Virginia Woolf’s Nose

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.


17 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf’s Nose

  1. I respectfully submit that Nicole Kidman’s nose was the star of The Hours. That was an Oscar-winning performance. And let me say that some of my best friends have spectacular noses, which makes me reflect on my ski-jump proboscis and wish for something just a little more literary.

  2. Whenever they do a deplorable film adaptation of an author’s life and books, I try to console myself by remembering how many more people will be introduced to that person’s work. Like you say, that’s not nothing.

    (Though I continue to be far too intimidated to actually read anything by Virginia Woolf myself. :P)

  3. Better Woolf’s nose than Ottoline Morrell’s! I, too, enjoyed The Hours as novel and was disappointed with the movie–not even the nose could disguise the fact that Nicole Kidman was wildly miscast as Virginia, never mind that “all the interesting depth of Woolf is flattened out…”Loved Lee’s biography of VW, however; her essay sounds wonderful.
    As for Hollywood and creative folks, they seem to do well by performers (Ray Charles, Chaplin–hmmm, men) but those whose creative life is interior–much less a genius–are too ephemeral. They elude the net, perhaps.
    Wonderful post, thank you.

  4. Well, sorry about the nose, but some writer has to keep up the tradition! As long as it’s not blocked, runny, inflamed, etc., probably best to leave it be. Sniff,sniff! [sorry]. (If it’s any consolation none of my body parts, to the best of my knowledge, is from anyone famous). The Lee comments about how the film reduces Woolf to a victim and romanticises creativity remnded me of the myths post and how one of the attractions of myth (of that type) is the simplification of existence. Given the deluge of detail and competing possibilities in our world, the desire for myth as in success, celebrity, lifestyle is no doubt increasing. As for film, I’m not sure it could ever equal the complex novel without becoming overwhelming for an audience.

  5. I am pretty sure my nose doesn’t belong to anyone famous. I think it’s entirely unremarkable. And my ears don’t flap either, unlike my daughters, who can wiggle ears and flare nostrils and roll tongues (which my h can do too). But the post is marvelous and the movie led to people reading fiction, which is always good, plus it may lead others to reading biography, too.

  6. I loved Lee’s book and thought her arguments about biography were great. It makes me want to read her biography of Woolf, whenever I feel I have the courage to pick up a book so long!

  7. LOL re the nose but you know a Roman nose, a fine Aquiline nose, is probably something of an achievement. We could joke that you have a nose for literature. You must have read Asterix in Egypt where there are some wonderful comments about Cleopatra’s fine Aquiline nose. As for the Lee, sounds delightful and I will definitely try and find it. I would also add to Jenny that she should just go ahead and read VW and not be too intimidated. It’s the literary analysis of her that is intimidating. Her own voice is so distinctive.

    I was going to post on an article by Sydney Burris called “World Enough and Woolf” which is partly a celebration of reading VW and a discussion of how reading her helped him out of his own depression. Maybe I’ll just email it you instead.

  8. You remind me how much I should read Hermione Lee. It is interesting how double-edged these kind of ‘literary revivals’ are…I think its wonderful that Mrs. Dalloway became a best seller because of the film, but at the same time, Lee is right to point out how one-sided Woolf was in that film. I get so frustrated with the use of ‘insane’ (or variants of the same idea) as the sole descriptor for a creative mind.

  9. Ah but Woolf’s and your noses are fine, strong, distinctive noses, noses to be proud of. Mine is a rather German nose, sort of rounded and prone to turning red without provocation and there is a tiny dimple in the middle of it. My only consolation is that in kindgarten when we were supposed to be napping, a girl named Ellie taught me how to flare my nostrils quickly and repeatedly which came in handy during playtime and Easter when one hopped around pretending to be a rabbit.

    As for Hermione Lee’s book, I remember when Dorothy read it and I longed to read it then and long to read it even more now. The book is scarce in libraries around here for some reason so I’m just going to have to break down and buy it. I made the mistake of not reading The Hours first and the movie was so atrocious that I have not been able to bring myself to read the book in spite of knowing Cunningham did a good job and is a passsionate Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway fan.

  10. You know, I haven’t quite been able to commit myself yet to Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf, but I’ve been eyeing her book about Willa Cather, which is quite a bit shorter (God, I sound like a fifteen-year-old school girl, don’t I?, worried about the length of a book.) I wanted to see “The Hours,” because I so loved Michael Cunningham’s book and thought he did such a good job of capturing the spirit and creative genius of Woolf (he got me on a real Woolf kick after years of meaning to read more of her and not doing so), but now I see that the movie can’t possibly do anything but disappoint, so I think I’ll skip it.

  11. Charlotte – I’ll swap you! 🙂 And actually, I’m being really cheeky, writing about The Hours through someone else’s perspective, having never seen it myself. I really should check out the nose before I cast aspersions on it!

    Jenny – I know, it IS some consolation! And if you fancy risking a bit of Woolf, try her essay, A Room of One’s Own. I found it very accessible (it was the first thing I read when still scared of her). And I also loved The Years, which is just a family story. Never did finish The Waves, however.

    ds – that is a really good point about performers – they do much better in biopics. And alas, men also do much better generally, too. I must read Lee’s biography – this book of essays is a treat and making me very interested in reading her full-length. Oh and lol about Ottoline Morrell – you are so right there!

    Bluestocking – lol! I liked Mrs Dalloway a lot – it’s one of Woolf’s more accessible books, I think. 🙂

    Bookboxed – have there been any films of Woolf’s novels? Oh I suppose they did Orlando a while back. She would not be the easiest author to transpose! And are you SURE you don’t have a famous body part. I think you should look closer. 😉 I think it’s one of the most difficult tasks set to the biographer to keep depth and contradiction in anyone’s life – it’s bound to be there, but it makes story telling so incoherent. But beyond that, the neurotic artist is a bit of a lazy stereotype. And thank you, I don’t do phlegm, seriously, I never get that kind of a cold – which makes sympathy for my silent colds hard to come by!

    Lilian – I am SO impressed when people can wiggle their ears. That looks so difficult to me! 🙂

    Dorothy – I know! Or indeed finding the time! But she is clearly a wonderful biographer.

    Pete – I think I like the idea of being compared to Cleopatra. Oh who am I trying to kid – I love it! I’ll ditch Woolf forthwith. But thank you for the article which looks just wonderful.

    Verbivore – if I had the time to spare, I’d research into the creative artist as I bet there are LOADS out there who were sane, cheerful and had just a fab time making stuff. The question is why we are so attracted to the idea of the artist as mad? Is it because someone has to be, and therefore such people are kept out of the way of normal society? It’s a conundrum, for sure.

  12. Darling LL, great post, and while I can’t make a claim on Woolf’s exact nose itself – sounds like you’ve got that sewn up – rest assured my own was the subject of much schoolyard ridicule and a site of deep adolescent shame and self-loathing! We’ve an uneasy peace now, my nose and I, but it’s still very fragile, and I need only to be caught in profile in a photograph to realise it shall be a lifelong struggle for acceptance. But I love the sound of Lee’s essay, and enjoy the upside of the film of The Hours, in that it introduced a whole new audience to Woolf’s writing, particularly that strange day in the life of Mrs Dalloway.

  13. My library has Hermione Lee’s book of essays, so I must go and check it out. Her biographies sound wonderful but slightly intimidating considering how long and involved (in a good way of course) they look. Poor VW must be turning in her grave to be depicted in a movie like that (one I’ve not seen and think maybe now I will just stick with the book).

  14. I had to go google V. Woolf’s nose to see. I think it’s a fine, distinguished nose. As both heads I know of attached to said nose have a talent for sniffing out good art, you should proudly keep making such excellent scents of literature.

  15. I must protest; I found The Hours movie wonderful; I loved the book and was enchanted by Mrs. Dalloway. I have since gone on to reread Mrs. Dalloway – getting much more out of it the second time and then I read To the Lighthouse which was incredible. I had zero idea who Virginia Woolf was until I heard about all the controversy of THE NOSE and Kidman and all the protests of the VW portrayal. I was furious at my education that I was not introduced to her (or I just failed to notice, it’s hard to blame anyone 25 years later) If they had never made the movie, I might still not know about Ms. Woolf. I hope to read her essays and more of her fiction. AND a bio.
    The movie of Mrs. Dalloway was well done; Vanessa Redgrave was excellent as Clarissa. I hope to soon see the movie To the Lighthouse.

  16. Litlove – I certainly agree. For every “mad” scientist or “absent-minded” professor or “insane” creative person, I’m sure there are 5 perfectly reasonable people in each profession, doing just as good work and able to interact with their peers and admirers. I’m not sure why these stereotypes persist, but I think they are equally destructive for both sides of the relationship – the creative individual and the public. And I’d love for you to do the research into the idea 🙂 I’d be the first to read it.

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