This Fictitious Life: Virginia Woolf on Biography, Reality, and Character
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This Fictitious Life:
Virginia Woolf on Biography and Reality

In the growing body of academic literature on biography that has developed in the last few decades, Virginia Woolf's essay, "The New Biography,"1 has come to occupy a central place—mentioned, discussed and quoted from, I would estimate, more often than any other piece of writing on the subject. Virginia Woolf's distinctive view of the nature and limitations of biography has thus had, and continues to have, a deep and wide-ranging influence on the way the genre is discussed by critics and theorists. My aim in this essay is to present a detailed analysis of Virginia Woolf's thinking about biography in order to make clear why I believe its influence on contemporary theorising about biography is, on the whole, a misfortune.

As is often pointed out, Virginia Woolf's views on biography are closely connected with—indeed, to an extent that I hope to make clear, they are simply an application of—her views on fiction. In the light of this, I have tried to trace some of the most striking features of her thinking about biography back to her earlier thoughts on fiction, as presented in both her novels and her essays. The result, I hope, will be that, while the attractions of her way of looking at fiction and biography are recognised and revealed, the manifest flaws in her thinking on these subjects are clearly exposed.

I

First published in 1927, "The New Biography" was written to accomplish two rather different aims, much less closely related to each other than Virginia Woolf presents them as being. The first was to review [End Page 1] Harold Nicolson's book Some People.2 The second was to assess the successes, failures, and limitations of the "New Biography," associated with Lytton Strachey and Nicolson himself, in comparison with the old, Victorian style of biography, which Woolf chose to be represented by Sir Sidney Lee. In the course of this assessment, Virginia Woolf offered some entirely general views on biography that have been regarded by both practitioners and theorists of the genre ever since as constituting a challenge that needs to be met.

Woolf's choices of authors and texts to represent the old and the new styles of biography are puzzling and unfortunate. As I shall argue later, Sidney Lee was an especially poor choice to represent the old guard, having himself, both in theory and in practice, set his face against the very features of Victorian biographies that Lytton Strachey had so famously ridiculed in his preface to Eminent Victorians; namely (in Strachey's words) "their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design"3

As a representative example of the "New Biography," Nicolson's Some People is hardly any better. Nicolson, it is true, was widely regarded in the 1920s as a Stracheyan biographer,4 his biographies of Verlaine5 and Byron,6 striking something of the same detached and occasionally ironic tone with which Strachey discusses his "eminent Victorians." In Chapter 1 of his biography of Tennyson,7 however, Nicolson strives to distance himself from the mockery of all things Victorian that was widely associated with Strachey,8 and in his short but erudite history of biography,9 published in 1928, the year after Woolf published "The New Biography," he showed that he had developed his own view of the genre, a view that was, in some important respects, directly opposed to Strachey's.10

It is possible to argue that, in the six years that separate his biography of Verlaine from his history of biography, Nicolson had fundamentally altered his views on the nature of the genre. What is not tenable is to try to extract Nicolson's conception of how biography could or should be written (either his old view or his new one) from Some People. For Some People is a deeply idiosyncratic work, representative neither of the New Biography nor of Nicolson's other biographical work. Ostensibly an autobiographical collection of brief sketches of people Nicolson had known, it is, in fact, largely fiction...