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Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography

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What choices must a biographer make when stitching the pieces of a life into one coherent whole? How do we best create an accurate likeness of a private life from the few articles that linger after death? How do we choose what gets left out? This intriguing and witty collection of essays by an internationally acclaimed biographer looks at how biography deals with myths and What choices must a biographer make when stitching the pieces of a life into one coherent whole? How do we best create an accurate likeness of a private life from the few articles that linger after death? How do we choose what gets left out? This intriguing and witty collection of essays by an internationally acclaimed biographer looks at how biography deals with myths and legends, what goes missing and what can't be proved in the story of a life. Virginia Woolf's Nose presents a variety of case-studies, in which literary biographers are faced with gaps and absences, unprovable stories and ambiguities surrounding their subjects. By looking at stories about Percy Bysshe Shelley's shriveled, burnt heart found pressed between the pages of a book, Jane Austen's fainting spell, Samuel Pepys's lobsters, and the varied versions of Virginia Woolf's life and death, preeminent biographer Hermione Lee considers how biographers deal with and often utilize these missing body parts, myths, and contested data to "fill in the gaps" of a life story. In "Shelley's Heart and Pepys's Lobsters," an essay dealing with missing parts and biographical legends, Hermione Lee discusses one of the most complicated and emotionally charged examples of the contested use of biographical sources. "Jane Austen Faints" takes five competing versions of the same dramatic moment in the writer's life to ask how biography deals with the private lives of famous women. "Virginia Woolf's Nose" looks at the way this legendary author's life has been translated through successive transformations, from biography to fiction to film, and suggests there can be no such thing as a definitive version of a life. Finally, "How to End It All" analyzes the changing treatment of deathbed scenes in biography to show how biographical conventions have shifted, and asks why the narrators and readers of life-stories feel the need to give special meaning and emphasis to endings. Virginia Woolf's Nose sheds new light on the way biographers bring their subjects to life as physical beings, and offers captivating new insights into the drama of "life-writing". Virginia Woolf's Nose is a witty, eloquent, and funny text by a renowned biographer whose sensitivity to the art of telling a story about a human life is unparalleled--and in creating it, Lee articulates and redefines the parameters of her craft.


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What choices must a biographer make when stitching the pieces of a life into one coherent whole? How do we best create an accurate likeness of a private life from the few articles that linger after death? How do we choose what gets left out? This intriguing and witty collection of essays by an internationally acclaimed biographer looks at how biography deals with myths and What choices must a biographer make when stitching the pieces of a life into one coherent whole? How do we best create an accurate likeness of a private life from the few articles that linger after death? How do we choose what gets left out? This intriguing and witty collection of essays by an internationally acclaimed biographer looks at how biography deals with myths and legends, what goes missing and what can't be proved in the story of a life. Virginia Woolf's Nose presents a variety of case-studies, in which literary biographers are faced with gaps and absences, unprovable stories and ambiguities surrounding their subjects. By looking at stories about Percy Bysshe Shelley's shriveled, burnt heart found pressed between the pages of a book, Jane Austen's fainting spell, Samuel Pepys's lobsters, and the varied versions of Virginia Woolf's life and death, preeminent biographer Hermione Lee considers how biographers deal with and often utilize these missing body parts, myths, and contested data to "fill in the gaps" of a life story. In "Shelley's Heart and Pepys's Lobsters," an essay dealing with missing parts and biographical legends, Hermione Lee discusses one of the most complicated and emotionally charged examples of the contested use of biographical sources. "Jane Austen Faints" takes five competing versions of the same dramatic moment in the writer's life to ask how biography deals with the private lives of famous women. "Virginia Woolf's Nose" looks at the way this legendary author's life has been translated through successive transformations, from biography to fiction to film, and suggests there can be no such thing as a definitive version of a life. Finally, "How to End It All" analyzes the changing treatment of deathbed scenes in biography to show how biographical conventions have shifted, and asks why the narrators and readers of life-stories feel the need to give special meaning and emphasis to endings. Virginia Woolf's Nose sheds new light on the way biographers bring their subjects to life as physical beings, and offers captivating new insights into the drama of "life-writing". Virginia Woolf's Nose is a witty, eloquent, and funny text by a renowned biographer whose sensitivity to the art of telling a story about a human life is unparalleled--and in creating it, Lee articulates and redefines the parameters of her craft.

30 review for Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    ·Karen·

    Companion of the British Empire for Services to Literature and author of highly respected biographies of Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf, Lee examines the art and artifice of fixing a person's life, turning it into a narrative and inevitably emphasising some points, omitting others so that only a 'likeness' can possibly emerge. The idea that a biography can be neutral, factual and true is an illusion. The question is only how much of a distortion the various 'versionings' are. She writes of the Companion of the British Empire for Services to Literature and author of highly respected biographies of Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf, Lee examines the art and artifice of fixing a person's life, turning it into a narrative and inevitably emphasising some points, omitting others so that only a 'likeness' can possibly emerge. The idea that a biography can be neutral, factual and true is an illusion. The question is only how much of a distortion the various 'versionings' are. She writes of the struggle for Shelley's heart which stands as a symbol for the struggle of family and friends of the subject to gain control over the way the world remembers. Being herself no small expert on Virginia Woolf she makes an unhurried, unstrident examination and criticism of how Woolf was portrayed both by Cunningham in the book and by Nicole Kidman in the film The Hours. She points out how different versions of Jane Austen have wandered the world, how it would be equally legitimate to interpret the lack of letters or other writings when she moved to Bath as a sign either of depression or of Miss Austen having such a busy social life that she had no time to write. And finally, of course she looks at 'how to end it all', how the death of the biographer's subject is always interpreted as a validation of the life and work, fixing the myth, it can almost never be contingent, random and disorderly. I found this utterly riveting, vivid and at times drily funny. Anyone who has an interest in stories about people will find it both informative and entertaining.

  2. 5 out of 5

    James Murphy

    Hermione Lee is a critic and biographer who's published books on Philip Roth and Elizabeth Bowen as well as biographies of Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf, the latter perhaps the definitive work on the subject's life. Here she turns her attention to the craft of biography. In considering the huge amount of information available from a variety of sources, she's concerned with how a biographer chooses what to include, what to leave out. Whose perspective to value, whose to avoid. Her essay on Hermione Lee is a critic and biographer who's published books on Philip Roth and Elizabeth Bowen as well as biographies of Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf, the latter perhaps the definitive work on the subject's life. Here she turns her attention to the craft of biography. In considering the huge amount of information available from a variety of sources, she's concerned with how a biographer chooses what to include, what to leave out. Whose perspective to value, whose to avoid. Her essay on Shelley, especially, focuses on this issue. In writing about Woolf, she looks at how her novel Mrs Dalloway, the Michael Cunningham novel The Hours, and the film made from it serve individually to represent or distort the writer's life. Her essay on Austen addresses the discrepancy between the critical perspective of her life in the "golden age of the English gentry" and the harsh truth of Austen's lifestyle and social milieu. In the final essay Lee writes about how biographies treat the death of their literary subjects and the tendency of many to portray the death to be in the same style as the work. Lee doesn't use it much, but the operative word here is perspective. She realizes that the choices each biographer makes about the material and how that material is presented allows for such varying portraits of their subjects, sometimes amounting to invention and reinvention. An experienced practitioner in biography, Lee has interesting things to say. I admire her biography of Woolf, and some of her observations here ring convincingly.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Mara

    Was actually lovely as far as it went, but very thin and mostly consisted of examples of contradictory versions of events in various writer's lives given in different biographies, demonstrating that biography is never truly objective and is wielded by the biographer in service of a point the biographer wants to make. So it was interesting -- but I found myself wishing it went further. More, I think I loved Lee's Virginia Woolf so much because it opened so many questions for me about my own Was actually lovely as far as it went, but very thin and mostly consisted of examples of contradictory versions of events in various writer's lives given in different biographies, demonstrating that biography is never truly objective and is wielded by the biographer in service of a point the biographer wants to make. So it was interesting -- but I found myself wishing it went further. More, I think I loved Lee's Virginia Woolf so much because it opened so many questions for me about my own preconceptions, what I want out of a biography, what sort of expectations I carry about the lives of writers -- especially since the interesting parts of the biography aren't generally the writer getting up, sitting down at a desk and sitting unmoving, writing for hours on end. Do I expect a how-to manual or a vindication, a sense of the price paid for the works I get to enjoy? Explanations of what constitutes a writer's life for the aspiring writer? And aren't there fallacies of correlation and causation? I keep wanting to compare trying to discover something about the nature of writing by examining the completed life of a writer to trying to discover what spark of life exists and animates the body by performing a dissection on a corpse. Which I step back and observe is a bit morbid, but then much of this book is a little morbid, and one has to wonder to what extent biography itself is a morbid endeavor -- you tend to read knowing how it is going to end.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Katherine

    I was very intrigued by this book and excitedly anticipated reading it for years, given my love for both Virginia Woolf and reflective essays on complex ideas, but I was disappointed by it. I felt that Hermione Lee was too caught up in the minutia of her somewhat boring examples and neglected to do much actual reflecting on biography itself: the particularities of biography as an art form (e.g. the pressures to please the loved ones of the biographee), the biographer as an impartial narrator, I was very intrigued by this book and excitedly anticipated reading it for years, given my love for both Virginia Woolf and reflective essays on complex ideas, but I was disappointed by it. I felt that Hermione Lee was too caught up in the minutia of her somewhat boring examples and neglected to do much actual reflecting on biography itself: the particularities of biography as an art form (e.g. the pressures to please the loved ones of the biographee), the biographer as an impartial narrator, what a biography says about the significance of the subject itself, what biographies say more broadly about our culture and our desire for the lives of strangers to be packaged neatly and conclusively for our amusement... There's a lot she could have explored about biography in this book that would have been interesting, and given her extensive experience as a biographer, I would've really enjoyed reading her thoughts on the subject. The best chapter by far was the titular chapter on Virginia Woolf, the author's primary research subject, and this is where she provides the most meaty and extensive reflections on biography. Throughout much of the rest of the book, however, she mostly just quotes long passages from biographies of long-dead literary figures I mostly do not care about and shows how these biographies differ from each other... Isn't it kind of obvious that different biographers have different takes on the complex subject of a single person's life, and choose to use the rumors about the person differently? She also tends to go too long on certain examples, despite the book being only 120 pages. Her passages about Percy Shelley and Jane Austen were particularly tedious. My other issue with this book is that it doesn't seem to have been edited well. Lee neglects to include basic information about the literary subjects she chronicles throughout the book. This lack of context is understandable for someone like Jane Austen, but not so much for someone like Percy Shelley. Inexplicably, Lee introduced Shelley, on whom she spent about 15% of the book, without his first name and never refers to him by his full name except in the index. I consider myself pretty well-read, but I have never read anything by Percy Shelley and didn't know to whom she was referring for a few disorienting paragraphs. Similarly, she often excludes key dates that would help contextualize many of her references. Most egregiously, in my opinion, she rarely provides backgrounds of the literary subjects she profiles, and, without an understanding of why they matter, it's hard to care about what she has to say about them (I'm thinking specifically about Samuel Pepys and Shelley here). I still plan to read Lee's biography of Woolf, but I have to say that this book diminished her standing in my eyes a bit.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Shelby Lynne

    The title essay was the real stunner, though I suspect that's because I wasn't interested in the subjects of the other three. Loved the snark Lee dropped in at the most unexpected moments. Made for a fun read. 3.5 stars

  6. 4 out of 5

    Danell Jones

    Loved it!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Mark Valentine

    Lee presents four essays on biography that make for highly-valuable reading for anyone who likes biographies. The second essay, the title of the book, provides her insight into Woolf, Cunningham's novel about Mrs. Dalloway, the Hours, and the production of the film by the same name; Lee writes about her insight in the process, esp. since her biography of Woolf was the one that Cunningham used in writing his Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The introductory essay presents the multifarious problems Lee presents four essays on biography that make for highly-valuable reading for anyone who likes biographies. The second essay, the title of the book, provides her insight into Woolf, Cunningham's novel about Mrs. Dalloway, the Hours, and the production of the film by the same name; Lee writes about her insight in the process, esp. since her biography of Woolf was the one that Cunningham used in writing his Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The introductory essay presents the multifarious problems that biographers have in presenting a single incident--in this case, relating the funeral pyre of Shelley on an Italian beach in 1822. The third essay should be required reading for all Jane Austen lovers because Lee collects the different biographers' interpretations of her life. In the final essay, "How to End It All," she writes about how biographers portray the death of their subject. One biographer had all of Dickens' characters standing around his deathbed as a self-immolating audience for the dying novelist. Overall, I could easily see this as assigned reading in a creative non-fiction course or for a course in biographical writing or necessary reading for anyone interested in reading about others or how to constructing biographies of others.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Vincent Hernot

    An excellent little book that combines, in the best tradition of Richard Holmes' Footsteps or Dr Johnson and Mr Savage, immense erudition on the subject with a constant questioning of key topics, all of it written in a lively, jargon-free style. Beyond showing how problematic the writing of biographies is (from the point of view of knowledge, of synthesis, against teleological readings etc), Hermione Lee is mostly interested in asking what is, in fine, a life? Can it ever be truly understood? An excellent little book that combines, in the best tradition of Richard Holmes' Footsteps or Dr Johnson and Mr Savage, immense erudition on the subject with a constant questioning of key topics, all of it written in a lively, jargon-free style. Beyond showing how problematic the writing of biographies is (from the point of view of knowledge, of synthesis, against teleological readings etc), Hermione Lee is mostly interested in asking what is, in fine, a life? Can it ever be truly understood? And therefore of course, how can it be written? In passing, she reminds us also that biographies create a reality that may have little to do with what actually happened: that in turn affects not only our understanding of who the biographee was, but also of what she did, wrote, created. This reconstruction as posteriori is what makes our knowledge of the past, and of others, so difficult to ascertain. Great book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    A short little volume of semi-academic essays on biography, focusing in turns on biographical treatments of specific parts of the subject's lives. The title essay is on various biographical imaginings of Virginia Woolf, specifically the book and subsequent movie adaptation of The Hours.

  10. 4 out of 5

    93bcn

    My review here.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Garnette

    I use this book as a textbook for my writing classes. It's wickedly funny by an adept at English biography. And Lee also spikes the howlers in The Hours, a movie, a dreadful take on VA.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Natalie

    This is a wonderful collection of essays by one of the very best biographers. The essays really give a feeling for what writing biography is like, where authors get stuck and inspired.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Tobi

    http://thebumpideereader.blogspot.com...

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

  15. 5 out of 5

    Denikastrogmail.Com

  16. 4 out of 5

    Madhubanti

  17. 5 out of 5

    Carl Rollyson

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jacob

  19. 5 out of 5

    cypt

  20. 5 out of 5

    June Schwarz

  21. 4 out of 5

    Parshwa Shah

  22. 5 out of 5

    Katy Gunn

  23. 4 out of 5

    Madalin

  24. 5 out of 5

    Najla

  25. 4 out of 5

    Martina

  26. 5 out of 5

    ng

  27. 5 out of 5

    Neva

  28. 4 out of 5

    Nuria

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sigrun Hodne

  30. 4 out of 5

    Dan

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