During my teenage years I rode the train to and from school. Twice a day I passed the spot where Virginia Woolf drowned. Even given the changes since those dark days, the contrast always gave me pause for thought. I used to cycle and walk out that way as well, enjoying the peace, the wildlife, the beauty.
Naturally, I looked at Woolf’s writing; which was enough for me. The woman was a genius with words. I have since revisited her books a number of times, each exploration revealing more about her and more about me. Yet I could never quite wrap my head around the way her life closed in on her so acutely she could think of only way out.
Having now read Hermione Lee’s superb biography I now begin to understand. It is only a beginning, but that is usually the best place to start. I am not a big reader of biographies, especially of writers. As one myself, I know that the great bulk of their lives involves sitting at a table putting words on paper. Not very interesting in itself. And in many cases, their life is irrelevant to the finished product. But when the writer uses their own life and experience as the basis for their exploration of the human condition, then their life is often key to their interpretation.
The other reason I do not often read biographies is that they are usually dull reading. The author either sticks to recounting a series of events or tries to analyse them and ends up making a pigs ear of the silken purse they were first handed. Hermione Lee avoids all the pitfalls. Yes, she recounts the events of Woolf’s life. Yes, she attempts an analysis. But she manages both with great style, with vitality, sympathy, and considerable insight.
At no time does she shy away from Virginia Woolf’s difficult side (which Woolf herself was all too often painfully aware of), yet she treats this with an even-handed approach. Some of it can be explained, but people are often what they are and we have to take them as a whole. Just as we have to take the harrowing episodes in her early life along with the desperately dark inner turmoil that would squeeze the joy out of her life.
Unlike most biographies that leave me feeling like I know a character better, this one has left me feeling I know a real person a lot better. It is a model of biographical writing: scholarly and inclusive, warm and caring. I no longer travel past where Virginia Woolf died. I do not know if I will ever return to that part of the world. But I do know the unquiet ghost of my own lack of understanding will have begun to fade. I hope Virginia Woolf’s spirit has found peace because she has made my world a better place.