“I’m extremely inquisitive and curious,” Hermione Lee said in an interview with The Paris Review. “Perhaps that’s temperamentally why I’ve been attracted to biography. I want to penetrate those secret places, find out everything, and be completely ruthless.” This spirit of relentless curiosity has led her to write exceptional biographies of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Penelope Fitzgerald, and it guides her, in the four essays collected in Virginia Woolf’s Nose, as she investigates the challenges biographers face when attempting to turn their subjects’ lives into literature.
Her investigation begins with the death of Shelley, an event that many writers have mythologized over the years. Edward Trelawny, the “swashbuckling, self-invented” friend of Byron and Shelley, was especially enthusiastic in this regard. As a witness to the events surrounding Shelley’s death and cremation, he is an invaluable source for biographers. But he is also an unreliable one, for his account of the events was constantly changing. Among his embellishments is the remarkable claim that he snatched Shelley’s heart from the flames of the funeral pyre. What, then, became of the heart? In her survey of the possible answers to this question, Lee elucidates the difficulties biographers encounter when trying to piece together the past from sources that are often at odds. She also shows how, in Shelley’s case, “the posthumous life of the subject has as much to do with the writing of biography as the life itself.” But more than anything else—and perhaps more than she intends—she makes one wonder if it is possible, given all the uncertainties and inconsistencies, to write a biography that accurately represents the life of its subject.
Later in the opening essay she examines the life of Samuel Pepys, the great English diarist. In this case, biographers must sort through an overabundance of information: “His famously candid, minute, and inexhaustibly vigorous account of every detail of his daily life filled six leather-bound books written in shorthand.” What should a biographer do when her subject’s life has already been recorded in this way? How should she transition from diary to biography? Some paraphrasing will be unavoidable, of course; certain details will be flattened, while others will be omitted entirely. The biographer’s job, Lee says, is to find a balance between capturing the idiosyncrasies of a life and creating a general picture of it. It is inevitable that things will go missing; one can only hope that they are not the essential things.
The second essay, from which the title of this book is taken, begins as an analysis of Mrs. Dalloway. It then focuses on Michael Cunningham’s book The Hours (a novel based on the life of Virginia Woolf) and the film adaptation of this book. Here Lee is concerned with the fictional portrayal of real life, with the liberties taken when turning fact into fiction. She thinks that The Hours does not properly represent the realities of Woolf’s life. Subtleties are ignored, details are altered, and the peculiarities that make one life so different from all others are not adequately depicted. Her reactions to this book and the movie it inspired lead her to consider the various ways in which a life can be reimagined, and how it can be claimed by different people with different motives.
Among those associated with the life and work of Virginia Woolf, there is a remarkably strong tendency towards possessiveness. This became apparent after the release of the film version of The Hours, in which Nicole Kidman, who plays Woolf, wears a conspicuous prosthetic nose. This appendage, as well as other distracting details, caused somewhat of an uproar among fans and scholars of Woolf. Some reacted as though they had been personally insulted, and the Vice-President of the International Virginia Woolf Society (these things do exist) mentioned “having to defend my territory.” Cunningham, writing to Lee about this particular reaction, said, “How dare she, how dare anyone, consider Woolf his or her ‘territory’? I know of no other figure who inspires such ferocious possessiveness.”
Lee, despite being one of Woolf’s foremost biographers, is relatively dispassionate regarding the debate over which version of Woolf is the correct one. Her conclusion is insightful:
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.
In the third and most thorough essay, Lee shifts her attention from Virginia Woolf to Jane Austen. “The best-known fact about Jane Austen’s posthumous life,” she writes, “is that her story was guarded and shaped by her family.” There seems to have been something of a competition among Austen’s relatives for who could depict her most fittingly: first came her brother’s Biographical Notice, then her nieces’ Recollections of Aunt Jane and My Aunt Jane Austen, her nephew’s Memoir of Jane Austen, her great-niece’s Family History, and so on. Besides her letters—many of which were destroyed by her sister Cassandra—Austen did not leave much behind for biographers to work with. They have had to rely on these family records, which may be rich in detail but are not always straightforward or accurate.
To illustrate her point about the complex nature of biography, Lee uses the famous example of Jane Austen fainting. Biographers have treated this episode as a defining moment in Austen’s life, but they have described and explained it in various ways. The event itself can be summarized rather briefly: Austen, upon being informed that she would be moving with her family to Bath, fainted. But what are the implications of this event, and what does it tell us about Austen’s character and circumstances? All sorts of conflicting answers have been given by Austen’s biographers, leading one to question their methods and motives and to wonder if objective truth is ever possible when telling the story of someone else’s life.
Biographies can sometimes tell us more about their authors than their subjects. They can also reveal, unintentionally, the prejudices and preoccupations of the eras in which they were written. Subjective influences seem especially strong in the biographies of Jane Austen. When one looks at the ways she has been reimagined and reinterpreted over the years, it is easy to conclude, as Lee does when examining two particular biographies of Austen, that the whole practice is “a relativist process of conjecture, invention, intuition, and manipulation of evidence.”
This essay warns us not to read a biography as if it were simply a collection of facts. One must always be aware of the biographer’s motives and biases, the context in which she researched and wrote about her subject, and the alternative explanations that have or could be offered. In short, one must read skeptically and widely—that is, intelligently.
In closing this brief collection of essays, Lee looks at the ways biographers have treated the deaths of their subjects. She discusses a fallacy that appears in many biographies: the idea that the death of a person must somehow suit the life—that it should symbolize it, summarize it, or conclude it in the proper way. Despite there being no reason for this to be true, biographers—even accomplished ones—have adhered to it. They have attributed far too much significance to deathbed scenes and last words, as if life itself is a book whose meaning is only made clear upon reading the final sentence. Lee’s general attitude towards writing about death is drawn from her particular experience of writing about the death of Virginia Woolf; it is simple, straightforward, and representative of the thoughtfulness that is present throughout this entire book: keep to the how rather than speculate about the why, and allow for a little mystery rather than claim certainty about things that cannot be known.
“The possibilities for the representation of a self are infinitely various,” Lee writes in Biography: A Very Short Introduction. With this remark, and throughout the essays collected in Virginia Woolf’s Nose, she demonstrates a keen awareness of the complexities of her craft and an appreciation of the differences between truth and interpretation. She is impartial towards her subjects and generous towards her fellow biographers, even when she is critical of them. This generosity leads to what I think is the main flaw of the book: Lee is not as assertive as she should be. She quotes extensively from other sources, crowding her ideas with those of lesser writers, allowing other people to tell the story when her own words would be more interesting. “It is worth quoting at length,” she writes before presenting the reader with a passage from a biography of the Brontës, and with this phrase she seems to offer us her personal motto. Indeed, sometimes it is worth quoting at length, but sometimes it is worth summarizing or synthesizing. Given the nature of this book—the fact that it is brief and composed of essays—it is odd that Lee should be so dependent on quoting from other sources. Her reliance on citations may be useful in her work as a biographer, but it undermines her efforts as an essayist.
Despite this flaw, Virginia Woolf’s Nose remains an engrossing and entertaining book, suffused throughout by Lee’s impressive knowledge and curiosity. In addition to being a wonderful guide for readers and writers, it can serve as both an introduction and a conclusion to Lee’s other work. It should be read by anyone with an interest in the art and craft of biography.
A. M. Kaempf is the founding editor of The Northwest Review of Books. His work has also appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and Full Stop.