New College, new milestone

January 8, 1999

Hermione Lee has notched up a double first for women at Oxford. Elaine Williams reports on the Virginia Woolf biographer's move

In her biography of the novelist Virginia Woolf, Hermione Lee admits that she would have been afraid of meeting her, fearful of not appearing intelligent enough. Faced with the prospect of interviewing Hermione Lee, it is easy to be beset by similar fears - afraid of that assured voice on the nation's art programmes; bowled over by her work as author, editor and critic.

Through her long-standing interest in contemporary fiction, particularly the work of women, American and postcolonial writers, Lee has managed to straddle the worlds of the academy and the media. She presented Channel 4's only book programme Book Four in the early 1980s, has judged the Booker Prize and co-presented Channel 4's The Booker Prize with Melvyn Bragg.

At the University of York, where she held a personal chair in the English department until recently, she was always inviting writers to come and lecture. It was an attempt to get as close to the creative process as possible, as she pursued her interest in how biography can throw light on writers' works. Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf, published in 1996, was a bestseller. Here was Woolf, no longer the vulnerable, neurotic victim, a hermit in her own room, but a professional, energetic author who was politically engaged. Lee was intent on a biography that was both entertaining and academically ground-breaking.

Now she has been chosen as the Goldsmiths' professor of English literature at Oxford - the first woman to hold the chair and New College's first woman professor. Old colleagues in York sound a slightly anxious note. They are concerned that her enthusiasm and openness to contemporary writers should not be stultified by the traditions of Oxford, that she will survive the politics between college and university, that she will flourish in a system so different to that of York, where she stayed 21 years.

There she was instrumental in setting up two MA degree courses: one called "Fictions of Conflict", with an emphasis on postcolonial literature; the other focused on life writing and the issues thrown up by biography, autobiography, journals and letters. She has done much to promote the current debate about biography, to make the relationship between a writer's life and work into a "very hot topic''. She wants to continue with "something of that kind'' at Oxford.

She may even be able to break the stand-off between the anti-biographical bent of academic critics who maintain that the life of the author is irrelevant to his/her work and non-academic biographers who write for the popular market; bestselling authors such as Richard Holmes on the life of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Victoria Glendinning on novelist Rebecca West and Peter Ackroyd on T. S. Eliot and Charles Dickens.

At the moment, though, she is prepared to proceed with caution, uncertain of what Oxford will throw up. At York, despite her high-profile commitments as a media critic, she was always an active member of the department, involved in administration, research and teaching, committed to supporting female students and to improving access for entrants from poorer families.

She would welcome change at Oxford, where half the university's undergraduates come from private schools, but she is realistic. As a professor with a named chair, responsible largely for graduates, undergraduate admissions lie beyond her scope. She will be, she says, "the least central, the least powerful kind of figure''.

"I would be foolish if I were to go into Oxford in my first weeks and say: 'Clearly a lot needs to be done about access; clearly a lot needs to be done about assessment (York curtailed the end-of-degree three-hour exam many years ago); clearly a lot needs to be done about option choice'. It's a catastrophic error, I think, to come in like that - as some people have done in past times. You bash into a brick wall and people feel entrenched and it's much better just to listen and find out the plot."

Perhaps she can take a longer view because of her life outside the academy. Her latest project is a full-scale biography of Edith Wharton. And her media work continues apace. In a recent Radio 3 Nightwaves programme she interviewed the American novelist Philip Roth, the only interview granted this side of the Atlantic, about his latest work, I Married a Communist.

"If I was writing a book about Philip Roth, or if I was teaching students about him, then I might say something about how the structure of his books always seems more random and improvised than it actually is. In this case I'm in the privileged position of being able to say these things to the writer and see what comes back.'' Since Hermione Lee's own short book on Roth in the early 1980s he has sent her the penultimate draft of every book he has worked on. "It really puts you on your mettle and you see how the book changes. I send him ten to 15 pages of comment, most of which gets ignored, though occasionally something gets used. But it turns into a conversation about the book, which, of course, is very interesting to me."

Virginia Woolf, who was equally preoccupied with the nature and purpose of life-writing, insisted that in biography and autobiography there must be a relation "between the obscure areas of personality - the 'soul' - and forces like class and pressure; otherwise 'how futile life-writing becomes'''. Perhaps as a result Lee came at Woolf from several directions. In the beginning she wanted the book to be non-chronological and thematised, but she soon realised that to break up the life in this way would not work: "You've got to tell the story otherwise people will want their money back.'' She was also acutely aware of the varied readership she wanted to reach - people coming to Woolf for the first time; people who knew her; people who had been reading her all their lives; academic critics; the general public. In the end she believes she achieved the task of gathering together certain themes "without betraying the life by the shape I decided to give it''.

At a recent Anglo-French biography conference she was amused by the contrast between the "rather stern French biographers" and the "rather vague English ones". The English said "biography is all fiction, you make it up and it's all relative and where is the truth?" while the French said "Non, non, il faut avoir la verite".

Perhaps Hermione Lee would place herself somewhere in the middle. For her, the truth can have many faces and is influenced, not least, by the biographer's subjective views. She is interested in the emotional involvement that comes with writing biography and the influence this has on the total picture. She once asked the writer Peter Ackroyd, after publication of his biography of Thomas More, whether he liked More. He retorted impatiently that that was irrelevant and nothing to do with the job in hand; it was a job that he did whether he liked him or not. Hermione Lee distances herself from that position. For her "you have to have emotional feeling to do the work".

Of course she realises the danger of too close an association, and of an association with Woolf in particular. Hermione Lee is the daughter of a GP who practised in central London, living in a succession of Victorian mansion flats, spending her childhood in the parks and streets "that were very much Woolf's area''. One of her walks to school actually followed the footsteps of one of Woolf's fictional heroines, Mrs Dalloway.

While writing the biography she took three years' leave of absence from York, retiring to Wharfedale and the country home of her husband John Barnard, professor of English at Leeds, where she spent the time "writing and writing and writing", and using him as a sounding board, dedicating the book to a partner who was "fantastically generous with his hours, attention and time".

When the book was finished and she returned to York, she felt a profound sense of bereavement. She says: "I think it's a great mistake to think 'Virginia Woolf, c'est moi', to think that you are the only person to understand her, that you possess her, becauseI she belongs to everyone and she's very surprising and inscrutable. But as part of this bereavement I felt that she had been mine - you do feel proprietorial - and that I was giving her back."

Indeed, the work brought about uncanny associations that she does not try to explain away. When she had finished the final script she took it to the nearest post office to send it to Jenny Uglow, her editor and closest friend. Having posted the manuscript she got back into the car and switched on the radio, which was playing the "Cavatina" from Beethoven's string quartet Opus 130, the very music Virginia had wanted to be played at her funeral but which her husband Leonard was too distressed to organise. Hermione Lee says: "I know this is sentimental, but it's very strange when you get to that point and you think there's something speaking to you, that you are in contact with this person''.

The connection remains. Whatever else happens to Hermione Lee during this first year at Oxford she is sure of one thing. On August 11 she will be in Cornwall for the total eclipse of the sun.

She will be close to Talland House, near St Ives, the place of Virginia Woolf's childhood, which played such a large part in her obsession with memory and featured in To the Lighthouse. Virginia herself saw the last total eclipse in 19 while standing on Barden Fell in Yorkshire. Hermione Lee says: "She gave it such a wonderful description and then she said 'not again until August 11 1999'. When I saw that entry in her diary I thought, 'I must do that.'"

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