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“Serv[ing] under two masters”: Virginia Woolf’s Afterlives in Contemporary Biofictions

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 27, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 354-373 | 10.1353/abs.2012.0021

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This essay sets out to explore Virginia Woolf ’s afterlives portrayed by four contemporary authors: Robin Lippincott (Mr Dalloway), Michael Cunningham (The Hours), Sigrid Nunez (Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury), and Susan Sellers (Vanessa and Virginia). They have resurrected the figure of Woolf, used her own narrative tools and style to portray her, and put into practice her own theory of “new biography,”which serves two “masters,” fact and fiction.

“Let it be fact, one feels, or let it be fiction; the imagination will not serve under two masters simultaneously” (V. Woolf, “Biography” 478). Woolf ’s common reader’s imaginary outcry is for her an opportunity to assess the state of Victorian biography, before pioneering a new genre that shows that imagination can successfully serve these two masters simultaneously. In the wake of Woolf, contemporary authors have continued to extend the limits of biography, incorporating other forms and ingredients to produce new generic literary products. The “continued proliferation of the producing and the consuming of auto/biography” (Saunders 286) on our contemporary literary market has given birth to numerous subcategories of the genre of life writing, among them biofiction, which has proved as fertile and popular a territory as biography and fiction—the two genres it seeks to fuse.

Traditionally, the art of fiction consists of giving life to imaginary characters and simulating believable lives for them in order to make them look and sound “real” in the fictitious universe in which they evolve. The phenomenon that transforms a historical figure into a character in fiction is also a common writing practice. The most successful fictitious biographies are those which combine a savvy amalgamation of documentary evidence and poetic license, plausibility, and imagination, “no more than a pinch of ” “the truth of real life and the truth of fiction” (V. Woolf, “Biography” 477); this specific life-writing genre lies at the confluence of authenticity (conferred by biography) and imagination (as authors explore other possible avenues and give their readers access to the imagined inner lives of the characters). Biographical fiction relies on biographèmes1 that lend verisimilitude to the character’s life story, but it also explores the “swarm of possibilities” usually rejected by conventional biographies (James, qtd. in Edel 29).

“Biofiction,”2 a portmanteau, indicates that reality and fiction, likeness and imagination, blend in this kind of literary work. It reveals the transfers that operate from biography to fiction and the crossover genre, which fuses two opposed poles when narrating the imaginary lives of people who really existed. This transgeneric life writing offers the reader a simulacrum of a real life: writer-biographers’ subjective representation of their subject’s life. Such a strategy is part of the current postmodern cultural and literary practice that manipulates the real as well as plays with different layers of truths and pluralism of realities.

Given her tragic death, Virginia Woolf ’s life and work have been “variously and passionately idealized, vilified, fictionalized, and mythologized” (Lee, Nose 39). Biographers3 and fiction writers have re-imagined and reconstructed their own versions of the modernist author and made her come alive on their pages. In this essay, I examine several imaginary versions or facets of her life that also incorporate her work. Various contemporary authors haunted by Woolf—Robin Lippincott, Michael Cunningham, Sigrid Nunez, and Susan Sellers—have all fictionalized Woolf ’s life through the prism of her novels. They have transposed biographical elements and shaped a poetic trajectory of her life by using her own literary structures. Thus, in their representation of the biographized Woolf, the subject becomes a Woolfian character depicted with Woolfian narrative tools.

Mr. Dalloway, The Hours, Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, and Vanessa and Virginia, all depend on minute factual research but also require an imaginative and creative dexterity in order to open up infinite possibilities, prolong the true facts, or fill in the nebulous blanks left by biographies. In their respective works, the contemporary authors transcend the limits and constraints of traditional biography. As historical figures become characters in a fictitious work, poetic license allows them to go off the beaten track and give the reader a different image of the subject from the one contained in the...



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