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Waves of Woolf

I have read an awful lot of novels about aspects of Woolf’s life, as well as many biographies.  I have scoured library shelves, and thought that I’d made a real dent in reading reflections upon and criticisms about her work.  It seems that I was misled in this however, as whilst researching before Christmas, I came across an awful lot of wonderful looking tomes which view Woolf’s life in different ways, and from different angles.  Some are critical, and others not so much.  I thought that I would group these together in a single post, as a wishlist of sorts, as well as a resource for those I know also admire Woolf and her work.

 

1. Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography by Hermione Lee 785085
‘What choices must a biographer make when stitching the pieces of a life into one coherent whole? How do we best create an accurate likeness of a private life from the few articles that linger after death? How do we choose what gets left out? This intriguing and witty collection of essays by an internationally acclaimed biographer looks at how biography deals with myths and legends, what goes missing and what can’t be proved in the story of a life. Virginia Woolf’s Nose presents a variety of case-studies, in which literary biographers are faced with gaps and absences, unprovable stories and ambiguities surrounding their subjects. By looking at stories about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s shriveled, burnt heart found pressed between the pages of a book, Jane Austen’s fainting spell, Samuel Pepys’s lobsters, and the varied versions of Virginia Woolf’s life and death, preeminent biographer Hermione Lee considers how biographers deal with and often utilize these missing body parts, myths, and contested data to “fill in the gaps” of a life story.  In “Shelley’s Heart and Pepys’s Lobsters,” an essay dealing with missing parts and biographical legends, Hermione Lee discusses one of the most complicated and emotionally charged examples of the contested use of biographical sources. “Jane Austen Faints” takes five competing versions of the same dramatic moment in the writer’s life to ask how biography deals with the private lives of famous women. “Virginia Woolf’s Nose” looks at the way this legendary author’s life has been translated through successive transformations, from biography to fiction to film, and suggests there can be no such thing as a definitive version of a life. Finally, “How to End It All” analyzes the changing treatment of deathbed scenes in biography to show how biographical conventions have shifted, and asks why the narrators and readers of life-stories feel the need to give special meaning and emphasis to endings.  Virginia Woolf’s Nose sheds new light on the way biographers bring their subjects to life as physical beings, and offers captivating new insights into the drama of “life-writing.”  Virginia Woolf’s Nose is a witty, eloquent, and funny text by a renowned biographer whose sensitivity to the art of telling a story about a human life is unparalleled–and in creating it, Lee articulates and redefines the parameters of her craft.’

 

1160912. Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground by Gillian Beer
‘Eminent feminist critic Gillian Beer’s work on Woolf, George Eliot, and Victorian scientific discourse are well known and admired. As the essays in this collection affirm, Beer has an extraordinary command of British cultural history, a talent for interpretative prose, and a gift for pursuing genuinely rewarding questions. In Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground,Beer’s essays on Woolf are brought together for the first time in a single volume.  Through her close investigative textual readings, she demonstrates how Woolf’s conceptualizations of history and narrative are intimately bound up with her ways of thinking about women, writing, and social and sexual relations. This is demonstrated through precise, detailed configurations, setting Woolf alongside texts both contemporary and distant, scientific and literary, with the effect that Woolf’s writing is illuminated in entirely new and unexpected contexts.  Beer’s introduction pulls together the critical themes of her work, and renders Woolf accessible to the large audience of scholars interested in English Literature as well as women’s writing.’

 

3. Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf, edited by Sybil Oldfield 108651
‘On 28 March, 1941, at the height of Hitler’s victories during the Second World War, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse near her home in Sussex. At the time of her death some voices in the press attacked her for showing cowardice in the face of the enemy and for setting a bad example to the general population. Woolf’s suicide has been the subject of controversy for the media, for literary scholars, and for her biographers ever since.  Just when it may seem that nothing else could be said about Virginia Woolf and the ambiguous details of her suicide, Afterwords provides an entirely fresh perspective. It makes available to a wide readership for the first time letters sent to Leonard Woolf and Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister) in the aftermath of the event. This unique volume brings together over two hundred letters from T. S. Eliot, H. G. Wells, May Sarton, Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, E. M. Forster, Radclyffe Hall, and many others, including political figures and religious leaders. In addition, informative annotations reveal the identities of many unexpected condolence-letter writers from among the general public.’

 

173470274. Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of the Garden at Monk’s House by Caroline Zoob
‘A chronological account takes the reader through the key events in the lives of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and their deaths. This is allied to an account of the garden and its development, and the creation and development of the key areas of the garden. A wonderful selection of full-colour contemporary photographs, archive photographs, illustrated maps and planting plans take the reader through the various garden ‘rooms’, including the Italian Garden, the  Millstone garden, the Orchard, the Vegetable Garden, the Terrace, the Walled Garden, the Fishpond Garden and the Greenhouses and Conservatories. Throughout there are quotations from Virginia and Leonard’s diaries, giving a vivid account of their plans for, views on and activities in the garden.’

 

5. Travels With Virginia Woolf by Jan Morris 3176787
‘Virginia Woolf had a lively sense of place and delighted in `lighting accidentally. . . upon scenes which would have gone on, have always gone on, will go on, unrecorded, save for this chance glimpse. Following Virginia’s footprints from her beloved Sussex and Cornwall to wartime London, Italy and the Riviera to Greek mountains and the wilds of Spain, Jan Morris intersperses swift verbal sketches of a Greek peasant wedding, a fenland sky, an elderly spinster in a hotel dining room in Italy, or Bognor pier in the rain with her own brief, telling comments on both writer and subject’

 

188436. Women and Writing by Virginia Woolf and Michele Barrett
‘Known for her novels, and for the dubious fame of being a doyenne of the ‘Bloomsbury Set’, in her time Virginia Woolf was highly respected as a major essayist and critic with a special interest and commitment to contemporary literature, and women’s writing in particular. This spectacular collection of essays and other writings does justice to those efforts, offering unique appraisals of Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Duchess of Newcastle, Dorothy Richardson, Charlotte Bronte, and Katherine Mansfield, amongst many others. Gathered too, and using previously unpublished (sometimes even unsigned) journal extracts, are what will now become timeless commentaries on ‘Women and Fiction’, ‘Professions for Women’ and ‘The Intellectual Status of Women’. More than half a century after the publication of A Room Of One’s Own, distinguished scholar Michele Barrett cohesively brings together work which, throughout the years, has been scattered throughout many texts and many volumes. . . affording these very valuable writings the collective distinction they deserve at last.’

 

7. The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Stephanie Barron 6561286
‘In March 1941, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in England’s River Ouse. Her body was found three weeks later. What seemed like a tragic ending at the time was, in fact, just the beginning of a mystery. . . .  Six decades after Virginia Woolf’s death, landscape designer Jo Bellamy has come to Sissinghurst Castle for two reasons: to study the celebrated White Garden created by Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West and to recover from the terrible wound of her grandfather’s unexplained suicide. In the shadow of one of England’s most famous castles, Jo makes a shocking find: Woolf’s last diary, its first entry dated the day after she allegedly killed herself.  If authenticated, Jo’s discovery could shatter everything historians believe about Woolf’s final hours. But when the Woolf diary is suddenly stolen, Jo’s quest to uncover the truth will lead her on a perilous journey into the tumultuous inner life of a literary icon whose connection to the White Garden ultimately proved devastating.   Rich with historical detail, The White Garden is an enthralling novel of literary suspense that explores the many ways the past haunts the present–and the dark secrets that lurk beneath the surface of the most carefully tended garden.’

 

Which are your favourite books about Woolf?  Have you read any of these?

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One From the Archive: ‘Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life’ by Hermione Lee ****

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), says the blurb of Hermione Lee’s new biography, ‘was a great English writer, who would never have described herself in such grand terms’.  Lee adds to this, stating that ‘her novels were short, spare masterpieces, self-concealing, oblique and subtle’.  Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize for her novella Offshore in 1979, and I am certain that great swathes of her fans have looked forward to the publication of a book which focuses solely upon her life.  The author named Lee as a biographer whom she admired, and so it seems fitting that she was tasked by Fitzgerald’s own family to immortalise their beloved Penelope in such a way.

Fitzgerald first became a published writer at the age of sixty, and did not reach the dizzy heights of fame until she was an octogenarian.  She became the author of ‘nine short novels, three biographies, some remarkable stories, many fine essays and reviews, and many letters’.  Lee states that throughout her writing, Fitzgerald: ‘wrote about her own life, but kept herself carefully concealed’.  Lee has split the biography into eighteen different chapters, which range from ‘Learning to Read’ to ‘Last Words’.  The writing style which is used throughout has been stylistically rendered as though to fit a novel, in that it is ultimately pretty, and has clearly been well thought out.  In this sense, the wealth of information which has been presented throughout does not seem at all dry, and is not difficult to absorb.

Fitzgerald had rather a sad beginning.  She was born in the middle of the First World War, in which her father was ‘shot in the back by a sniper at the Battle of Passchendaele, [and was] then found in a shell-hole in a pool of blood’, and her maternal grandfather passed away when she was just two years old.  At the start of the book – as with most biographies which set out the lives of the ancestors of their subjects – there are rather a lot of people introduced, and it is necessary to flip back and forth between the text and the extensive family tree which has been included at the beginning of the volume.  Fitzgerald hails from, says Lee, an ‘exceptional and eccentric clan’, who ‘left a strong mark upon her life and her writing’.  In the Knox family, ‘everyone was publishing, or about to publish, something’.  Indeed, there are some famous names in her extended family – the author Winifred Peck is an aunt, her father Eddie wrote for Punch, and her stepmother was the daughter of E.H. Shepard, most famous for illustrating the Winnie-the-Pooh tales.  Her mother, too, contributed to the English Literature Series, which published ‘editions of annotated, abridged, classic texts’.

Penelope Fitzgerald (The Telegraph)

Quotes have been included throughout, both from Fitzgerald’s books, and the letters of her family and friends.  Lee also paraphrases a lot of Fitzgerald’s work, which gives a real feel for the inspiration she took from her own life and interests, and subsequently fed into her fiction.  The entirety is sprinkled with Fitzgerald’s memories – The Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury, where she distinctly remembers an afternoon reading of Walter de la Mare’s poetry (‘he was the man who had written Peacock Pie.  That was enough’); of being sent to prep school in Eastbourne, an experience which she hated; being taught at Somerville College, Oxford, where she was given lectures by both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; her first job at Punch, writing film reviews; her move to the BBC during the Second World War; becoming married: ‘To Hampstead neighbours, to friends and colleague, they seemed an enviable, talented couple with the world at their feet’; hardships, and her teaching career.

Penelope Fitzgerald is an admirable biography, and one which has evidently been thoroughly researched down to the last detail.  Lee excels at her craft, and it is no wonder that the subject of this biography so admired her.  Whilst reviewing Lee’s earlier book, Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald wrote: ‘Lee’s book is not only very good, but very necessary’.  The same can surely be said here.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life’ by Hermione Lee ****

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), says the blurb of Hermione Lee’s new biography, ‘was a great English writer, who would never have described herself in such grand terms’.  Lee adds to this, stating that ‘her novels were short, spare masterpieces, self-concealing, oblique and subtle’.  Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize for her novella Offshore in 1979, and I am certain that great swathes of her fans have looked forward to the publication of a book which focuses solely upon her life.  The author named Lee as a biographer whom she admired, and so it seems fitting that she was tasked by Fitzgerald’s own family to immortalise their beloved Penelope in such a way.

Fitzgerald first became a published writer at the age of sixty, and did not reach the dizzy heights of fame until she was an octogenarian.  She became the author of ‘nine short novels, three biographies, some remarkable stories, many fine essays and reviews, and many letters’.  Lee states that throughout her writing, Fitzgerald: ‘wrote about her own life, but kept herself carefully concealed’.  Lee has split the biography into eighteen different chapters, which range from ‘Learning to Read’ to ‘Last Words’.  The writing style which is used throughout has been stylistically rendered as though to fit a novel, in that it is ultimately pretty, and has clearly been well thought out.  In this sense, the wealth of information which has been presented throughout does not seem at all dry, and is not difficult to absorb.

Fitzgerald had rather a sad beginning.  She was born in the middle of the First World War, in which her father was ‘shot in the back by a sniper at the Battle of Passchendaele, [and was] then found in a shell-hole in a pool of blood’, and her maternal grandfather passed away when she was just two years old.  At the start of the book – as with most biographies which set out the lives of the ancestors of their subjects – there are rather a lot of people introduced, and it is necessary to flip back and forth between the text and the extensive family tree which has been included at the beginning of the volume.  Fitzgerald hails from, says Lee, an ‘exceptional and eccentric clan’, who ‘left a strong mark upon her life and her writing’.  In the Knox family, ‘everyone was publishing, or about to publish, something’.  Indeed, there are some famous names in her extended family – the author Winifred Peck is an aunt, her father Eddie wrote for Punch, and her stepmother was the daughter of E.H. Shepard, most famous for illustrating the Winnie-the-Pooh tales.  Her mother, too, contributed to the English Literature Series, which published ‘editions of annotated, abridged, classic texts’.

Penelope Fitzgerald (The Telegraph)

Quotes have been included throughout, both from Fitzgerald’s books, and the letters of her family and friends.  Lee also paraphrases a lot of Fitzgerald’s work, which gives a real feel for the inspiration she took from her own life and interests, and subsequently fed into her fiction.  The entirety is sprinkled with Fitzgerald’s memories – The Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury, where she distinctly remembers an afternoon reading of Walter de la Mare’s poetry (‘he was the man who had written Peacock Pie.  That was enough’); of being sent to prep school in Eastbourne, an experience which she hated; being taught at Somerville College, Oxford, where she was given lectures by both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; her first job at Punch, writing film reviews; her move to the BBC during the Second World War; becoming married: ‘To Hampstead neighbours, to friends and colleague, they seemed an enviable, talented couple with the world at their feet’; hardships, and her teaching career.

Penelope Fitzgerald is an admirable biography, and one which has evidently been thoroughly researched down to the last detail.  Lee excels at her craft, and it is no wonder that the subject of this biography so admired her.  Whilst reviewing Lee’s earlier book, Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald wrote: ‘Lee’s book is not only very good, but very necessary’.  The same can surely be said here.