Woolf, Bloomsbury, the ‘New Biography’, and the New Auto/biografiction

Max Saunders

in Self Impression

Published in print March 2010 | ISBN: 9780199579761
Published online May 2010 | e-ISBN: 9780191722882 | DOI:
Woolf, Bloomsbury, the ‘New Biography’, and the New Auto/biografiction

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This chapter focuses on the British modernist whose work represents the most sustained fictionalising engagement with biography. It recounts changes in biographical theory in Woolf's lifetime; especially her father's Dictionary of National Biography; the influence of Freud on Bloomsbury; Woolf's own critical discussions of biography; and New Criticism's antagonism to biographical interpretation; though it also draws on recent biographical criticism of Woolf. It discusses Jacob's Room and Flush, but concentrates on Orlando, arguing that it draws on the notions of imaginary and composite portraits discussed earlier. Whereas Orlando is often read as a ‘debunking’ of an obtuse biographer‐narrator, it shows how Woolf's aims are much more complex. First, the book's historical range is alert to the historical development of biography; and that the narrator is no more fixed than Orlando, but transforms with each epoch. Second, towards the ending the narrator begins to sound curiously like Lytton Strachey, himself the arch‐debunker of Victorian biographical piety. Thus Orlando is read as both example and parody of what Woolf called ‘The New Biography’. The chapter reads Woolf in parallel with Harold Nicolson's The Development of English Biography, and also his book Some People—a text whose imaginary (self)portraiture provoked her discussion of ‘The New Biography’ as well as contributing to the conception of Orlando.

Keywords: modernism; biography; Leslie Stephen; Dictionary of National Biography; Sigmund Freud; Bloomsbury; Virginia Woolf; new criticism; Jacob's Room; flush; Orlando; imaginary portrait; composite portrait; Photograph; Lytton Strachey; eminent Victorians; the new biography; Harold Nicolson; The Development of English Biography; some people; Vita Sackville‐West; auto/biografiction; Victorian; Rachel Bowlby; Hermione Lee; Lambert Orme; fictional creativity; imaginary authorship

Chapter.  23033 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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