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4.8 out of 5 stars
4.8 out of 5 stars
Virginia Woolf
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on 10 August 2015
The best book ever in the history of the world about the blessed Mrs Woolf.
If you call yourself a fan - shame on you!
Be an admirer & discover the woman behind the myths!
This is an important book.
(My copy is now littered with annotations & often referred to.)
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on 12 December 2003
One of the finest biographies around (along with Gibson's biography of Dali) - well turned, fascinatingly collated and considered for the inquisitive reader. Hermione Lee creates a template for the perfect biography; grouping thematic matter on Woolf while maintaining a strong chronological thread; filling the book with fasincating literary detail, but balancing this with gossip from the Bloomsbury group and beyond, and detailed historical contextualisation.
A masterpiece, engaging from start to finish, leaving the reader with a strong sense of Woolf, her work and her circle.
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on 19 March 2012
Without doubt the best biography of one of the 20th century's most important and most complex writers. Hermione Lee is a top academic, but her style never becomes dry or pretentious, and the book can easily be read by anyone who enjoys literature, as well as academics and students. Woolf is brought gloriously to life with all her charm, intelligence, depression and eccentricities, as are the rest of the family: difficult and tormented father Leslie, resigned mother Julia, Stella the caring sister who died tragically young, artist Vanessa, Thoby the brilliant 'Greek god' of a boy who also died tragically young and Adrian, the youngest Woolf, who never quite fitted in. Lee also paints a marvellous picture of Woolf's friends and other relatives - the portrait of Leonard Woolf is particularly good, and Lee's examination of the marriage impressive. There are very good depictions of Woolf's relationships with other artists, such as Katherine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot, Roger Fry, Dora Carrington and the belligerent but rather gloriously eccentric Ethel Smyth. The more complex sides of Woolf's life (such as her relationship with Vita Sackville-West and the possibility that she was abused as a child) are examined sensitively with no prudery or sensationalism. Lee writes with immense intelligence about Woolf's books, and makes you want to read most of the novels as soon as possible. And there are many fascinating quotes from letters and diaries, and subtle links between Woolf's literature and her life. All in all an absolutely magnificent book. I'm much looking forward to reading Lee's biography of Edith Wharton next.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 January 2012
As other reviewers have mentioned, this isn't a traditional biography (although it does cover all the aspects of a `life') and is deeply theoretically-informed. Lee, a literature professor, has written extensively on the genre of `life-writing', the extent to which we can ever capture a life in writing, a question upon which Woolf herself mused in her fiction, her essays and her diaries.

So, in some ways, Lee's book is itself a meditation on how to `do' biography and the challenges it brings up. She chooses a duel focus which is both thematic and chronological, so chapters are headed `Paternal', for example, or `Maternal', exploring e.g. Woolf's father and his impact on her, but also thinking about the way in which the idea of the paternal emerges and is re-worked in her fiction.

Lee works closely with Woolf's own writings, quoting extensively from letters, essays, even novels, to offer a rounded, subtle and nuanced portrait of the woman and the writer.

So if you're looking for a straightforward biography filled with undisputed `facts', then this might not be the best book for you. But if you're willing to suspend expectation and accept a biography that is closer to Woolf's own writings - shifting, deeply intelligent, questioning - then this is a superb read.
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on 4 July 2011
I had steered clear of Mrs. Woolf's work due to a perceived effeteness to her aesthetics and apparent lack of a mitigating human touch in her writing.I hold the same effete bias against classical ballet so I guess that dooms me as an open minded art lover. However, on the positive side I am a proud reprobate Londoner. Grew up in High Holborn during the blitz years, lived in Fitrovia for another 20 years and proud of Bloomsbury's cultural position as a former literary hot spot, as much for Dickens as the later field of effete Bloomsbury writers and artists.

However, this biography by Miss Lee is a first class literary work in its own right. It creates, on its own terms, a deeper and more rounded image of Virginia Woolf as a woman, as a feminist, and as a driven thinker and writer. Miss Lee's careful reconstruction of the Stephens family ancestry is followed by discussion of Virginia's own unmet paternal needs and a later traumatic physical intrusion from a male relative. That history offers a credible genetic and psychological explanation for both her creativity and depressions. The liberated personal lives her family and circle practised brought no severe judgments from Miss Lee. I admired -- which may just be my naivete -- Miss Lee's calm recital of the various liaisons and the adult camaraderie and bonds that governed their relationships even after passions cooled. It was certainly not the sort of P.G. Wodehouse world that my adolescent imagination fed on about that period.

This book was not at all turgid or too scholarly. My unfamiliarity with Virginia Woolf's works was compensated by Miss Lee's analysis of Virginia's various literary themes and book character explanations. The book moves swiftly touching all the nuances of personality that made up Virginia's private and public world. The book retained the air of the eras through which Virginia lived. The author was very discreet and never intruded on the narrative. Too often biographers are only too willing to contrast an episode just described against a contemporary example of a similar incident,to allow a current reader - with the hindsight of more acquired knowledge and different mores and manners -- to come to satisfying "superior" judgements.

Excellent book. Sorry it had to end and saddened the reason for the end was indeed such a sorry one.
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on 24 April 2010
I can't begin to praise this book enough, as an example of Hermione Lee's even handedness; having been a long time admirer of Virginia Wolf, there were certain chapters where I found myself positively disliking the woman, her snobbishness, her neediness and self absorption, but then a chapter or two later this dislike was tempered by examples of her subjects shyness, her self doubt and the sheer brilliance of her mind especially when it came to observing and pinning down whatever her sharp little eye fell upon.
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on 21 September 2004
Hermione Lee does justice to an equally talented author. I was rather phased by the length of the book when I initially came to read it, but it's length didn't bother me in the slightest when I began reading. The language isn't heavy and you can easily cover 30 pages within minutes. Whereas Quentin Bell's biography touches very briefly on all aspects of her life, Lee leaves no aspect of her life untouched. In fact, she goes full tilt into some of the most complex issues within Woolf's life, with a particularly arresting chapter on 'Madness'.

I strongly recommend this biography. I'd almost say this is just as good a piece of Literature as one of Woolf's own novels.
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on 26 June 2011
In terms of the content, I can largely only echo the other 5 star reviews here. I have been put off Virginia Woolf's writing for many years and only come to it relatively recently (largely thanks to the superb film, The Hours). This was partly due to the formidable reputation of both author and her work. Having discovered that her writing (especially her essays, but also fiction) was actually far more approachable than the myths suggest, Hermione Lee has carried out the same transformation on the author. This is a highly readable, totally fascinating, biography of a very complex individual. The thematic approach largely worked for me, although I occasionally struggled with the chronology, allowing Lee to really develop different aspects of Woolf's life. She is a super writer, pulling so many different threads and characters into a highly coherent whole. Just as Woolf's writing reveals so much of her characters, I really feel that I have been getting to know a fully rounded individual. This has to be one of my all-time favourite biographies, and worthy of a full 5 stars and more.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Penguin's efforts, who have really let the author down badly. I first of all started reading the paperback version, to find it virtually impossible with cramped typeface (an increasingly perennial problem with paperbacks nowadays) and, far worse, every line disappearing into the gutter at the spine, making the book virtually impossible to read without breaking the spine. I therefore, reluctantly, forked out for the Kindle version - I resent Penguin's ripoff prices, but felt that this book was worth it. I find it amazing that Penguin have the cheek to charge the prices they do - the formatting was dreadful, with wrongly set up words on every page (the most common being where random mid-word 'i's were capitalised followed by a space and then the rest of the word, e.g. vI sit). If they are going to charge such steep prices, then the least Penguin could do is carry out basic proof-reading and sort out the formatting. Shoddy.

So 5+ stars for Hermione Lee, 1 star (and less) for Penguin. But as the main focus of these reviews is the contents, the full 5 go at the top of this review (but I do wonder whether what I really wanted was a second-hand hardback copy).

Later edit: I found a copy of the hardback in a charity shop only a couple of days after posting the review. It proved to be a far more pleasurable experience reading that than either the paperback or the Kindle version. And cheaper too!
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on 6 December 1999
This book probably deserves more than 5 crowns.
Although Hermione Lee is an academic, and the work is scholarly, I was intrigued and my interest was caught right until the very end. I am not a scholar, and didn't find the book difficult.
Having read a number of books about Virginia Woolf, I can safely say that this one is outstanding. Hermione Lee is obviously a more than competent biographer, and the attention to detailed research in this work is superlative.
If were to make one tiny criticism, it is that the author tends to assume the reader will come prepared with a little background information, and thus if you are very new to Bloomsbury, may I suggest you read a general overview before embarking on this very extensive study.
I would advise anyone who has a genuine interest in the subject to take the time to read this big volume with the care it deserves - it is well worth any effort you may feel it demands of you. It is a very well written and highly informative study of a writer's life and the context in which she wrote, whilst at the same time exploring 'life-writing'. As such it would appeal to anyone who is interested in an imaginative account of one woman's attempt to meet the tension between autobiographical and fiction writing, head-on.
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on 31 March 2015
With this volume Hermoine Lee puts herself in the top rank of biographers. Lets be clear. This hefty volume is not for the half hearted- at nearly 800 dense pages It covers the life and works of Woolf in a way that she would probably have heartily approved. Lee manages to mix a seemingly thematic approach with an expertly woven chronological narrative that can at times seem overwhelming in its detail and breadth. Yet she is clever enough to use Woolf's own words with methodical care and skill so that both the imagery and amazing technical facility that Woolf employed is at the forefront of the narrative.She is also careful and fair about the controversies that surround Woolf scholarship- whether it be the supposed abuse of Woolf by Gerald Duckworth or her attitude to the war and Nazism. Woolf lived in a class bound and restricted existence but seemed to know everyone that mattered and was plain spoken about her own seemingly snobbish or elitist behaviour. Lee is excellent on her ruthless use of events and friends within her own life as "material" and on her marriage to Leonard who became her rock. The prose has a level of beauty and earthy realism that really makes the reader feel they share the day to day existence of this once likable and occasionally unpredictable genius. Woolf more than any other writer worked hard and cared greatly about developing her voice as a writer with an appropriate and ever developing style. It is impossible to sum up the myriad qualities of this outstanding biography but even a simple dip in at any stage of the book will bring delightful, elegiac, atmospheric prose alongside a busy well lived and tragically shortened life. Lee has complete mastery of her sources and despite the large amount of material manages a patchwork that shows a life so busy and full it is exhausting to keep up. Woolf tired of endless visitors as she became more famous whilst cherishing the affirmation of all her hard work and angst. Its hard to believe there is a need for another biography of Woolf at least for a generation- unless significant new material comes along. Lee has produced "a" if not "the" definitive work.
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