By Chris Wallace
The new Virginia Woolf biography by Alexandra Harris is very different. It is short.
Woolf is a great subject through which to consider recent movements in the BPI (biography proliferation index). The first Woolf biography I read, Quentin Bell’s two volume Virginia Woolf (1972), was a touch over 400 pages, excluding appendices. It begins with the wonderful sentence: “Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen.” This is followed by: “The Stephens emerge from obscurity in the middle of the eighteenth century. They were farmers, merchants and receivers of contraband goods in Aberdeenshire.” Bugger Bloomsbury. Quentin Bell had me hooked before Virginia was even conceived!
The high tide mark is Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (1996), considered the definitive biography so far. It comes in at nearly 900 pages – a BPI doubling in less than a quarter of a century. Then there are works taking specific angles on Woolf like Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life (2005) which probably has the highest PER (prose to endnotes ratio) of any work on the English author. The body of Briggs’ book is 402 pages long, followed by 109 pages of endnotes.
Now Bell, Lee and Briggs are all academics but then so is Alexandra Harris whose Virginia Woolf (2011) is 170 pages with 8 pages of notes. I could kiss her. Briggs’ work marks a welcome plunge in the BPI and PER. Biographies of magisterial length have their place. Where would historians be without them? And with subjects deeply interesting to us, no detail is so small as to be undesirable.
There was a long, depressing period, however, when only biographies of magisterial length were taken seriously. American biographers set ever thicker benchmarks, producing biographies capable of doubling as door stops. Not that the English were far behind. Michael Holroyd’s two volume Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography (1967-8) was over 1,000 pages long – ironic given Strachey’s role in the early 20th century championing the short, sharp biographical lunge.
Strachey consciously counterpointed his work to the long, earnest biographical tomes of the Victorian era. As Barbara Caine points out in her excellent survey Biography and History (2010), Strachey took a new path “in the brevity of his treatment, his crisp literary style and his often ironic tone, but also in his open criticism and his interest in hidden and sometimes unconscious motives”.
This “new biography” Strachey pioneered was from the outset conceived not to convey light and shade but rather throw the subject into stark relief. Caine’s book contains the delicious detail that Strachey’s breakthrough book Eminent Victorians (1918) made up of four brief, astringent accounts of the lives of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and General Gordon, had the working title Victorian Silhouettes. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines silhouette as “a portrait obtained by tracing the outline of a profile, head, or figure, and filling in the whole with black”. I’m sure there’s more than one biographical subject who feels that’s exactly what their biographer has done to them – the “filling in the whole with black” bit anyway.
Alexandra Harris brings the brevity of Strachey, if not the astringency, to her biography of Virginia Woolf, arguing “the telescope as well as the microscope has its role”. As each year goes by, she notes, the mountain of Woolf scholarship grows with more “superb soundings of the archives, exegeses of particular themes, and excavations of historical context”. But how to distinguish wood from trees? “The short survey can allow new things to stand clear,” Harris writes. “Its demands on the writer and reader are different but no less intense.”
Harris tips her hat to Hermione Lee’s very large, wonderful Woolf biography saying it had motivated her to study English and shaped her own responses to Woolf’s work. Actually she lays it on a bit thick – the acknowledgement segues into grovelling thanks – but Harris is only 30 and her flattery of influential elders hasn’t become artful yet, which is kind of charming.
Harris needn’t have gone quite so far. Lee writes in her essay “Virginia Woolf’s Nose” that there “is no owning her, or the facts of her life”, that Woolf continues to be re-invented – “made up, and made over – with every new adapter, reader, editor, critic and biographer”. Lee goes on to quote Woolf herself from Orlando that “a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many as a thousand”. Now there’s a challenge…
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 5 November 2011