- Modernist Lives: Biography and Autobiography at Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press by Claire Battershill
As Battershill notes in her acknowledgements, “[her] book is, among other things, a love letter to libraries and archives;” Modernist Lives is full of archival finds and thickens our scholarly [End Page 904] knowledge of the Hogarth Press and its records (xi). While Battershill begins with an epigraph from Woolf on how biographies satisfy our knowledge by “light[ing] up innumerable such houses” and repeatedly shows us the keen interest of both Leonard and Virginia Woolf in “various forms of what is now often called ‘life writing,’” Modernist Lives extends beyond the Woolfs to consider a vast number of Hogarth Press biographies, autobiographies, and theories of life writing (1, 2). Battershill connects her interest in the Hogarth Press with wider trends from modernist print cultures—as when she links the Woolfs’ interests with the 226 percent rise of biographical titles from 1918–1939 as documented in the Publisher’s Circular (4).
The introduction offers a readable history of the Hogarth Press, listing recent publications that have helped expand our knowledge. Battershill points to Helen Southworth’s collection Leonard and Virginia Woolf, The Hogarth Press and the Networks of Modernism (2010) as “invigorating this small scholarly field”(6). Modernist Lives contributes to this new scholarship, moving away from a stodgy image of the Hogarth Press as a coterie press. Battershill uncovers the heterogeneity of Hogarth Press titles, using the archives to document the Woolfs’ process of selecting new work and showing how “[T]he Woolfs actively encouraged debate and dissent, frequently soliciting the most wildly contradictory works they could find to sit alongside one another. What the full body of materials offers is an emphasis not on Bloomsbury as a distinctive aesthetic and class, but of modernism more broadly conceived: an emphasis specifically on the pursuit of the new, no matter the nature of that newness” (7). Battershill’s book highlights her extensive work with the Hogarth Press archives, which are “unusually rich” and “hyper-documented” (8). After an overview of the Press’s list from 1917–1946, the book has a chapter on the four Tolstoi titles (1920–24), one tracing debates about theories of biography and autobiography, one on marketing Virginia Woolf’s experiments in biography in Orlando (1928), Flush (1933), and Roger Fry (1940), and a final chapter on the Biography Series of the thirties including contributions by Christopher Isherwood and Henry Green. With ample appendices, her book will be a boon to researchers.
If Battershill’s book is a love letter to the archives, it is a very Woolfy letter and maintains an enjoyable and often humorous style throughout. Battershill throws in questions and examples to help enliven her account: “Looking at the surprises on the Hogarth Press’s list (Why this novel about an obnoxious landlady? That poem about a scholar’s pet monkey?), it is sometimes difficult at first glance to imagine what might have possessed them to publish what they did” (8). The lively prose makes this book a great introduction to the Hogarth Press for those new to the field, while also contributing substantial new knowledge. Of particular interest is Battershill’s citation of less well known authors like Viola Tree and less canonical works like Rose Macaulay’s 1923 novel Told By An Idiot; she cites Macaulay’s seemingly endless chain of “new” categories including “the New Remorse,” “the New Woman,” and last but not least “the new enormous sleeves” to argue that Woolf’s genre theories in “The New Biography” (1927) can be linked to the broader trends of “modernism’s rhetoric of the new” (69, 68). Battershill’s book is full of such moments, supporting her meta-theorization of genres and her detailed accounting of the book trade.
Battershill points to the Woolfs’ characterizations of biographies and autobiographies as “their favourite kinds of books to read” and uses Woolf’s metaphor of the biographer as the “miner’s canary, testing...