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Monica Latham, Virginia Woolf’s Afterlives: The Author as Character in Contemporary Fiction and Drama

New York: Routledge, 2021
Maryam Thirriard
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Monica Latham, Virginia Woolf’s Afterlives: The Author as Character in Contemporary Fiction and Drama, New York: Routledge, 2021.

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1In Virginia Woolf’s Afterlives, Monica Latham explores the way in which Virginia Woolf’s image, life and works have been exploited in contemporary biofiction. Her book is an essential contribution to understanding the postmodernist genre of biofiction and boldly tackles the question of how truthfulness works in these specific fictional narratives. Latham shows that biofiction can hardly be dismissed as being completely fictitious, given the weight of non-fictional biographical material in these texts. Latham’s analysis is also crucial to understanding the way in which postmodernism expresses itself in biofiction.

2Latham defines biofiction as a combination that bases creative fiction writing on actual biographical facts, creating ‘a narrative in its own right, with its own aesthetic and structural imperatives’ (4). She explains that ‘biofiction uses biography to construct a fictional narrative’ (4) and that the biographical component in these texts remains subordinated to the fictional one.

3Latham seeks to map the genre and analyses the way in which Virginia Woolf is represented in biofiction. Her expertise in Woolf studies is an undeniable asset. It has allowed her to assess the degree to which these narratives are steeped in Woolf’s own writing. Besides, Latham’s own theoretical framing of these biofictions is anchored in Woolf’s thoughts on biography: Woolf defined biography as an art, and Latham follows the same path. Furthermore, she contributes to clarifying the nature and role of the biographical in biofiction.

4One characteristic of Latham’s method is to make a distinction between Virginia Woolf, the real-life writer, and Virginia, the character in the various biofictional narratives, clarifying the difference between the biographical subject and the fictionalised protagonist. As mentioned, Latham is a Virginia Woolf specialist, which allows her to deal with the breadth and depth of the biographical and literary material used by the authors of her corpus. She also traces the narrative techniques in these biofictions to Woolf’s own writings, thus establishing an essential connection between Woolf’s New Biography and postmodernist biofiction.

5Latham considers biofiction to be a postmodernist genre ‘par excellence’ and links it to the philosophy of scepticism, biofiction handling truths and experiments with truth as a raw material. She achieves a mapping of the genre through case studies, and she tackles the questions of how Woolf is processed through biofiction and of the impact of biofiction on our representation of Woolf. She identifies the agendas that motivate authors of biofiction; these can be autobiographical, political, ideological, or a combination of these features. Latham establishes a clear link between authorial agenda and what she calls the degree of biofiction, ranging from one to five in this book, the highest being the most remote from reality and the most steeped in fiction.

6In chapter one, Latham explores the creative collage techniques developed by Eileen Atkins, Edna O’Brien, Elizabeth Steele, Maureen Duffy and Christine Orban. Not only do these authors rearrange ‘raw’ factual material from Woolf’s life, such as snippets of diaries and letters, but they also draw from Woolf’s own works: ‘By using both the research methods of biographers, the playwrights’ dramatic imagination and the novelists’ fictional techniques, the contemporary authors examined in this chapter have tailored Virginia’s “garments” out of Woolf’s autobiographical and fictional fabric’ (69). Latham explains how partiality and subjectivity function in these texts, in relation to the author’s aesthetic and political agenda, and how they result in ‘a chorus of fictional Virginias’, a polyphonous ‘reverential homage and violent, intrusive aggression at once’ (70).

7Chapter two deals with fictionalisation at a higher degree, exposing the way in which the biofictional construct grows in complexity. With the intermingling of autonomous creative fiction and fragments of real life, arise questions about success or failure of the work. Latham insists on the importance of striking the right balance between fact and fiction so that the narrative can work for the reader. Baron’s strategy in White Garden is to assist the reading experience through metafictional language. Moreover, third degree biofictional narratives come with a political agenda: Hawkes and Manso’s The Shadow of the Moth and Baron’s White Garden are detective stories with a feminist agenda. Latham explains that while third degree narratives are largely based on documented facts, giving them a sturdy platform of plausibility, fourth degree biofiction, which is counterfactual, and fifth degree biofiction, marked by ‘travesty’ (96), face an even bigger challenge in maintaining plausibility for the reader.

8In chapter three, Latham explores the way in which fourth degree biofictional narratives are able to work despite their counterfactuality. In Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, Virginia dwells in 21st–century New York City and has a daughter of her own. Morgan’s A Book for All and for None develops another ‘what if’ world and intertwines Woolf’s life narrative with Friedrich Nietzsche’s as well as his philosophy of the ‘eternal return’.

9Chapter four deals with biofiction that brings the Stephen sisters together in new ways, namely Parmar’s Vanessa and her Sister, Sellers’s Vanessa and Virginia and Wright’s adaptation of Sellers’s novel, Vanessa and Virginia: A One-act Play. In Parmar’s narrative, Vanessa’s fictive diary explains common contemporary representations of Woolf and Bell. Sellers’s novel displays Vanessa’s older memories of Virginia, in a series of vignettes addressed to Virginia after her death. Latham focuses on the techniques of fictionalisation and relating problematics, such as: can works based on biography become a masterpiece? Why have some succeeded where others have failed? For Latham, the text must have artistic vision. This is the case in Sellers’s text, based on Sellers’s exploration of the gaps in Vanessa Bell’s and Virginia Woolf’s documented lives, which she confronts with her own life experience. From Latham’s perspective, fiction gives the narrative what biography cannot: ‘a way of exploring possible, imaginative answers’ (153).

10Chapter five deals with the literary criticism embedded in higher degree biofiction. Nunez’s Mitz is a pastiche of Woolf’s Flush. Virginia’s dog is both the subject and the biographer. As in Woolf’s text, Mitz uses the dog to deliver literary criticism in the form of a mock biography. Latham also lays out the way in which Vincent brings great literary minds together through Yeats in Adeline. She analyses Vincent’s techniques and reveals the way in which Vincent’s reflection contributes to mapping the genre by contextualising those productions as part of an epistemological context. Latham points out that Vincent exemplifies the postmodernist questioning about truth, also explaining Woolf’s sound choice of using fiction to represent real people’s lives. Besides, Latham compares Woolf to Vincent since Woolf can also be considered to have practised biofiction.

11Chapter six examines the way in which Robert Lippincott’s Mr Dalloway and Cunningham’s The Hours use techniques from Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to portray Virginia, leading to what Latham calls a cameo appearance in an aesthetic and diegetic space in Mr Dalloway (178), while Cunningham’s Virginia offers a vision of Clarissa reincarnated as Woolf. According to Latham, Cunningham has played a major role in bringing biofiction as a genre to the attention of scholars.

12In the following chapter, Latham explores texts dealing with Bloomsbury. Peter Luke’s play Bloomsbury focuses on Virginia and Lytton’s relationship over the years. Gillian Freeman’s But Nobody Lives in Bloomsbury deals with the group’s influence on the politics, art and literature of their time through novelised anecdotes borrowed from biographical material. Latham shows the way in which Freeman thus asserts the value of the biographical approach in understanding the works of eminent intellectuals. Latham exposes the process used to transform life into art, demonstrating the way in which fiction is used as a medium enabling truth to emerge.

13In her last chapter, Latham states that, despite Barthes’s claim, ‘biofiction signals the resurrection of the author who comes alive from these texts’ (218). Latham concludes that the abundant production of biofiction about Woolf ‘reflect[s] the critical trends of a period’, crystallising scholarly discourse and delivering popularised literary criticism (219). Latham writes that these ‘afterlives’ are a homage to Virginia Woolf and reflect the popular culture that has built around her persona. She points to the multitude of interpretations and the multifarious selves that have been explored by biofiction authors. Latham exposes the evolution in the representations of Woolf from the seventies to the present time and explains the reasons why these texts deserve to be fully included in Woolfian studies.

14In conclusion, Latham’s monograph offers an insightful analysis of the techniques of fictionalisation as well as an extensive study of the various forms of characterisation in biofiction. The choice of Virginia Woolf as an object of study provides fertile ground for such an endeavour as her persona, life and works have inspired generations of biofiction writers since the 1970s. The array of biofictional texts enable Latham to provide a convincing historiography of biofiction dealing with Woolf, exposing how these postmodernist narratives have grown in complexity and abstraction through the decades.

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Maryam Thirriard, « Monica Latham, Virginia Woolf’s Afterlives: The Author as Character in Contemporary Fiction and Drama »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 63 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2022, consulté le 03 mars 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/13097 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ebc.13097

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Maryam Thirriard

Aix Marseille Univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence

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