Virginia Woolf’s Nose by Hermione Lee (thoughts)
I went to the trouble of an ILL request for Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography on the strength of my love for her biography of Virginia Woolf. I had the highest hopes when I turned to the first page, and I wasn’t disappointed: although slim, this volume is packed with erudition, wit, and thought-provoking musings on the nature of biography.
Funnily enough, although I’m an inveterate reader of nonfiction, I rarely venture into the biography section. This is because I don’t enjoy it when nonfiction speculates about the specific inner lives/emotions of actual people without evidence (i.e. diaries, letters, etc.); I immediately snap out of the book, wondering how on earth the author knows that. This technique has become quite widespread recently, probably in an attempt to lure in fiction readers, and thus many of the biographies that so many other bloggers love (such as Cleopatra) I just can’t connect with. I’m also far more interested in ‘everyday’ history than I am in the lives of famous people, so when I do read a biography it tends to interweave its subject’s life with quite a bit of general history of the era.
Anyway, my point is that even though I’m not an avid biography reader, I loved reading Lee’s essays. She’s at the pinnacle of her field, so it’s a pleasure to see her views a variety of issues, including of course the titular essay about Virginia Woolf and the effect of The Hours, both book and film. Her pacing is wonderful, and her prose wears its credentials lightly. Reading this is far more like going out to coffee with a favourite, though slightly intimidating, professor than sitting in a lecture hall. And that’s just the way I like my nonfiction. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about books or elegant essays or Austen fans (the final essay is a fascinating look at her biographers over time). Oh, and I’m planning to read another of Lee’s biographies next year: Edith Wharton. Look for more on that tomorrow!
Suggested Companion Reads
- A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (One of my favourite biographies, based on a diary Ulrich studied of an eighteenth century New England midwife.)
- Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James (Another book-about-books which focus on a specific genre and is written by a master of said genre. It’d be fun to compare!)
- The Far Traveller (Another of my favourite biographies, and one in which Brown goes a bit meta by interweaving the story of her subject with the story of finding out information about her life, especially via archaeology.)
- Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman (This is the same ‘type’ of book as the Lee or the James, in this case about translated books by a well-respected translator. I didn’t love it at the time, but a year later I often find myself mulling over some of her ideas, so I’m contemplating a reread.)