This fictitious life: Virginia Woolf on biography, reality, and character

Philosophy and Literature 31 (1):1-40 (2007)
Abstract
In the growing body of academic literature on biography that has developed in the last few decades, Virginia Woolf's essay, "The New Biography,"1 has come to occupy a central place—mentioned, discussed and quoted from, I would estimate, more often than any other piece of writing on the subject. Virginia Woolf's distinctive view of the nature and limitations of biography has thus had, and continues to have, a deep and wide-ranging influence on the way the genre is discussed by critics and theorists. My aim in this essay is to present a detailed analysis of Virginia Woolf's thinking about biography in order to make clear why I believe its influence on contemporary theorising about biography is, on the whole, a misfortune. As is often pointed out, Virginia Woolf's views on biography are closely connected with—indeed, to an extent that I hope to make clear, they are simply an application of—her views on fiction. In the light of this, I have tried to trace some of the most striking features of her thinking about biography back to her earlier thoughts on fiction, as presented in both her novels and her essays. The result, I hope, will be that, while the attractions of her way of looking at fiction and biography are recognised and revealed, the manifest flaws in her thinking on these subjects are clearly exposed
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