss Willat, Miss Linsett) or only on the verge of getting married (Phyllis and Rosamond and Mistress Joan Martyn) but it may give an insight into Virginia Woolf’s views on marriage.

The image used at the beginning is of the reading room at The British Museum

Sunday 17 May 2009

Reminiscences - 1908

I have been struggling with what to say about Reminiscences for several weeks now. On the one hand it is an autobiography, detailing the lives of Virginia’s sister and mother, but on the other it was written as a biography of Vanessa for her son Julian Bell, so it is not an ordinary biography.

I am currently reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf and at 750 odd pages it is long but incredibly comprehensive. It is proving very insightful and revealing about the family history of Virginia Woolf and what some of her motivation to write may have been. Hermione Lee also wrote the introduction to Reminiscences in the edition I am reading (Virginia Woolf - Moments of Being edited by Jeanne Schulkind published by Pimlico 2002) and again her insight into why Virginia Woolf may have written these pieces is very interesting. I am trying not to read too far ahead into Virginia Woolf’s life as this can change the way that I will look at the earlier pieces, but it is fascinating to know how important biography and autobiography as a style of writing were to Virginia Woolf, from her fathers editing of the Dictionary of National Biography to her own autobiographical writing. There was also a tradition in her family for each generation to write their memoirs of the family to be passed on to the next generation.

To put this piece of writing into context you need to look back to 1906. Shortly after the Stephen siblings holiday in Greece where they climbed Mount Pentelicus, both Thoby and Vanessa became unwell. Once back in England Thoby was thought to be recovering but he in fact died of Typhoid Fever in November of 1906.

The move from Hyde Park Gate to Bloomsbury a few years earlier had been a big change for the Stephen siblings, not only was the location physically removed from their past, but it also allowed them to break with the conventions of the previous generation. The introduction of Thoby’s Cambridge friends opened up a whole new world to Virginia and Vanessa and this would continue after his death. Many of his close friends rallied round the sisters after his death and were there to support them. Shortly after Thoby’s death Vanessa accepted the proposal of Thoby’s friend Clive Bell, so not only did Virginia loose her brother, but in very quick succession she also lost her sister. Vanessa and Clive moved in together and Adrian and Virginia continued to live together.

Clive Bell would be very influential in encouraging Virginia to write but there also seems to have been some jealousy and rivalry for Vanessa’s attention. Virginia often showed her work to Clive Bell and welcomed his feedback. Reminiscences was written for Virginia Woolf’s nephew Julian Bell who was born 1908 but it may have been begun before sometime before his birth. Hermione Lee suggests that

“It is written out of Virginia’s equally intense feelings about Vanessa, …jealousy, competitiveness, bereavement, a sense of having been displaced.”

Reminiscences begins with the birth of Vanessa and a description of how she was as a child. It reads partly as a conventional biography with a formal tone and structure, but it is supplemented with personal anecdotes and accounts of Vanessa’s life from Virginia. The piece deals with the death of their mother and sister, the impact that this had on the remaining children and it finishes shortly after the death of Stella.

I think I will want to read this piece again as I read Virginia’s fictional accounts that are drawn from her family life. The book contains several autobiographical pieces written at different times in her life and I think it will make sense to come back to the pieces as a whole and look at how she treats her autobiographical writing as her fictional writing develops.