Here’s a little fact you didn’t know about me: I have Virginia Woolf’s nose. Please, no jokes about giving it back, because believe me, if I could, I would. We have both been umm, blessed, by a nose like an isosceles triangle, plonked faintly askew in the middle of our faces, in a way that seems reminiscent of Picasso’s spiky-faced geometric women. And nobody thought so very much about Woolf’s nose until it took on a life of its own, starring with quivering intensity on the face of Nicole Kidman in the movie version of The Hours. Up until then it had been politely overlooked, and her writing, or if not that, then her madness, had been the looming feature of interest. But when Hermione Lee, who wrote one of the definitive biographies of Virginia Woolf went to the cinema and saw what Hollywood had done to her subject, she ended up writing an essay called ‘Virginia Woolf’s Nose’ in a wonderful collection of quirky biographical accounts of well-known authors entitled Body Parts. ‘The Nose is her latest and most popular incarnation, but she won’t stay fixed under it forever’, Lee writes consolingly, and this essay is a beautifully even-handed look at the way biography hovers between appropriation, translation, and transformation in the lives of its subjects.
Lee draws the reader’s attention to the way that biography is both a ‘making up’ and a ‘making over’ of a life. Trying to piece a coherent story together out of a patchwork of events, impressions and hearsay, biographers are obliged to edit and select, to place boundaries around the mass of possible information and to carve a special, unique version of their subject out of the crumbling archive of the past. They have to do this, Lee reminds us, or else their books wouldn’t sell. But alongside the creative interpretations that take place in biography, there is also a pact with accuracy and a responsibility towards likeness.
What to do, then, with a fictional biography, such as the one in Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Hours? Cunningham rewrites Mrs Dalloway, drawing together a number of lives in a way that sets off echoes and reverberations across time and space just as Woolf’s novel did, but his novel includes a plotline concerning Woolf herself, in the process of composing Mrs Dalloway and contemplating whether to have her protagonist, Clarissa, commit suicide or not. Lee suggests that ‘Cunningham’s inventive, absorbing novel makes a sensitive reinvention of Woolf’s inner life’, and she admires his ability to depict Woolf both in her dark moments and in her moods of joyous pleasure. Her only squeamishness comes from having to read Woolf saying things like ‘If you send Nelly in to interrupt me, I won’t be responsible for my actions.’
The film of The Hours, of course, commits all kinds of atrocities, not least of which is Kidman’s proboscis. Virginia Woolf was in her mid-forties when she wrote Mrs Dalloway and 59 when she finally drowned herself, in an ugly, swift-flowing river one cold March, wearing a hat held on by an elastic band. Kidman, youthful and beautiful, gently lowers herself into serene summery waters. But this is not all Lee regrets about the film, which ‘evacuates her life of political intelligence or social acumen, returning her to the position of doomed, mad, fey victim.’ And the process of creativity is as usual, romanticized beyond plausibility, Woolf shown to sit down in a moment of inspiration to write the first sentence of Mrs Dalloway, and rather like Ernie Wise, ends up moments later with a full manuscript. Woolf took about three years to write the novel, Lee tells us, and the first sentence she wrote was certainly not the first sentence she ended up with. All the interesting depth of Woolf is flattened out in the movie version; her complex emotional reality, a mix of reticence and fierce neurosis and joie de vivre, all compacted into a Hollywood version of a ‘creative’ and therefore doomed woman. Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books apparently wrote that ‘there are now fifty million American cinemagoers who think of Virginia Woolf as that dame who drowned herself and wore brown clothes.’
More alarming were the Catholic protestors who gathered outside cinemas and called for the film to be banned on the grounds that ‘we’re celebrating women who’ve abandoned their children.’ And anti-Woolf critics like Philip Hensher had an opportunity to sneer at Woolf’s writing, calling her novels ‘inept, ugly, fatuous, badly-written and revoltingly self-indulgent.’ We have come a long way from the reality of Mrs Dalloway, a sensitive and creative treatment of time and space and language that also manages a stinging critique of post-war Britain.
And yet, Lee reminds us that while the film was on release, for a short while, Mrs Dalloway became the number one novel on amazon, the first time that the novel enjoyed bestseller status. And in conclusion she argues that as much as this new version of Virginia Woolf is fraught with misinformation, an un-subtle dramatization magnetically drawn to clichés about creative women, it is only one more in a series of versions of Woolf, some more accurate and helpful than others, but all inevitably employing distortions because the truth of a life is ultimately impossible to grasp. Lee’s analysis here is a delight – rich and balanced and insightful. Alas, I can add nothing to it but there is something I do have that Lee doesn’t – and that’s Woolf’s nose. Not many people can say that.