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Virginia Woolf
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59 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 1999
Probably the best bio of Woolf we are likely to see for some time. Lee has succeeded brilliantly and gracefully in that most elusive and troublesome task of capturing the "spirit" of another human being and then conveying that without simplification or reduction. What is most moving is that Lee allows Woolf her complexity and contradictions, her courage and cowardice, her generosity and meaness, without indulging in a sort of inconoclastic glee in smashing received images of Woolf as victim or feminist icon (or any other of the several and various "Woolfs" to be found these days.) Lee's bio is a stunning feat of sympathetic imagination and rational scholarship which ranks with the other "best" bio of the last 20 years or so, Deirdre Bair's marvelous and beautiful "Simone de Beauvoir." I am grateful to both of these writers.
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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 1997
just a few words about this book. I have been studying the works and life of Woolf since the early '70's and this bio by Hermoine Lee is by far the most comprehensive and for my money 'honest'. The hagiography is over. Now we are getting to the bones of Woolf at last. The 'madness', as we always suspected is not as easily explained away from a clinical aspect and in her book Lee deals with an overall composite of the traumas of Woolfs early life and subsequent stresses. Leonard woolf too becomes more real and his role in the shaping of Woolfs inner and outer life is seen more clearly. The book humanises them both,. Not always a comfortable feeling for the reader but for the serious student of the writer and the woman,this book must be best yet. There will always be something beguiling about a woman writer who lives life dangerously and dies by her own hand, especially for other women writers.You may not 'like' Woolf the woman after reading this book but you will come so much closer to understanding what drove her to her greatness, what drove her 'madness and subsequently what led her to that long walk one afternoon down to the river.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 1998
Hermione Lee has compiled a brilliant and passionate account of the life of Virginia Woolf. Whether she is exploring the political or personal aspects of the prolific author, Lee manages to paint an intriguing portrait of Woolf. Her style ranges from technical to cinimatic, varying upon the circumstances and subject matter. The effect leaves the reader celebratinging the acquisition of an intimate new aquaintance, as well as mourning the loss of a life cut short.
The experience of reading this biography would be enriched by a familiarity with some of Woolf's works (Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse), but a person unfamiliar with these writings would enjoy the experience of this book just as well.
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37 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2001
Of the many literary biographies I've read, only Peter Ackroyd's "Dickens" seems to me as "definitive" as Ms. Lee's terrifically compelling book. One finishes it with the sense, however illusory (see Janet Malcolm's extraordinary "The Silent Woman" for a convincing argument that it must be), that the Virginia Woolf found in its pages is essentially identical to the actual woman who lived and wrote and died. Anyone with even a slight interest in her must consider this book essential reading. I found it a real page-turner throughout its considerable length despite being unconvinced of Woolf's literary eminence (except for her sparkling correspondence) and finding her character unattractive (i.e. snobbish, frigid, a false friend, etc.) even by the usual standard for writers.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Literary biography is a tough genre to master, but Hermione Lee has tackled one of the toughest subjects imaginable and emerged triumphant. Even those who have never picked up even an essay or short story by Virginia Woolf feel somehow familiar with her work; Michael Cunningham's The Hours: A Noveland the film based on that has taken her story and turned it into part of pop culture (albeit at a very high level.) That makes the task of producing an unbiased evaluation of Woolf's literary contributions and a balanced view of her life (both subjects of heated debate among her admirers) far more difficult than penning a standard literary biography.
Far from being scared off, Hermione Lee rises to the occasion and delves deeply into every primary source on which she can lay her hands. The result is a triumph. She is able to weave these into a compelling narrative, never allowing the vast mass of detail to distract her or bog down the pace of the book (quite an accomplishment, given the 800-900 or so pages...)Whenever the reader is poised to ask of Lee how she reaches a given conclusion, within a paragraph the answer is presented, deftly and effortlessly.
The result is a highly accomplished biography and one that should serve as a model for any other aspiring literary biographer. The Woolf that emerges is one that stands apart from the existing biographies, all of which have their own flaws (written by a family member, with all the flaws that brings; written to demonstrate that Woolf was first and foremost a victim of sexual abuse, etc.) Lee's Woolf is an independent woman who constructed a life that suited her, however little understood it may have been by those around her. Even her suicide, the darkest days of World War II, make sense in the framework of Lee's narrative, which deals with her previous mental breakdowns, her experiences during the Great War and her fear of being trapped forever in a half-world unable to write.
Even for those not familiar with Woolf's novels or the Bloomsbury Group, this is a very accessible book. Indeed, I'd recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the entire period in English literature (which saw a dramatic changing of the guard, from the oeuvres of Tennyson, Hardy and Yeats to those of Woolf, Joyce and T.S. Eliot). It can only help the novice reader approach Woolf's own works with greater understanding and confidence.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2011
I had steered clear of Mrs. Woolf's work due to a perceived effeteness to her aesthetics and apparent lack of a mitigating human touch in her writing.I hold the same effete bias against classical ballet so I guess that dooms me as an open minded art lover. However, on the positive side I am a proud reprobate Londoner. Grew up in High Holborn during the blitz years, lived in Fitzrovia for another 20 years and proud of Bloomsbury's cultural position as a former literary hot spot, as much for Dickens as the later field of effete Bloomsbury writers and artists.

However, this biography by Miss Lee is a first class literary work in its own right. It creates, on its own terms, a deeper and more rounded image of Virginia Woolf as a woman, as a feminist, and as a driven thinker and writer. Miss Lee's careful reconstruction of the Stephens family ancestry is followed by discussion of Virginia's own unmet paternal needs and a later traumatic physical intrusion from a male relative. That history offers a credible genetic and psychological explanation for both her creativity and depressions. The liberated personal lives her family and circle practised brought no severe judgments from Miss Lee. I admired -- which may just be my naivete -- Miss Lee's calm recital of the various liaisons and the adult camaraderie and bonds that governed their relationships even after passions cooled. It was certainly not the sort of P.G. Wodehouse world that my adolescent imagination fed on about that period.

This book was not at all turgid or too scholarly. My unfamiliarity with Virginia Woolf's works was compensated by Miss Lee's analysis of Virginia's various literary themes and book character explanations. The book moves swiftly touching all the nuances of personality that made up Virginia's private and public world. The book retained the air of the eras through which Virginia lived. The author was very discreet and never intruded on the narrative. Too often biographers are only too willing to contrast an episode just described against a contemporary example of a similar incident,to allow a current reader - with the hindsight of more acquired knowledge and different mores and manners -- to come to satisfying "superior" judgements.

Excellent book. Sorry it had to end and saddened the reason for the end was indeed such a sorry one.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 24, 2007
this is the best biography of Virginia Woolf to date. The book is broken into four parts based on four broad periods in VW's life: 1882 - 1904; 1904 -1919; 1919 - 1929; and 1929 - 1941. The chapters, however, are theme-based; for example, Chapter 15 is "Bloomsbury"; Chapter 19 is "War"; Chapter 24 is "Monk's House"; and Chapter 37 is "Fascism". This then serves as a wonderful reference book to go back to read about specific events (war) or themes ("Bloomsbury") without having to search through an index for disjointed entries. Of the four biographies I have read of VW (Quentin Bell's, Hermione Lee's, Julia Brigg's, and James King) I recommend this biography as the one to start. King, 1994, was willing to write more about her personal relationships (read, "sexual") and is a good follow-on.
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22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 1999
I am taking this book slowly and am nearing the end. It is terrific and I find, on the days I take off from reading it, that I miss Virginia Woolf and want to go back to the "place" that is her life. I thank Ms. Lee for giving me a closer intimacy with Virginia Woolf.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 15, 1998
A wonderfully fascinating book, which not only illuminates its subject's life, but any life of a reader and a writer. This bio does more than just offer a story of Woolf's live, it offers an artistic, thought-provoking look at life as seen through books, through early 20-century England, through the beginnings of Modernism. Through it all, is an exploration of the idea of trying to capture a life in a biography or in a novel, which enriches one's understanding of Woolf, and of writing about people in general.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2014
A long, satisfying biography of an important literary figure. Characters of friends, family, colleagues (of which there are an army) are convincingly sketched, along with their influence on the central, somewhat problematic woman. Virginia Woolf is not a particularly attractive human being: she spends a lifetime thinking mainly about Dear Me, rarely noticing the tribulations of others except as they irritate or inconvenience her, painfully insecure about her own talent and yet fiercely convinced that no other talent much matters, not a particularly warm or generous or brave person, but with a lifelong passion for comparing herself to others in case they are smarter or more eloquent or more successful then herself. Moreover, because of her loudly voiced beliefs about the oppression of women (another way of talking about herself) and her adoption by feminists as one of the great historical captains of their movement, one gets the feeling that the author is continually negotiating a minefield of potentially explosive judgments and emphases. She does so beautifully, giving a rich sampling of Woolf's own words so that the author can speak for herself on the most compelling issues. A great job.
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