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Elizabeth Wright, Virginia Woolf et Virginia Woolf, On Fiction

Claire PÉGON
Référence(s) :

Elizabeth H. Wright, Virginia Woolf, (Brief Lives Series), London, Hesperus, 2011, 144 p. ISBN: 978-1843919094.

Virginia Woolf, On Fiction,London, Hesperus, 2011, 94 p. ISBN: 978-1843916185.

Texte intégral

1‘My God, how does one write a Biography? Tell me. […] How can one deal with facts — so many and so many and so many?’ This was a question Virginia Woolf was putting to herself and her close friends in the late 30s, as she painstakingly sought to assemble the rich substance of Roger Fry’s life into a cohesive narrative. One can only imagine that contemporary biographers of Virginia Woolf grapple with much the same question. How does one write a life of Woolf, when one is dealing not only with so many facts, but so many fictions, and so much impressive competition? In the past fifteen years alone, novices and Woolf scholars alike have been treated to a stunning array of biographies, including those by Hermione Lee, Jane Dunn, Julia Briggs, Lyndall Gordon and Nigel Nicolson. How can one hope to add usefully to all that has been achieved? One answer lies in finding the right author, and the right publisher’s series, which is exactly what has happened here. Elizabeth Wright is both an academic, who teaches Woolf, and a playwright who has written a play inspired by Woolf’s life and fiction. Hesperus have a ‘Brief Lives’ series (which, we might note in passing, was an idea also launched by Hogarth in the early years of the Press’s existence) which specialises in looking anew, or askance, at the lives of the great and the more lowly. And the ‘Brief Life’ Wright has produced offers a resonantly novel view of Woolf by focusing on the tangents, sidelines, minor voices and dissonant echoes, even while sketching in the main figures and events as well. The result is a beautifully succinct, informative, delightfully readable biography that will not only satisfy specialists and newcomers (its ideal readership, perhaps, being students wanting to fit Woolf better into the double context of early twentieth century writing and history), but, one feels, might even have met with Woolf’s approval too, so much does it practise her own commitment to short narrative forms which assemble fragments and snippets of the fugitive world to capture the essence of life, and are aimed at readers who love books, rather than adepts of erudition.

2The emphasis on minor genres, secondary figures and brevity certainly does not preclude a certain comprehensiveness. The biography is essentially linear, organised into five chapters dealing with childhood (‘22 Hyde Park Gate’), the formative years (‘Bloomsbury’), the steady rise to success and international recognition (‘The 1920s’), the accelerating impetus of a countdown whether in terms of bereavement or international politics (‘The 1930s’) and then ‘The Final Years’ with the double disaster of declining mental health and European war that precipitated the sad end which had been inscribed so irrevocably in the narrative from the outset. These five chapters span all the major events of Virginia Woolf’s life and those in her immediate family and peer group: the births, weddings and funerals, the composition, publication and reception of each her novels, glimpses of the parallel life and professional success of her sister, the growing tensions across Europe.

3What makes this brief life such a success, however, is less the major narrative, which most readers today are to a certain extent aware of already (not that this ‘familiarity’ with Woolf’s life is an advantage, as the concluding pages underline, pointing to the major drawbacks of Woolf’s having become a marketing image, a cinema icon and an academic blockbuster). The rich insights this biography offers are the different minor voices that are woven into the linear story. First, by drawing so much on the letters Woolf wrote, Wright creates a form of double narrating voice, with the biography’s author speaking alongside the biographical subject. Memorable examples of this indirect approach are the letter to Vanessa recounting Janet Case’s horror when hearing of George Duckworth’s incestuous advances, or the letter to Violet Dickinson announcing the death of Leslie Stephen, the letter to Madge Vaughan recounting the death of Thoby, or the letter to Ling Su-Hua after the death of Julian. Then we have minor perspectives or unexpected retakes on the foremost characters, such as when Wright points out how un-Victorian and even enlightened Leslie Stephen could be when it came to championing a certain intellectual environment for his daughters and a healthy outdoor life; or Virginia Woolf’s attendance of her ‘arch-rival’ Arnold Bennett’s funeral. Another feature of the brief, minor-voice approach is the inclusion of anecdotes and gossipy snippets: details of the Freshwater rehearsals, the organisation of the Dreadnought hoax, or Woolf’s characteristic talent for pithy epigrams, whether describing others — Clive for example (‘some freak’ in Vanessa’s eyesight, p. 44) —, or herself (looking like ‘a partridge’s rump’ having had her hair shingled, p. 75).

4It is surely no coincidence that this chorus of biographising voices, which makes the biography read as a splendidly theatrical performance, should have been written by an author who is also a playwright. Theatricality is never far away, whether as a direct reference, a form of writing, a play of voices, a metaphor or a literary analogy — which the author develops particularly when dealing with The Waves as dramatic soliloquy, and Between the Acts as a popular pageant. The staging of the two sisters side by side, and the interweaving of their lives, whether in their early attempts to become a writer and an artist (1905 seeing Virginia publishing articles in four different journals at the same time as Vanessa’s pictures were being exhibited) or in their poignant mutual reliance after the death of Julian Bell, come over beautifully, and will bring to mind the same scenes exquisitely portrayed by Susan Sellers in her novel, Vanessa and Virginia, which in turn inspired Elizabeth Wright’s dramatisation. Dramatic devices can also be felt in the use of ‘off-stage’ techniques, where major events with the potential to be sentimental, melodramatic or devastating are related indirectly, thus avoiding too much direct emotion or description. Such side-stepping is to be valued if one wants to rescue Woolf from the media-enhanced sensationalism of mental breakdown, incest, tragic deaths and suicide, all of which have been luridly played up in other biographical encounters. Drama is inevitably present in terms of the increasingly invasive political world of the 1930s, and here Wright stages the momentum brilliantly, transmitting a sense of time running out as what Woolf called the ‘outer roar of war’ overpowers the babble of more domestic voices. Political voices equally resound in the wings of the narrative, via the terse exchange between Woolf and Benedict Nicolson concerning the alleged escapism of the Bloomsbury writers for example, or Woolf’s contribution to suffrage activities and the Women’s Institute, or her attempts to ‘prod Hitler with an inky pen’ and thereby fend off the sense of helplessness and passivity that seemed to draw closer with the war.

5The tangential approach Wright has so skilfully developed, whether foregrounding narrative theatricality, drawing on minor texts or interweaving fugitive voices, reaches a fascinating apex in the closing lines of the biography. Woolf was, she concludes, “one of the greatest diarists, correspondents and fiction writers of the early twentieth century”. It is a subtle, timely reminder that no matter how great one might deem the major novels, the reader would be passing by another splendid oeuvre were they to stop there.

6As mentioned earlier, the ideal reader for a volume like this would arguably be the student, in the broadest sense of the term, seeking a richer perspective on the Bloomsbury set-up and an affective context in which to appreciate Woolf’s fiction, but without being encumbered by notes, and the accompanying sense of what one doesn’t know. The same reader is doubtless intended for the selection of Woolf essays published here in Hesperus’s ‘On’ series: here, we find Woolf ‘on’ fiction. The four essays — ‘Hours in a Library’, ‘The Narrow Bridge of Art’, ‘Phases of Fiction’ and ‘Women and Fiction’ work beautifully together and offer an excellent insight into the wide-ranging, rich, curious, perceptive reader Woolf herself was. The volume ‘on Fiction’ makes an excellent accompaniment to Wright’s biography, notably by including the less well-known ‘Narrow Bridge of Art’, (also published under the title ‘Poetry, Fiction and the Future’) which Wright alludes to frequently as she portrays Woolf’s commitment to the innovative, experimental prose forms of her times, and her imaginative invitations to writers and readers to come to look to the horizon and take inspiration from the energetic youthfulness of prose. The essays are presented with no specialists’ preambles, prefaces and notes, just the four very complementary pieces which allow Woolf’s voice to ring through as she meanders through the English canon, minor novels, European counterparts and relishes the privilege of ‘just’ reading. Again, it is the ‘Common Reader’ being appealed to here, but the essays also offer a timely reminder, read now in the era of internet and Amazon, of the sheer wonder of browsing in a well-stocked bookshop, choosing a book from a shelf, cherishing a book in the hand. And it must be said that, as we have come to expect from Hesperus, these volumes are immensely reader-friendly. They sit well in the hand, the lay-out leaves room for our own annotations and impressions, they slip usefully into a small travelling bag and travel well, they are always a delight to look at, and they make the perfect gift. In brief, these are books for readers like Woolf herself who see reading as an adventure, a delight and an encounter.

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Claire PÉGON, « Elizabeth Wright, Virginia Woolf et Virginia Woolf, On Fiction »E-rea [En ligne], 10.1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2012, consulté le 07 décembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Claire PÉGON

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3

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