Virginia Woolf’s Nose

Hermione Lee’s collection of essays on biography, Virginia Woolf’s Nose, has a number of good stories to tell about the disagreements and controversies that crop up when biographers try to piece together people’s lives.  The more I read about biography, the more I realize just how hard it is to write one — not just because of all the painstaking research involved, but because of the many, many decisions a biographer must make about what to emphasize, what to put in and leave out, how to interpret facts that can have multiple meanings, what to do with the legends that crop up about famous people that might have little to do with reality.  Really, accurately telling the story of someone’s life is impossible — accurately telling your own life story is impossible too, I suppose.

Lee’s essays describe controversies that have sprung up about Percy Shelley (with a brief anecdote about Samuel Pepys), Jane Austen, and Virginia Woolf, and she closes the book with a chapter on the ways biographers narrate the story of their subjects’ death.  The stories are fascinating, including various versions of what happened to Shelley’s corpse as it was burned on a beach in Italy (his heart supposedly did not burn; Edward Trelawny plucked it from the flames and it ended up with Mary Shelley who kept it in a glass jar).  The story about Jane Austen concerns uncertainty about whether she fainted when learned she would have to leave her beloved home and move to Bath.  Lee charts the way versions of this story have changed over time and the way they reflect beliefs and biases of each biographer.

The essay on Virginia Woolf was my favorite; it describes what happens to her image and reputation and to her masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway in the hands of Michael Cunningham, who wrote the novel The Hours, and in the movie version of that novel where Nicole Kidman puts on a fake nose to play Woolf.  She charts what happens to the political content of Mrs. Dalloway in the later novel and movie, and also describes the dismay of Woolf’s critics and biographers at the way Woolf and her life and death are portrayed.  Lee expresses her own reservations about the movie, particularly its sentimentalization of Woolf’s death, but she realizes there is little to be done about it:

Does it matter if the film’s version of Virginia Woolf prevails for a time?  There is no one answer.  Yes, because it distorts and to a degree misrepresents her, and for any form of re-creation, of any significant life, in any medium, there is a responsibility to accuracy.  No, because she continues to be reinvented — made up, and made over — with every new adapter, reader, editor, critic, and biographer.  There is no owning her, or the facts of her life.  The Nose is her latest and most popular incarnation, but she won’t stay fixed under it for ever.

The book is short, at 120 pages, but it is rich with ideas about how biographies get written and reputations shaped.  She is particularly good on the ways stories take on a life of their own and become requirements for any biographer to deal with, even if the story has little to do with the facts.  And her closing chapter has a fascinating argument about the way biographers can’t resist becoming novelists at the moment they write the story of their subjects’ death: they find ways of turning the deathbed scene into highly significant and metaphorical moments, moments that sum up the subjects’ life or reflect on the work they have done.  Given a widespread loss of religious belief, we might expect modern-day biographers to take a more practical view and see death as simply another incident that is part of the life, but they persist in seeking out a larger meaning.

As far as books about biography go, I must say that I am more excited about and moved by books that have a more personal element than this one does; Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman and Richard Holmes’s Footsteps take up issues similar to Lee’s, but the personal aspect of these books makes them, in my view, richer and more compelling.  As much as I enjoy thinking about biography on an intellectual level, which Lee’s book expertly invites readers to do, I enjoy even more thinking about it on an intellectual and personal level both.  I want to see and feel what it’s like to grapple with the problems of biography rather than just contemplate the finished product.

But I don’t want to accuse this book of not accomplishing something it doesn’t ever claim to do, and it does what it does excellently well.

16 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

16 responses to “Virginia Woolf’s Nose

  1. What a fascinating sounding book! Oh dear, one more for the TBR pile, I fear… You are sending me a steady stream of wonderful non-fiction lately, Dorothy. And much as the shelves may groan a bit, I do love it.

  2. Now I really have to put more effort into finding this book! I saw the movie of The Hours and had not read the book and was so dismayed at how Woolf was represented that I have not been able to bring myself to read the book. With all your interest in biography, what is the likelihood of you writing one someday? I think you would be quite good at it.

  3. Pingback: NIGEL BEALE NOTA BENE BOOKS » Blog Archive » Questions about Biography

  4. You’ve been reading the most interesting books on biography this year–I really need to pick one up. I have a slew of biographies that I want to read–they are fascinating, but sometimes the story behind the story is just as interesting. And I had heard the story about Shelley’s heart–weird! I wonder what the truth really is?

  5. ted

    You really make me interested to read this book. I also found that the film of The Hours fell short, although I took ‘the nose’ more as a comment on Nicole Kidman’s inability to act, than on anything having to do with Woolf herself.

  6. verbivore

    Dorothy, this does sound interesting! But I’ve noted the two other titles you mention as well. I am really interested in broadening my biography horizons a bit and am happy to have these three recommendations. Thank you!

  7. The Hours is on my Netflix list of to be watched films. Having read your review, I’ll keep in mind that it’s probably not a very accurate picture of Virginia Woolf, and will take it as such.

  8. Litlove — I’ve been on a good streak with nonfiction, haven’t I? I have you to thank for that in part, I know, particularly for the Malcolm recommendation.

    Stefanie — oh, thank you! I have no plans to write a biography, but I won’t rule it out, just in case inspiration strikes! I loved The Hours, and although Lee has some criticisms of it, she liked it too. It certainly works better than the movie does (although I have to say I liked the movie — I just pretended it wasn’t really Woolf Kidman was portraying).

    Danielle — I agree that the story behind the biography is often very interesting. I’d prefer to read that more than the biography itself, I think — I mean, I like biographies, but I often find them daunting. And yeah, what an odd story about Shelley!

    Ted — I hope you enjoy it if you do end up reading it! I have to say I enjoyed the movie, even though Lee certainly did not, but Meryl Streep was the attraction for me, not Kidman so much.

    Verbivore — glad to help! I’m not entirely sure why I’ve become so interested in biography, particularly since I’ve read relatively few of them. It may be that the “problem of biography” gets really well at the problem of how language can and can’t capture reality, which is a fascinating question.

    Debby — yeah, if you keep in mind that it’s not really Woolf, you’ll be fine. I enjoyed the movie, and I hope you do too!

  9. zhiv

    So happy to see this. I was in what is, I believe, your neck of the woods for the last 5 days, on a “Parent’s Weekend” debut, and missed this excellent weekend post. First off, I’d like to give it up to Hermione Lee, who is simply a genius scholar and biographer. I only looked into her VW bio about a year ago, when I was getting back into things, and her skill and accomplishment were quite intimidating. I have her biography of Cather, and don’t feel qualified to read her latest, which is on Edith Wharton. But the essays of a biographer are a treat, and I can’t wait to read this. We all might have to figure out some kind of biography and literary biography whatchamacallit at some point.

  10. The problem with books like THE HOURS (which I loved for its obvious adoration of Woolf. It sent me back to re-read a lot of the Virginia Woolf I’d read in college) is that when Hollywood gets a hold of them, the decision is made to portray it as “the story of [famous person’s] life,” instead of the subtle, story-in-its-own-right that the novel is. That’s why I’ve never seen the movie version.

  11. Thank you for putting me onto this book. I managed to pick up a copy in the University Library and it’s sitting in line to be read after ‘Mrs Dalloway’ (halfway through) and ‘The Hours’. It’s going to be really useful in preparing my presentation.

  12. Zhiv — a biography whatchamacallit would be wonderful! :) And I’ll have to read a bio by Lee. I’ve been wanting to read a Woolf bio for a while, so perhaps hers would be the one to go to.

    Emily — yeah, and then they don’t even do a terribly good job getting the story of the person’s life correct. Frustrating.

    Ann — I knew you were reading those books, but I didn’t know you were doing a presentation. I hope it goes well! Yes, Lee’s essay will be very helpful, I would think.

  13. I’m a huge fan of The Hours and I love Virginia Woolf too (especially her essays), so this is definitely being added to my wish list. Thanks for introducing me to this book!

    I agree with you, I love biographies that have personal elements in them, where the biographer’s voice is clearly present.

    I discovered your blog via Alpha Heroes’ bloghopping challenge.

  14. Avisannschild — I love Woolf’s essay as well — I need to find some more of them to read, in fact!

  15. Hi again,

    The results of my bloghopping are here.

    I’ll be visiting your blog again!

  16. Eva

    I’m glad you linked to this review from your best of-I really enjoyed Lee’s bio of Woolf, so these essays sound so interesting!

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