Wounded Woolf

Granite and Rainbow
February 5, 1999

This queen-size biography of Virginia Woolf trundles along in the wake of another applauded heavyweight, Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf (1997). Mitchell Leaska does not acknowledge Lee, other than by a swatting motion in his preface in the direction of "seven or eight biographies of Virginia Woolf already in existence".

In fighting spirit, Leaska justifies the eighth or ninth in the series with a version of quot homines, tot sententiae : "Interpretations of identical source material differ as widely as reviews of the same novel differ in literary journalism... The same holds true for biographers... Try to imagine a biography of Hitler written by Oskar Schindler and the point becomes clearer."

Leaska makes space for himself by denying the traditional privileges of the "definitive" or "authorised" biographer. Despite his teasing subtitle, Leaska does not go all the way into contemporary "blackwash" by claiming the "unauthorised" biography's outlaw freedoms to pry and slander. He does not have to. The main reason that there have been so many biographies (and generally well-informed ones) of Woolf is that her estate has laid itself unusually open. The bulk of her papers have been deposited accessibly to scholars. It is a healthy situation for scholarship and one can only wish it obtained for T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath or James Joyce. Their lives are truly hidden.

Leaska adops a strenuously genetic approach in which past experience causally produces future literature. His notion of "past" is far-reaching. This biography could be subtitled "The Hidden Life of Virginia Stephen". It is not until page 160 that we reach the subject's marriage. And at the doorstep of the Virginia Stephen story is a medium-length biography of her father, Leslie.

The biographer of Woolf, her family and her literary set is assisted to an almost embarrassing degree by their high degree of introspection and their ultra-civilised habit of articulating their observations of themselves in journals and letters. The lives of the Bloomsbury group are probably, in this sense, the least hidden of all. At times the effect is what D. H. Lawrence described with reference to Woolf's novels - one feels as if one is being shaken up in a feather mattress until one does not know if one is a feather or a person. More important, through the expositions of biographers one feels one knows Woolf as well as one knows Pepys. Take, for example, the description of her childhood molestation by Gerald Duckworth, in which she describes her victimised reactions with the precision of a surgeon performing a forceps delivery:

"I can remember the feel of his hand going under my clothes... I remember how I hoped he would stop; how I stiffened and wriggled as his hand approached my private parts. But it did not stop. His hand explored my private parts too. I remember resenting, disliking it - what is the word for so dumb and mixed a feeling? It must have been strong, since I still recall it."

The search for words to capture dumb and mixed feelings is, Leaska suggests, the royal road to Woolf's novels. In fiction, "omniscience and power were hers for the taking. Here no one could meddle, hinder, or hurt."

In his page-to-page conduct of the biography, Leaska sensibly adopts a subdued narrative tone in which Woolf's quoted words glisten against a dull background. He is aided by an excellent eye for quotation. His title pivots on Woolf's pensée that no biographer has ever been "subtle enough and bold enough to present that queer amalgam of dream and reality, that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow that is an artist's life." The genre, that is, awaited its Virginia Woolf - and perhaps found it in the Virginia Woolf who wrote Orlando .

Anyone who has tried his hand at biography will be familiar with a more quotidian problem than the transmutation of granite, namely how to resolve what Tristram Shandy (in the vain attempt to narrate his life) calls progression and digression. Should the biographer cleave to linearity - the straight road - or go for cross-hatching, wandering down every side road that invites? Leaska opts for a strictly chronological approach - a resolutely forward march. The world that he constructs around Woolf is consequently thinner than Lee's and - less forgivably - blemished by jarring Americanisms such as "diaper", "gasoline", "automobile", "the child within", "mailbox".

Leaska's reading of Woolf's life depends on two interlocking theses. The first is that her art is traumatic - childhood bruises to the psyche ("wounds in the head", she called them) rising slowly to the surface. Leaska lays primal stress on Julia Stephen's death in May 1895. Leslie Stephen is pictured staggering from the room where his wife Julia's corpse lay: "Virginia stretched her arms out to him, but he brushed past her, crying something unintelligible." The daughter was rejected. Not that she wanted to console her father. As Leaska hypothesises, she wanted to possess him: "Virginia was deeply troubled by her mother's attachment to the man she herself loved so completely and so desperately wanted to satisfy." This illicit desire (exacerbated by Leslie Stephen's emotional monstrosity) was the incurable wound.

Woolf's trauma simultaneously destroyed and reassured her. Among the most moving, yet enigmatic, passages in Leaska's narrative are those describing her hypersensitivity to reviews. Writing her novels was anguish, publishing them torture. At this moment she was "artistically naked to the public". Even the ill-written, uncomprehending verdict of some dunderhead dashing off 500 words in Hound and Horn had the power to throw her into a pit of paralytic depression. And yet there was "that curious pleasure she got from suffering" - a mixture of relief at being caught out and exhilaration at not having to pretend any more.

Ironically, with another hat on her head, Woolf was the sharpest reviewer of her generation and the most efficient in her hack-work. She could, she said, turn reviews out like so many "American sausages" (book received on Saturday, copy turned in by Monday, proof marked on Wednesday, in print on Friday; two guineas, thank you).

The second of Leaska's grand theses is that Woolf's fiction was the product of a "delicate art of sublimation - of purifying and making socially agreeable something otherwise base and offensive". In the lost childhood, the novelist was born. Writing was, however, not therapeutic. Her art was the opening, not the healing, of old wounds. "As we move forward through her 59 years," Leaska proposes, "it becomes evident that those years of greatest stress were also periods of greatest productivity." The greater the fiction, the greater the danger.

Leaska's biography rests on clearly stated principles of interpretation, encompasses a large amount of archival research and is admirably usable (with a detailed chronology, family tree and index). It is, as he admits, not the first nor will it be the last. But it is a most welcome addition.

John Sutherland is professor of modern English literature, University College London.

Granite and Rainbow: The Hidden Life of Virginia Woolf

Author - Mitchell Leaska
ISBN - 0 330 35436 1
Publisher - Picador
Price - £20.00
Pages - 513

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