Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography by Hermione Lee

"Biographers Gone Bad" could have been the title of this book. Instead, Hermione Lee chose Virginia Woolf's Nose, reflecting her complaints about how Woolf is portrayed in the book and film versions of The Hours by Michael Cunningham. She argues in the second of four essays in this book on literary biography that Woolf was actually a humorous, charming person, not Cunningham's drab, unappealing character. She rues that The Hours has now colored the author's public reputation adversely.

In the first essay in the volume, "Shelley's Heart and Pepys's Lobsters," Lee berates biographers for omitting vital facts from their books to simplify their narratives to conform the biographers' viewpoints. She uses many stories of what became of the poet Shelley's heart after his death and cremation to illustrate her point. She also shows how biographers use a Samuel Pepys quote without ever giving it proper context.

In the third essay, "Jane Austen Faints," the essayist tells about how the Austen family controlled the portrayal of the author successfully for a century by having relatives write biographies. With most of the evidence of the author's life destroyed intentionally, modern biographers now speculate on her life, often unfairly.

In the final essay, "How to End It All," Lee shows how biographers bend the truth in telling death scenes to make the final moments sum up their lives tidily.

Virginia Woolf's Nose is an entertaining book that should make readers very cautious.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. ISBN 0691120323

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