Biography and wisdom: Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf #1


It’s rather unfashionable to look to biographies to influence how we live. It’s the sort of impulse behind nineteenth century hagiographies, for one thing. But reading through a friend’s proposal for her work in progress, she spoke about the hope for her biography to be stimulate the reader into thinking about their life choices and what made for a good life. And she was right – biography can and sometimes should do this. I found Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (1996) doing it to me, whether that was Lee’s intention or not. (I finally finished this 920 page tome last week, many months after beginning it.)

Woolf’s seriousness about reading was the most definable thing which comes to mind. “Reading, quite as much as writing, is her life’s pleasure and her life’s work. It is separated from the rest of her activities by its solitude and withdrawal, but she is always comparing it to other forms of behaviour and experience – relationships, walking, travelling, dreaming; desire, memory, illness.” (loc 9223) She lived to read, it meant as much to her as anything. People sometimes joke about how much books mean to me, yet I’m not nearly as serious a reader as Woolf. Reading Lee’s excellent account of Woolf’s reading (she has a thematic chapter on it) provoked me to think about the role of reading in my own life, and gave me permission to allow it to be meaningful without feeling apologetic.

There were many other ways this biography had me thinking about my own life in areas like decisions, friendships, home. Wise biographies can be instructional in a subtle way . I’m sure it’s one of the pleasures of biography, but it bears no resemblance to the didacticism of nineteenth century biography. And this is one of the wisest biographies I’ve read; perhaps I can add “wisdom” to my checklist of requirements of the great biographer. It’s not the most obvious thing to say about this book, but for some reason it’s where I’ll start.


About Nathan Hobby

At work on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Also a novelist and librarian. View all posts by Nathan Hobby

2 responses to “Biography and wisdom: Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf #1

  • Jane Bryony Rawson

    That sounds really interesting, Nathan. I love finding a book that can subtly guide me in how to live better – Marilynne Robinson is, of course, wonderful for this. And an appreciation for reading will always lure me in.


    • Nathan Hobby

      Marilynne Robinson must surely be one of the wisest writers of all. What I didn’t mention in this post is that I have always expected or hoped the best fiction to influence my life; it’s not too far a leap to extend this to biography.

      Liked by 1 person

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