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Virginia Woolf’s Nose by Hermione Lee (thoughts)

December 26, 2011


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.)
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8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 26, 2011 7:04 am

    I love to read biographies, but I agree with you about the problem of speculation in so many of them. I don’t mind a bit of it, as long as the author makes it clear that it is speculation, but when a whole book is built on it, I’m less than impressed. Historical fiction is the place for speculation.

  2. December 26, 2011 9:46 am

    I would love this…I’m adding it to my after Christmas buying list :)

  3. December 26, 2011 12:33 pm

    After an interesting start too many biographies turn into a (more or less boring) list of accompishments, sometimes nearing to bragging or are full of overly posivite views of the person in question. I find that rather off-putting & have been dissapointed in one biography too many to be really enthusiastic about any of them even though I love history in general. Lee’s essays on biography on the other hand sound very interesting. And your list of companion reads just reminded me that I still have not read my copy of Far Traveller. Now, after I just read The Long Ships, might be a perfect time for that, only I just started with the nearly 800 page Connie Willis novel… :)

  4. December 26, 2011 2:20 pm

    I’ve been meaning to pick this up for ages, so thanks for the nudge in that direction! As you probably know, I agree with you completely on Lee and the Woolf bio, and I’m excited to finally get around to this collection and explore some of her thoughts on her craft. The Wharton bio is just as good as the Woolf one; I know you’ll love it. :-)

  5. December 26, 2011 2:56 pm

    Nic, my Alexandrian partner in crime, has met Hermione Lee a few times as she was president of her Oxford college. It sounds as though she is as wonderful and erudite in person as in her books. I loved her Woolf book, and this collection of essays too. I find her theory of biography so open and honest, especially when it comes to that issue of emotive inference.

  6. December 26, 2011 5:30 pm

    Thank you for the links to the companion reads. Nice recommendations.

  7. December 28, 2011 3:56 pm

    Wow, thank you for reviewing this book. I love Virginia Woolf and I have never heard of this book – so exciting.

  8. January 5, 2012 6:51 am

    I love biographies, especially when they weave in the author’s writings into their thoughts on the author! This sounds very interesting. I haven’t read a Lee bio yet, but I’ve heard she’s great.

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