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But ‘she was not a victim’ and throughout her formidable personal struggles she raged against society in daring literary charact
on April 21, 2015
In her book about the immensely complex, Virginia Woolf, Hermione Lee perceptively paints the portrait of this prominent writer with words. Born in 1881, Woolf’s life unfolded in the setting of literary high-society. Straddling the worlds of aristocratic pretension and middle-class reality, Woolf emerged the embodiment of contradictions: she attended ‘Society Parties’ with her wealthier half-brother so he could marry up, then she later married down to ‘a penniless Jew’; while married she engaged in a homosexual affair; the epitome of a modern feminist, Woolf ‘despised the term’ and what it represented; suffering a lifetime of physical and mental illness, she experienced periods of deep depression while producing some of her most enduring literary works. But ‘she was not a victim’ and throughout her formidable personal struggles she raged against society in daring literary characters brilliantly challenging feminine and masculine roles and social norms. As a member of Bloomsbury she disagreed with the war, she challenged and often ridiculed the society that produced her, and she blazed paths in literary style that make her writings relevant to present time.
The myriad collections of Woolf’s serve to stitch together the narrative of Lee’s biography. Through extensive use of Woolf’s fictional writings Lee argues that, though an intensely private woman in her personal life, Woolf revealed much about herself through her fictional characters. With this biographic style, Lee creates space on the pages for Woolf’s voice to speak through. In doing so, she reveals as much about Woolf’s personal life as she does about the intensely personal aspects of Woolf’s novels. Using private and public documents and impressive scholarly research Lee permits her subject’s complexities to manifest through the exploration of many of her personal relationships. The complicated nature of her marriage, her sexuality, her convoluted family relationships, the consistent struggle to understand her ‘apprehension,’ and finally her suicide in 1941 all contend to define Woolf but somehow fail. This failure remains Lee’s utter success. In presenting Woolf’s complexities through meticulous description and careful selection Lee accomplishes the difficult—nearly impossible—task of writing about a character as Woolf herself, would likely write about her.