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.