Granite and Rainbow: The Hidden Life of Virginia Woolf

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9780374166595: Granite and Rainbow: The Hidden Life of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) once mused that no biographer had ever been "subtle enough and bold enough to present that queer amalgamation of dream and reality, that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow" that is an artist's life. Noted Woolf scholar Mitchell Leaska has now answered this daunting challenge in an uncompromising, deeply informed biography filled with new insights and fresh revelations. In addition to examining her crucial role in Hogarth Press, which published works by T. S. Eliot, Christopher Isherwood, Sigmund Freud, and Katherine Mansfield, Leaska recounts the hard realities of Woolf's life and how she transformed them in her iridescent novels, essays, letters, and diaries.

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Review:

"Another book about Virginia Woolf?" you cry, and not entirely without cause. One may well wonder what remains to be said about Woolf after Hermione Lee's 1997 biography, but then, biography is as much about the prism through which the subject's life is viewed as it is about the subject. (Besides, if we stopped writing biographies of people after the publication of very good ones, Quentin Bell would have had the last word on Woolf back in 1972.) Mitchell Leaska, a professor of humanities at NYU, has devoted his academic career to the study of Woolf's writing, and while he uncovers no surprising new facts about her life, he weaves a masterful interpretation of those facts that shows, in part by quoting extensively from her own writings, how her life informed her work.

The main thrust of Leaska's version of Woolf's life is a medical and psychological one. If we accept the hypothesis that Woolf was afflicted with manic-depressive psychosis, and knowing as we do that this condition is not neurotic but a genetically transmitted affective disorder, Leaska asks, "Does this genetically transmitted disorder account for--indeed, 'explain'--Virginia Woolf's extraordinary powers as a novelist and essayist?" Well, as he immediately admits, "probably not," but it does help us to understand how certain events of her life (the deaths of loved ones, sexual molestation by her half-brothers, the marriage of her sister Vanessa to Clive Bell) may have functioned as "triggers" to her illness. Leaska is particularly strong in drawing out the implications of the loveless marriage between Woolf's parents, and the young woman's intense emotional attachments to other women, in clear prose that respects the psychological complexities of the situations without descending into psychobabble. Anyone who has read Woolf, or thinks they know about her life, will find in Granite and Rainbow a solidly attractive argument against which to test their own responses. --Ron Hogan

From Kirkus Reviews:

Another effort at what Woolf herself once described as the ``compromise, evasion, understatement, overstatement, irrelevance which we call biography.'' Woolf biographies and studies are still churned out at nearly an annual rate. Leaska, the editor of Woolf's early journals (A Passionate Apprentice) and her correspondence with Vita Sackville-West, as well as the author of several critical studies of her work, is a longtime mainstay of that academic industry. His appraisal of Woolf's life, here made largely through the lens of her writings, offers a thoroughgoing and yet curiously limited version of her portrait. Crucial aspects of her father, Leslie Stephen, the emotionally demanding patriarch of letters, and of her devoted but distant mother, Julia Duckworth Stephen, are viewed essentially through their fictional counterparts in To the Lighthouse. According to Leaska, the influence of her parents combined Leslie's dependency on others for approval and affection with Julia's defensive aloofness, leaving Woolf unbalanced as she embarked on her writing career and marriage. Perhaps Leaska took Woolf at her word when she wrote, ``Nothing is real unless I write it.'' He overdoes it with documentation, plumbing her voluminous diaries, as well as her novels, at the expense of taking a wider and more objective view of her relationships with the remarkable people in her life: husband Leonard, sister Vanessa, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, Vita Sackville-West. Typically--and narrowly--these people are characterized as parental substitutes. Unsurprisingly, Vita emerges in a pivotal role as both a strong father-figure and an emotional mother-substitute (and as the inspiration for Orlando). Leaska seems overly concerned with Woolf's imaginative existence and not curious enough about her daily life. Earnest and faithful, but do we really need another after last year's superb Woolf biography by Hermione Lee? (photos, not seen) -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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