Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On biography: Woolf and Fell

In participating in an on-line group read of Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf, I've also been part of a larger conversation about biography: Do we approach biography primarily through the lens of a puzzle or a question or through an emotional identification with the subject?

Virginia Woolf had a fascination with biography. This shouldn't surprise us: Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, laid his claim to fame in part on biography: he was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and wrote many of the entries for it. Woolf, in turned, strained to envision a biography that would push beyond the hagiographic and genteel Victorian conventions of her father's day to arrive at a more authentic depiction of a subject's life. 

Woolf explored what she called moments of being and non-being. Non-being she understood as the normal, repetitive routines of life that we largely forget--she mentions her daily walks in Hyde Park as a child as examples of non-being. She knows she took them, but largely can't remember anything about most of them. I think of doing laundry as a college and graduate student: I know I did it, but mostly have forgotten any details. In contrast, Woolf identified moments of being as those moments we remember, moments that are luminous. She tried, in part through voluminous journaling, to capture are many moments as possible, so that they could (possibly) become moments of being.

Yet she recognized in women's lives in her era that much of existence was in moments of non-being. How does one capture these moments and give them being? Woolf  attempted to create a form of biography that would tell the reality of a woman's life, including non-being, by writing a fictional biography of a fictional subject: it's a fascinating example of how she uses fiction to work out intellectual problems.  In this work, she gets beyond hagiography to show the reality (ironically through fiction) of a woman's life.

 Biography being much on my own mind, I am thinking of trying to write a short sketch of a real historical woman (rather than create a fiction), in which I would enter into her life primarily emotionally rather than through a question or a puzzle. I finally, in one of those flashes of insight one has, settled on Margaret Fell, one of the founders of Quakerism and later wife of George Fox, usually credited as Quakerism's founder, and am reading a biography of her written in 1913.

My flash of insight--and this is where I am willing to get fictional as I simply at this point don't "know"--is that while Fell was an extremely intelligent woman (definitely a foremother to Woolf) and deeply, sincerely, a religious woman,  the emotion that may have driven her was being in love with Fox. That's a woman's trope, and for that reason might be denigrated, but the feminist in me wants to celebrate it as a worthy component of an intelligent, active, ethical life. I see it too as a parallel to Woolf--love for men and women was a deeply motivating force in her life's work.

Margaret Fell, from an etching in which she and other family members wait on a great man, presumably Fox.

It also seems to me a parallel exists in Ruth von Kleist-Retzow being in love (if we allow, as we should, a 60-something woman and grandmother  sexual feelings) with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In Ruth's case, the best she could do was to arrange an engagement between Bonhoeffer and a granddaughter who reminded her of herself, and satisfy herself vicariously with that. Margaret, though a decade older than Fox, was actually able to marry him after her first husband died.

Will I do this? I don't know: I have a busy fall schedule: but I find it interesting to think about. I also wonder why I lit on another religious figure rather than a literary figure. I also don't know enough about Fell to know if I truly have an emotional affinity. Jane Austen would be another possibility. Who would you do?

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