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Sunday, August 24, 1997

WOOLF'' By Hermione Lee. Knopf. $39.95.
   Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf's most recent biographer, has written a 
distinctively Woolfian biography, treating her subject ``not as a solid, 
clock-measured thing but as a blurred centre of innumerable rays,'' much as 
Woolf herself would have had it.
   As Woolf observed, a modern personality involves ``so many selves'' that 
the notion of a ``true self'' is a fallacy.
    In keeping with Woolf's own theories, Lee, professor of English at the 
University of York, seems often to remind the reader that there is no such 
thing as a``definitive biography,'' and that ``there is no deep, essential 
self, neatly divided off.''
   Similarly, Lee's chapters are arranged according to aspects of, and 
impacts upon, Woolf's life, rather than in traditional chronological order. 
But even these chapter headings (such as``Biography,'' ``Maternal,'' 
``Paternal,'' ``Selves,'' ``Changes'') do not contain the subject matter in 
neat compartments.
   We do garner a chronology in any case, learning that after a seemingly 
idyllic childhood, Virginia Stephen developed into a sensitive,``frail'' and 
imaginative young woman. Prone to bouts of despondency and what she called 
``apprehension'' and grieving the death of her parents, she nevertheless 
managed to outlive her supposedly stronger and intellectually rigorous 
brother, Thoby.
   As a young adult she continued to attract the ministrations of 
caretakers, both familial and professional. Her notorious affliction, which 
might have been what is now termed ``bipolar disorder,'' did not prohibit 
her from outstripping in fame not only sister Vanessa, who was a painter, 
but the entire ``intellectual aristocracy'' of the Stephens.
   Her success appears ironic in light of the ``treatment'' she received 
from relatives.
   Lee explores each of Woolf's relationships with extreme care and 
unwavering scholarly discipline. From her relationships with her father, 
mother, her sisters, Stelia and Vanessa, her brother Thoby, to her positions 
on various issues, as well as a full examination of questions of sexual 
violation by her half brother George Duckwarth, this is an informed, 
critical account.
   While Woolf's literary lineage and class position most definitely 
advantaged her (her husband, Leonard, believed that she couldn't have 
written a single novel without her inheritance), she successfully resisted 
the role of ``historian'' laid out for her by her father, Leslie Stephen, 
and forged a space ``of her own.''
   She became a biographer who found that the writing of a life necessarily 
involved fiction, while her novels, as Lee deftly demonstrates, often began 
as closely autobiographical accounts.
   She challenged the preceding century of Victorian literature and her own 
father's form of ``life-writing.'' Her essay ``A Room of One's Own'' is a 
watermark in feminist writing.
   Woolf's fiction and other writing investigated issues of women in the 
professions, the clash of roles and identities, the political involvement 
(or detachment) of artists and authors and the relationship of writing to 
painting, among many themes.
   Yet perhaps most importantly for her, she helped change the contours of 
the novel, freeing it from its enslavement to plot and linear narrative.
   Lee's unabridged, carefully annotated and already critically acclaimed 
biography also helps illuminate the late 19th and early 20th centuries in 
Britain, lending a historical perspective. Woolf often serves as a focal 
point from which to understand the period.
  One cannot help but be amazed at the prodigious scholarly attention (893 
pages) devoted to a  single person. She is, granted, extremely fascinating.
   Lee's every page contains a  literary construction worthy of her subject, 
but ``life-writing'' on such a scale turns into a  fetish.
   The question that comes to mind is: What motivates such a massive 
   Freud claimed that Western civilization's concerns with art have more to 
do with artists than with art itself. The high valorization of artists and 
authors involves, he maintained, an idealization and subsequent dethroning 
of father figures.
   The artist or author is thus both a representation of the father as well 
as an Oedipal hero who kills the father, a theory that fits with the 
centuries-long male-centeredness of the arts and letters.
   In Woolf, Lee has found the ideal inversion of this patriarchal scheme: a 
female Oedipus, a feminist hero who saw books as her children and challenged 
the version of literature handed down by her father and his associates.
   Lee's biography thus appears to be making up for the libraries of 
commentary devoted to male artists and authors.
   Yet she does not idealize her subject by smoothing over the weaknesses. 
Woolf emerges as a human being rife with flaws and assets, a person caught 
up in struggles and contradictions. Her ``illness'' neither defines nor 
invalidates her, is neither venerated nor denigrated. Her accomplishments 
are not viewed as superhuman, but as deriving from circumstances, many of 
which she was able to forge from pre-existing ones.
   Her art is not ``made'' by her feminism, but rather her feminism is made 
more salient by her art.
   It may be that Lee has successfully written a truly feminist biography - 
a real inversion of male-centered hero-worship, discarding the romantic 
bravado, and subverting the idolization that requires a cycle of symbolic 
PHOTO: (No caption)
The reviewer is the author of ``The Eros of the Baby Boom Eras.'' He will be a teaching fellow in English at Carnegie Mellon University beginning this fall.

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