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The Impossible Art:
Virginia Woolf on Modern Biography

'GRANITE AND RAINBOW', 'fact and fiction', 'truth and personality' -


Virginia Woolf's lapidary definitions of modern biography figure it as a
being precariously balanced between irreconcilable possibilities. On the
one side there is the solidity of incontestable evidence, of a positive truth
that does not admit uncertainty or invention. On the other lies the
evanescence of human character, of a whole that cannot be reduced to the
sum of its parts but can only be captured by an imaginative leap. As a genre
that inhabits the indefinite space between these two well-defined poles,
biography represents for Woolf a particular kind of synthesis that does not
erase the originary opposition but rather preserves it in a hybrid form.1 The
extremes of granite and rainbow, fact and fiction, truth and personality are
not to be combined so that their respective boundaries blur and merge.
Rather than offering a third form that goes beyond this originary

' This interpretation of the antithesis of 'granite and rainbow' as tending


towards a synthesis that does not resolve, or sublate, the opposing terms matches
Marilyn L. Brownstein's reading of WoolFs practice as an autobiographer, which
she sees as 'the achievement of a dialectic in which no synthesis can occur'. This
setting in motion of a dialectical movement which does not resolve itself offers for
Brownstein'criteria for a particular kind of postmodern life writing'of which Woolf
and Walter Benjamin are foremost practitioners: '"Catastrophic Encounters":
Postmodern Biography as Witness to History', in Mary Rhiel and David Suchoff
(eds.), The Seductions of Biography (London 1996) p. 190. Laura Marcus's chapter,
'Woolf, Strachey and the "New Biography"', in her Auto/biographical Discourses:
Theory, Criticism, Practice (Manchester 1994) also points out that, while 'the
distinction Woolf draws between fact and fiction' might appear to be 'overly
rigid' (p. 107), it is in fact 'both used and interrogated' in a way which combines
the privileging of '"imaginative" truths' with 'a marker of realism which refuses
to mediate or collapse the fact/fiction dichotomy by means of fictionalism'
(pp. 108-9).

CThe Editors,The Cambridge Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 4 2000. Allrightsreserved


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350 THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY

opposition, biography is both constituted by this tension and confronted by


it as the fundamental problem that every biographer must always address.2
But if Woolf's definition of biography places the genre close to the centre
of her insistent exploration of dialectical movements, her reviews of
particular biographies often show that she remained dissatisfied with the
specific solutions to that tension offered by her contemporaries. Reviewing
Marie Hay's biography of Wilhelmine von Gravenitz in 1906, Woolf
remarked that the 'compromise between history and fiction [that] is
maintained throughout' Hay's book produces 'an awkward frame of mind'
in the reader, who'does not know when he is reading history and when he is
reading fiction'.3 While Hay's compromise solution might appear to
respond to Woolf's later call that biography should do justice to the 'queer
amalgamation of dream and reality' that constitutes modern life ('The
New Biography' (1927), EVW iv. 478), as a reader and a reviewer Woolf
finds herself rejecting the unsettling experience of being exposed to Hay's
switches of genre and epistemological grounds. Wavering between an
implicit sympathy for Hay's approach and the sense of 'awkwardness' that
arises from it, Woolf's own review mimics the essential instability of a genre
that, by definition, could only elicit a mixed response.
Among Woolf's many attempts to trace that instability back to its origin,
her famous conclusion to'The New Biography'perhaps best exemplifies the
difficulties she encountered in establishing a frame of reference that could
contain and explain the puzzle posed by biography:

Truth of fact and truth of fiction are incompatible; yet [the


biographer] is now more than ever urged to combine them. For it
would seem that the life which is increasingly real to us is the fictitious
life; it dwells in the personality rather than in the act. Each of us is
more Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, than he is John Smith, of the Corn
Exchange. Thus, the biographer's imagination is always being
stimulated to use the novelist's art of arrangement, suggestion,
dramatic effect to expound the private life. Yet if he carries the use of
fiction too far, so that he disregards the truth, or can only introduce it
with incongruity, he loses both worlds; he has neither the freedom of
fiction nor the substance of fact. {EVW'w. 478)
2
As this hybrid, biography more closely resembles Woolf's failed attempt to
juxtapose essays and novels inThe Pargiters (1931-3) - see Mitchell A. Leajka (ed.),
The Pargiters by Virginia Woolf: the Novd-Essay Portion of T h e \ e a r s (London 1978) -
•than the successful fusion of 'playpoem' which she realised in The Waves (1931):
VirginiaWoolf, Diary, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, vol. iii (Harmondsworth 1982) p. 203.
3
'Sweetness - Long Drawn Out', in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, cd. Andrew
McNeillie (London 1986) i. 118; hereafter EVW followed by volume and page
number.
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THE IMPOSSIBLE ART: VIRGINIA WOOLF ON MODERN BIOGRAPHY 351

Caught in the instability of the originary opposition between 'truth of


fact'and 'truth of fiction', biography becomes here the embodiment of the
semantic slippage between the two. If fact and fiction are said to be
'incompatible', they also display an inexplicable tendency to exchange
positions, so that it is fiction that becomes marked by the attribute of
'reality' which is more commonly associated with fact. Although this
swapping of attributes is located for Woolf in the collective present of
modernity, her transformation of humdrum 'John Smith' into
Shakespeare's Hamlet indicates an erosion of temporal as well as
epistemological categories. As the paradigmatic illustration of the
disjunction between different kinds of truth which Woolf claims to be
characteristic of modern life, Hamlet also raises the question of how
'modern' Woolf's privileging of psychology over action actually is.
The question of the modernity of the 'new biography' is implicitly raised
at the opening of this essay, where Woolf quotes approvingly Sir Sidney
Lee's definition of the genre as 'the truthful transmission of personality'. As
her father's successor to the editorship of the Dictionary ofNational Biography,
Lee represents an unlikely figure to spearhead Woolf's discussion of Harold
Nicolson's Some People (1927). Yet Woolf concedes that while Lee's practice as
a biographer fails to live up to his own prescription, his definition
encapsulates 'the whole problem of biography as it presents itself to us
today'. Ascribing to truth a 'granite-like solidity' and to personality a
'rainbow-like intangibility' (EVW iv. 473), Woolf's articulation of the
problem of biography effectively cleaves in two Lee's vision of its unified
aim. Where Lee perceived a seamless continuum binding 'truth' to
'personality', Woolf intervenes to split that continuum into the opposition
of irreconcilable modes of writing and of knowing. But if this revision
certainly marks Woolf's alternative definition of the genre as a critique of
Lee's more complacent dictum, it also places more modern ways of
understanding biography in a relation of continuity with the tradition they
might seem to have discarded.
This sense of continuity informs not just Woolf's explorations of generic
definitions but also her quick sketch of the historical development of
biography. The slavish dependence on facts that she claims characterises
Lee's practice as a biographer is traced back to its antecedent in the
medieval chroniclers of the gesta, who focused not on the psychology of
their subjects but on their actions and the events that befell them. The
chroniclers marked an identification of biography with historiography that
was only undone with the appearance of James Boswell's Life of Johnson
(1791). The significance of Boswell's intervention lies for Woolf in his ability
to recreate a sense of Johnson's intimate presence that makes us feel as if
'we may sit, even with the great and good, over the table and talk'. But if
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S52 THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY

this shift from the active to the inner life founded biography itself as a
separate genre, it also gave birth to what Woolf calls the 'parti-coloured,
hybrid, monstrous' biography of the Victorian era. This hybridity, which is
the result of a process of contamination and distortion of Boswell's example,
designates the substitution of 'the uneventful lives of poets and painters' for
those 'of soldiers and statesmen' that had been at the centre of the
chronicler's attention. But where the chroniclers had once insisted on the
'courage and learning' of their subjects, the Victorian biographer became
obsessed with their 'goodness' (EVW iv. 474) as the standard which
determined whose life was worthy of being recorded.
Woolf's prescriptions for the writing of modern biography aim to undo
the damage done to the genre by the Victorian obsession with moral
probity and return it to the mould first shaped by Boswell. By combining an
'obstinate veracity' (EVW iv. 478) with a sense of Johnson's 'incalculable
presence' (EVW iv. 474), Boswell has paved the way for precisely that
mixture of factual accuracy and imaginative recreation which Woolf
enjoins the modern biographer to attain. But this emphasis on Boswell as
the point of both origin and arrival for the modern version of the genre
produces a certain ambivalence in Woolf's assessment of Nicolson's
contribution to the 'new biography' in Some People. While marking a
welcome relief from the 'pose, humbug, solemnity' of its Victorian
predecessors, Some People remains for Woolf a book that falls between two
stools: it 'is not fiction because it has the substance, the reality of truth. It is
not biography because it has the freedom, the artistry of fiction' (EVW iv.
476). Neither biography nor fiction, Some People plays one against the other
and leaves its readers suspended in a condition of disbelief: 'let it be fact,
one feels, or let it be fiction; the imagination will not serve under two
masters simultaneously' (EVW'w. 478).
Within the space of a few pages, then, Woolf alternates between a
theoretical endorsement of the need for a hybrid genre and the expression
of considerable reservations as to its realisation in Some People. Her reading
of Nicolson's book against the example provided by Boswell marks out very
clearly the limits of her understanding of the relationship between factual
accuracy and fictional invention in modern biography. While Woolf had
asserted very clearly at the outset that the aim of the genre was to combine
its two irreconcilable poles 'into one seamless whole', her comparative
reading of Nicolson and Boswell indicates instead the presence of very
strong anxieties about the contamination of the one by the other. Woolf
warns that the lack of firm boundaries to separate the factual from the
fictional undermines the reader's pact with the biographer. Since the
source of Boswell's 'astonishing power over us' resides in our 'implicit belief
in what he tells us' {EVW iv. 478), the biographer who, like Nicolson,
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THE IMPOSSIBLE ART: VIRGINIA WOOLF ON MODERN BIOGRAPHY 353

deprives his readers of that belief is also renouncing the power of suggestion
and persuasion that springs from it.
ButWoolf's insistence that the biographer's respect for factual accuracy
forms the basis of his or her ability to capture the reader's imagination
ultimately undermines the stability of her opposition between 'truth of fact'
and 'truth of fiction'. If inWoolf's argument Boswell's version of Johnson's
life has become the authoritative one, its authority does not rest on a
criterion of veracity that lies outside its text, but rather on Boswell's
rhetorical ability to establish himself as a truthful biographer. When Woolf
points out that it is our 'implicit belief in Boswell's truthfulness that lends
his Johnson its imaginative power, she is not just making the 'truth of
fiction' dependent upon the 'truth of fact'. She is also inadvertently
uncovering the complex status of factual accuracy and historical truth as
themselves the products of a textual effect, of the biographer's position
within the text as the character which guarantees the truthfulness of the
story.
This slippage between terms which Woolf insists on presenting as
intrinsically opposed reveals the extent to which that opposition is far from
a symmetrical one. If 'truth of fact' can ultimately be traced back to the
effect of textual strategies, then the nature of its opposition to the 'truth of
fiction' becomes itself the product of a rhetorical gesture, of a polemical
intervention that attempts to change the terms within which biography is
practised and understood. As this rhetorical gesture, the antithesis of
granite and rainbow hides from view the extent to which Woolf's
intervention in the debate around biography is spoken from a position that
is closer to the claims of fiction than to those of fact. The location of Woolf's
critique of the traditional association of biography with the factual
becomes more evident when she leaves aside the question of the genre's
epistemological status to consider instead its relation to the experience of
modernity:

Life, which in this respect, as indeed in many others, is quite unlike


biography, is not a series of episodes, or of sentimental adventures, or
of descriptive scenes, or even the drudgery of daily existence, but
consists in the passage of Time; of perpetually stepping towards the
westering sun.4

The Woolfian echoes in this passage are unmistakable. They recall her
famous formulation in 'Modern Fiction' that 'life is not a series of gig lamps
symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent
4
Augustine Birrell, Frederick Locker-Lampson, quoted in 'A Character Sketch',
EVWm. 255-6.
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354 THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY

envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end'


(EVW iv. 160).5 Yet the author of these two parallel statements is not the
same. The first quotation is taken from Augustine Birrell's Frederick Locker-
Lampson, and is reported verbatim inWoolf's 1920 review of the same book.
The second represents one ofWoolf's best-known attempts at capturing the
essence of what distinguishes her own approach to the modern novel from
that of her Edwardian predecessors. While Birrell is writing about
biography, Woolf is writing about fiction; yet they both characterise 'life'
at the beginning of the 1920s as something that eludes the narrative
sequencing of 'gig lamps' or 'sentimental adventures'. For both the
emphasis falls, in recognisably modernist fashion, not on development or
progression but rather on a condition of being enveloped, surrounded, and
absorbed into an element that cannot be described or defined.
What is striking about this parallel, then, is not so much that Woolf's and
Birrell's views of modern experience should be so close, but rather that it
reveals an essential identity in the problematic posed by that experience for
two different genres. Both writers define that problematic as a disjunction
between the established conventions of each of the genres and the
experience which those conventions purport to represent. For Woolf,
Birrell succeeds precisely because he refuses to make his subject conform to
those old-fashioned models and offers instead a portrait of Locker-
Lampson as 'a tiny attenuated man when peeled of his great fur coat' ('A
Character Sketch', EVW iii. 256). 'Modern Fiction' deploys the same
clothing metaphor to question the suitability of the 'ill-fitting vestments'
(EVW iv. 160) of the realist novel to the representation of 'the dark places of
psychology' that constitute 'the point of interest' for modern sensibilities
(EVW iv. 162). As we saw, this contrast between the external signs of
identity and the depths of the psyche will also guide Woolf's discussion of
the new biography in 1927. But whereas the disjunction between 'John
Smith of the Corn Exchange'and 'Hamlet, Prince of Denmark' implicitly
connects the experience of modernity to the older, Shakespearean, model,
her discussion of modern fiction insists on the radically new character of
the distinction between outward appearance and inner substance. As
Woolf famously declared in 'Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown' (1924), the
interest in the subjective life that characterises the modern novel responds

5
This essay was included in the first Common Reader (1925), but in fact represents
a revision of an earlier piece entitled 'Modern Novels' and published in the Times
Literary Supplement in 1919. The paragraph from which the quotation above is taken
was revised from the 1919 version of the essay to become the point at which WoolPs
discussion abandoned the Edwardians to turn towards an analysis of Georgian, and
more specifically Joyce's, achievements.
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THE IMPOSSIBLE ART: VIRGINIA WOOLF ON MODERN BIOGRAPHY 335

to the momentous change in 'human character' that marked the beginning


of modernity 'on or about December 1910' {EVWiii. 421).
Both biography and fiction are charged, then, by Woolf with the task of
responding to the change from a Mrs Brown who is entirely constituted and
explained by information about her rent, her house, and her mended
gloves to a much more fleeting glimpse of 'the spirit we live by, life itself
(EVW iii. 436). Although originally entitled 'Character in Fiction', 'Mr
Bennett and Mrs Brown' draws in fact no explicit distinction between the
challenge posed by Mrs Brown to different genres. Among the examples of
contemporary writers who have proposed different solutions to this
challenge, Woolf cites not just James Joyce and T. S. Eliot but Lytton
Strachey, whose Queen Victoria is listed together with Ulysses and Mr
Prufrock as 'some of the names [Mrs Brown] has made famous lately'
(EVW iii. 435). Against the background of her insistent characterisation of
biography as suspended between the poles of fact and fiction, this lack of
differentiation between biography and novels suggests that the crucial
change in human character which Woolf announces as the original event of
modernity will also bring about the collapse of any remaining generic
boundaries between the two.
But if we turn from Woolf's modernist manifestos of the late 1910s and
early 1920s to the much later essay 'The Art of Biography' (1939), we realise
in fact that her view of the significance of this collapse changed
dramatically when the discussion shifted from the arena of modern fiction
to that of biography. While in 1924 Woolf had saluted the opportunities
opened up by modernity as a'trembling on the verge of one of the great ages
of English literature' (EVW iii. 436), her posthumous assessment of
Strachey's career in 1939 strikes a much more sombre and less exultant
note. As she had done with Nicolson in 1927, Woolf offers here an
endorsement of Strachey's practice which is heavily qualified by her own
sense of the ultimate consequences of that practice for the future
development of the genre. Praising Strachey's Queen Victoria (1921) as a
'solid, real, palpable' creation which willin due course 'do for the old Queen
what Boswell did for the old dictionary maker',6 Woolf devotes much of the
essay to analysing the reasons for what she sees as the failure of Elizabeth and
Essex (1928). Forced 'to invent' in order to supplement the 'very little [that]
was known'about Elizabeth, Strachey at the same time found his invention
necessarily 'checked' by the existence of what was known. The result for
Woolf is unsatisfactory from whichever point of view we look at it, as his

6
'The Art of Biography', in The Crowded Dance of Modern Life, cd. Rachel Bowlby
(Harmondsworth 1993) p. 147; hereafter CD.
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356 THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY

Elizabeth 'moves in an ambiguous world, between fact and fiction, neither


embodied nor disembodied' (CD, p. 148).
Recalling her reservations about the success of Hay's and Nicolson's
creations, Woolf's unfavourable verdict on Elizabeth and Essex introduces
also a change in the terms she deploys to analyse the nature of the
biographical enterprise. The antithesis of fact and fiction, granite and
rainbow which had previously been invoked to account for the challenge
set by biography to its practitioners now gives way to a much more secure
distinction between 'craft' and 'art'. As craft, biography requires of its
practitioners that they should respect rather than transgress those
'limitations' which can be 'flouted' in art (CD, p. 147). In charting the
boundaries of this definition of biography as craft, Woolf returns to the
distinction between 'truth of fact' and 'truth of fiction' she had already
articulated in 'The New Biography'. But while in 1927 that opposition had
rested simply on her sense of the different textual effects produced
respectively by Boswell and by Nicolson, in 1939 Woolf resorts to pinning
down the distinction between fact and fiction firmly on the ground of
verification. The boundaries of biographical practice are thus enclosed by
'facts that can be verified by other people beside the artist', while 'facts that
no one else can verify' (CD, p. 148) lie beyond the purview of biography and
belong more properly to art.
This appeal to the notion of verification, with its concomitant
implication of a stark opposition between objective and subjective truths,
does not just revise Woolf's earlier insistence on placing biography in the
indefinite space between those oppositions. It also stands in a somewhat
incongruent relation to Woolf's own practice as a biographer and
historiographer in works such as Orlando (1928) and A Room of One's Own
(1929), where it is precisely the alleged objectivity of the historiographic
enterprise that is made the target of her insouciant attacks.7 When
Strachey writes that the Elizabethan age is known to us only in its 'outward
appearances and the literary expressions of its heart' but that we lack'some
means by which the modern mind might reach to an imaginative
comprehension of those beings of three centuries ago',8 the sentiment might
as well have been Woolf's. Both Orlando and A Room represent attempts at
finding a solution for what she elsewhere identified as the specific problem
posited by the Elizabethans for the modern reader. As 'the Elizabethan
prose writers' do not offer the vision of 'the life of an ordinary man or

7
On this see Rachel Bowlby, Feminist Destinations and Further Essays on Virginia
Woolf (Edinburgh 1997) pp. 16-43, 110-24. For a critique of Woolfs approach to
historiography in A Room, see Margaret Ezell, Writing Women's Literary History
(Baltimore 1993) pp. 39-65.
8
Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (London 1928) p. 8.
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THE IMPOSSIBLE ART VIRGINIA WOOLF ON MODERN BIOGRAPHY 357

woman' which is today provided by 'our biographers, novelists and


journalists', their modern reader remains 'perpetually baffled'9 in his or
her attempts to appropriate imaginatively the history of the period. Faced
with the choice of either articulating that bafflement or trying to overcome
it by inventing stories, Woolf, like Strachey, often opted for imagining
scenarios where fiction intervened to supplement the gaps in the historical
record.
Identified by Woolf herself as the tendency to'makfe] scenes which, if the
past could be recalled, might perhaps be found to lack in accuracy' ('The
Lives of the Obscure' (1925), EVWiv. 124), this act of supplementation does
not hide its fictional character but foregrounds it as a critical tool that raises
important questions about the truth claims underpinning any 'factual'
reconstruction of the past. Woolf's characteristically double-edged
modesty sets up her invented 'scenes'against a standard of truthfulness and
accuracy which is marked by a radical uncertainty. The proliferation of
conditional markers - 'if, 'might', 'perhaps' - makes it clear that the
epistemological status of her scenes can only be measured against a
standard that does not exist, against the possibility of total recall which is
doubted as soon as it is introduced. If the scenes she invents are fictional,
they are not more so than any other attempt to recapture the past. As Woolf
points out in her memoirs (written at about the same time as her essay on
Strachey),'scene-making' represents her 'natural way of marking the past'
but also her avenue of entrance into 'all the writing I have done (novels,
criticism, biography)'. Arising irrespective of whether Woolf is 'writing
about a person'or 'writing about a book', this need to'find a representative
scene'10 cuts across boundaries of genre to reveal an essential continuity
between memory and invention, objective and subjective truths.
Presented by Woolf as a critique of received notions about what
constitutes the 'truth' of historiography, this erasure of generic and
epistemological boundaries becomes, though, something to be feared
when it threatens to level out a distinction which remained crucial for her.
At the same time as she was celebrating Strachey's Queen Victoria as an
embodiment of the modernist spirit, Woolf was also reiterating the need to
maintain a fundamental differentiation between biography and what she
called 'imaginative' literature. 'All biographies and memoirs, all the
hybrid books which are largely made up of facts', she wrote in 1926,'serve to
restore to us the power of reading real books that is to say, works of pure
imagination' ('How Should One Read a Book?' (1926), EVW iv. 393).

9
'The Strange Elizabethans', in The Common Reader, 2nd ser. (London 1932) p. 9.
10
'A Sketch of the Past', in Moments of Being, ed. Jeanne Schulkind, 2nd edn.
(NewYork 1985) p. 142.
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358 THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY

Defined by its qualitative difference from'real books', biography acts here


as a restorative supplement helping to refresh the reader's exhausted
faculty of imagination. As this ancillary, subordinate form, it marks out the
boundaries of what 'real' literature is not and helps to preserve that elusive
category from any contact or contamination with the world of 'facts'.
The definition of biography as craft which is proposed in 'The Art of
Biography' responds then as much to WoolPs anxieties about the status
of literature 'proper' as it does to Strachey's 'failures'. Woolf's articulation of
the antithesis of granite and rainbow in 'The New Biography' had
attempted to move biography away from a condition of subservience to the
historical 'fact' and towards a recognition of its potential connection to the
world of fiction. Combined with the tendency towards the abolition of
generic boundaries Woolf identified in modernism, this attempt to redefine
the genre had always carried with it the possibility that biography would
become so much likefictionas to be indistinguishable from it." While Woolf
had been happy to exploit that overlap in her debunking of the 'pose,
humbug, solemnity' ('The New Biography', EVW iv. 476) she saw as
characteristic of Victorian biography, the symmetrical movement in the
opposite direction found her less than receptive. Her ambivalence towards
the 'new biography' as exemplified in Nicolson's and Strachey's work
indicates that it is precisely when biography threatens to spill over into the
realm of fiction or 'imaginative' literature that censure must intervene.
While fiction might be deployed to undermine traditional biographical
practice, any attempt to appropriate the power of invention for something
other than 'works of pure imagination' encounters in Woolf an impassable
resistance.
Woolf's writings on biography present us then with a constant,
unresolved dialectical movement between a possible redefinition of the
" Woolf shares this sense of biography as presenting a threat tofiction,and more
specifically novels, with Gertrude Stein, who observed that 'biographies have been
more successful than novels' in the twentieth century precisely because they have
taken over the role that used to be fulfilled by 'the novels of the Nineteenth Century'
in their depiction of 'characters' which'were more real to the average human being
than the people they knew': 'A Transadantic Interview 1946', in A Primer for the
Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein, ed. Robert Bartlett Haas (Los Angeles 1971).
In presenting the relationship between twentieth-century novels and biographies
as an antagonistic and competitive one, Stein not only offers an explanation for the
continued success enjoyed by biography but also supplies the sense of a different
context in which to situate Woolf's lifelong ambivalence towards the genre. This
contrasts with the tendency to emphasise the celebration of possibilities opened up
by the erasure of generic boundaries in WoolFs work. See Harvena Richter,'The
Biographer as Novelist', in Gloria G. Fromm (ed.), Essaying Biography: A Celebraiionfor
Leon Edel (Hawaii 1986) pp. 59—71, and Ruth Hoberman, Modernizing Lives:
Experiments in English Biography, 1918-1939 (Carbondale, 111. 1987) pp. 133-60.
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THE IMPOSSIBLE ART: VIRGINIA WOOLF ON MODERN BIOGRAPHY J59

genre that would carry with it a reconfiguration of the literary field and a
return to the more traditional position of the genre as lying at the margins
of 'literature'. This alternation between biography as a modernist genre
and biography as craft finds perhaps its most tortuous illustration in Roger
Fry (1940), the only 'real' biography Woolf authored and one of the books
which taxed her intellectual and imaginative powers to the utmost. Written
at the same time as 'The Art of Biography', Roger Fry is a remarkably
guarded and controlled text which shows Woolf the biographer struggling
to find a solution to the kind of difficulties that Woolf the reviewer explicitly
articulates. In shifting the location of those difficulties from the delicate
balance of granite and rainbow to the issue of censorship and reticence,
'The Art of Biography' voices Woolf's frustration with a situation where
Fry's family and associates refused to comply with her demand that 'all the
facts should be made available to the biographer' ('The Art of Biography',
CD, p. 147). As a biographer, though, Woolf chose not to reveal 'all the facts'
(including and especially Fry's affair with her sister Vanessa)12 and
preferred instead to make use of the 'power of selection and relation' ('The
Art of Biography', CD, p. 147) that she presented as the counterpart of the
demand for unreserved disclosure. The result is a biography that reads like
a collage ofjuxtaposed fragments from Fry's own writings and where the
biographer's interventions are limited to trying to let the unsaid emerge
from the interstices of what can be said.13
But if this montage of Fry's writings shies away from the demand for
disclosure Woolf had often invoked as a critique of the Victorian approach,
it also outlines an approach to biography that erases any remaining
differentiation between texts and lives. Guided by the search for the
'representative scene' which would encapsulate Fry's life in a symbolic
episode, Woolf approaches Fry's autobiographical writings as reservoirs of
images rather than as a revealing expose. The tension between the creative
and critical impulses which she identifies as the structuring principle of
Fry's life and work is thus traced back to the clash between two opposing
images of Fry's father skating 'with his coat-tails flying "all laughter and
high spirits'" and of 'the stern man who could in a moment, in a voice of
12
For an account of the difficulties faced by Woolf in the composition of Roger Fry
see Hcrmione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London 1996) pp. 708-9.
13
Although Diane F. Gillespie's assessment of Roger Fry stresses its 'challenge [to]
traditional hierarchies' (p. 203) and therefore differs from the one proposed here, it
also remarks onWoolfs use of 'quotations from Fry's letters and other writings' to
produce the 'verbal equivalent of a self-portrait': 'The Biographer and the Self in
Roger Fry', in Beth Rigel Daugherty and Eileen Barrett (eds.), Virginia Woolf: Texts and
Contexts (New York 1996) p. 199. In her letters, Woolf described Roger Fry as 'an
experiment in self-suppression; a gamble on Roger's power to transmit himself:
Letters, ed. Nigel Nicolson and JoanneTrautmann, vol. vi (London 1984) p. 417.
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360 THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY

awful gravity, reduce him to a sense of overpowering shame'.14 Rather than


trying to uncover the Oedipal conflict suggested by these clashing images,
Woolf limits herself to letting the surface of Fry's own texts speak. This
approach, which erases the distinction between 'writing about a person'
and 'writing about a book',15 foregrounds the textual character of Roger Fry
in a way which marks its distance from the all-knowing biographer she had
mocked in Orlando. At the same time, though, the very opacity of both Fry's
and Woolf's writing acts as a screen which prevents the readers of this
biography from enjoying that sense of intimacy with its subject that Woolf
had celebrated in Boswell.
In its reluctance to present Woolf's Fry as the authoritative version of the
painter's and critic's life, Roger Fry dramatises a resistance to the fixation of
character that belongs more closely with Woolf's fictional experiments
than with Boswell's example. As in Jacob's Room (1922) and The Waves
(1931), the 'lack of interest in the central figure' {Fry, p. 290) which Woolf
identifies in Fry's work becomes the crucial absence around which his
biography circulates, the void at the centre of the book which cannot be
filled in or smoothed out.16 Presented by Woolf as a man who'would have
refused to sit for the portrait of a finished, complete or in any way perfect
human being' (Fry, p. 291), Fry offers therefore the ultimate challenge to the
art of biography. He is both the ideal, elusive subject for a modern
biography that rejects permanence and embraces the provisional and, at
the same time, the point at which biography as 'the truthful transmission of
personality' stops being a viable option.
Roger Fry might then occupy for Woolf the same position that she found
Elizabeth and Essex had for Strachey - a valiant attempt at exploring the
limits of the genre which has failed not for lack of talent, but because
biography cannot in fact be reformed very far from its origin. If Strachey's
mistake was, in her own terms, to push biography beyond those limits, then
Woolf's may be seen to rest in constraining herself to their exploration from
within. Measured by the yardstick set up in 'The Art of Biography', Roger
Fry reveals the insufficiency of Woolf's own definition of biography as a
craft. It shows that as long as biography continues to be contained within
the opposition of fact to fiction, objective to subjective, history to
imagination, the notion of a radically 'new' start or departure for the genre

14
Roger Fry: A Biography (London 1940) p. 22; hereafter Fry.
15
A Sketch of the Past', in Moments ofBeing, p. 142.
16
Remarking on these similarities Lyndall Gordon has pointed out that, while
attention to'the invisible life is a well-tried idea in the novel and biography', WoolPs
approach to both genres is unique in that it exemplifies 'a certain tactic of restraint:
she injects silence': 'A Writer's Life', in Eric Warner (ed.), Virginia Woolf: A Centenary
Perspective (London 1984) p. 57.
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THE IMPOSSIBLE ART. VIRGINIA WOOLF ON MODERN BIOGRAPHY 361

will remain an impossibility. Far from being the realisation of a precarious


balance between the opposite poles of an impassable binary, Woolf's
modern biography remains a mirage projected in the future, as elusive and
evanescent as the rainbow it should have incorporated.
Elena Gualtieri