A brilliant biography of a brilliant writer, worth the re-read I gave it although it was like reading it for the first time, sparkling, perfect weaving of the threads of VW’s life. I’m a little reluctant to be done with it, although it frees me up to dive into Woolf’s oeuvre itself. Lee’s process is perfect– she neglects the boring chronological structure (although each part centers around a group of years), focusing on the main themes of Mother, Father, Other, War, etc. I appreciate her early statement that we can’t be sure what caused VW’s mental illness, only look at what it did to her and what she did with it. “This is a life of heroism, not of oppression, a life of writing wrestled from illness, fear, and pain.”
In the midst of reading this, I attended a social event and was casually making remarks about the room of my own that I have, laughing when I caught my reference, then explaining that I had been reading about VW all day. Unfortunately, the pedestrian commonplace refrain raised its ugly head with immediate reference to “depression, suicide”. There is something unnerving about this stripping away of VW’s power by summing her up as such. I chalk it up to ignorance on the speaker’s part, but wish the world would break out of this rut, keep its mindless cliche opinions to itself.
Duly chastised, I will try not to dog-ear or make marks in books:
Her notebooks reflected her timetables. They are her filing system, her way of keeping her compartments separate. In any given month, she may have several differently coloured notebooks on the go at the same time: one (or more) for the novel in progress, one for her current diary, one for newspaper clippings, one (or more) for her reading notes. These reading notebooks were her system of annotation. She hardly ever marked her books, and was satirical about people who did. She imagined annotators as types. First a peppery old Colonel, denouncing any “pernicious heresy” he finds in his books to his wife… or taking out his temper on his “violated margin.” Then an emotional lady who draws “thick lachrymose lines” in books of poetry “beside all the stanzas which deal with early deaths & hopes of immortality…” Last an inserter of errata and corrector of misprints, a public-spirited officious person who would “accost a stranger in the underground and tell him that his collar is turned up.” What all these addicted annotators have in common is that they are forcing their readings on her. (p 405-6)