Posted by: zhiv | March 13, 2011

Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf: Orlando as a Comment on the DNB

Orlando is often read as the light and easy, high-spirited romp composed by Virgina Woolf in the midst of the experimental sequence that goes from Mrs. Dalloway to To The Lighthouse and towards The Waves. It’s a critique of the genre of biography, using fiction to explore concepts of character and history that are beyond the bounds of fact. The radical gender shift in the book captures attention, Orlando going from male to female, and causes critical forces to turn to Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West, the aristocratic primary model for the main character. That gender transformation is a signature modernist ploy, as striking and memorable as the way in which Mrs. Ramsay’s death takes place in a parenthesis. It’s an important and brilliant literary flourish, part of a breezy and spritely story and book. The jeu d’esprit approach is obviously intentional, meant to counter the dignity and seriousness of traditional biography.

We encounter and understand character in history through biography. By starting Orlando in the Renaissance, Woolf makes a reference to the early tradition of biography predating Johnson’s Life of Savage, his Lives of the Poets, and Boswell’s masterwork, while making contact with Sackville-West’s family origins. One could talk about the changes going on in society at the point where Orlando switches genders, but I don’t remember the book well enough (having read it 30 years ago) to do so. My vague sense is that Orlando’s gender switch corresponds to the transition from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, which would make sense. At any rate, my question is the degree to which Orlando’s character is determined by biographical convention and practice over the course of the different eras in which she lives.

But let’s try to get past Boswell and the 18th century and do a ham-fisted review of 19th century biography, which at first seems to be the primary target of Woolf’s experiment in fictional biography. Biography, it can be said, evolved in the 19th century along the same lines as both science and art. Boswell’s work showed the ability of the genre to capture character and humanity on an unprecedented scale. It suggested that, given the right subject, biography might be infinitely interesting, that we would want to know every detail about a person, every movement, statement, or thought. Boswell’s program modeled Johnson’s own biographical practice, but it was blown up onto a grand scale by Boswell’s infectious hero-worship. Johnson showed how to use letters, anecdotes, and literary remains to create a clear and complete biographical portrait, refining form and style in the neoclassical manner of the Enlightenment, along the same lines as general practice in art and science. Boswell’s hero-worship and grandiosity was a progression in pace with the rising current of Romanticism, a celebration of the limitless individual, while his subject was human, flawed, and classical, the celebrated, beleaguered author of The Vanity of Human Wishes.

The next great biography after Boswell, if I recall correctly, is J.G. Lockhart’s Life of Sir Walter Scott. It proposes that Scott, as the central literary celebrity, besides Byron, of the early 19th century, is worthy of the same intensive biographical attention that Boswell gave Johnson. And it is nearly true. At the same time, subjects from the romantic and revolutionary era, world figures like Napoleon, Goethe, Nelson and Byron called out for biographical analysis. Authors like Carlyle and Macaulay practiced the genre with fierce intelliegence, great learning,and strong opinions on morality and character, along with an attempt to understand the relationship between the individual and history, the question that lies at the crossroads between biography and history. The painstaking philosophical argument about the historical meaning of biography was set against the development of ideas about geological time and evolution, and the scientific revolution of Darwinism.

By 1860 standard biographical practice and ethics were established along the two-volume Victorian Life and Letters model that, over the next 40 years, became the subject of Stracheyan irony and derision. Biography became industrialized alongside the British economy. Morality and social duty homogenized character in a genre that was created to study the individual. Biography began to encounter an exhaustion in form and style at the same time as similar developments took place in art and the novel. Academic painting gave way to Impressionism and a radical change in style and subject, photography emerged, and Realism, Natualism, and Aetheticism transformed the novel. Froude’s Life of Carlyle is generally seen as the watershed late-Victorian biography, where the darker truths about the life of a literary icon were finally included, defying stilted ethical considerations. Like Johnson in the 18th century, a primary innovator and practitioner of the genre transformed it as a subject. Carlyle, a reluctant subject of biography just like Johnson, insisted on truth, and Froude’s truth was dark, problematic and seemingly unworthy of a sage. The 80’s gave way to the 90’s, when the scientific revolution progressed towards the psychological sophistication of William James and Sigmund Freud, and George Eliot and Tolstoy gave way to Wilde and Chekhov.

While the end of 19th century biography is littered with the carcasses of lifeless 2-volume standards, it is actually dominated by a massive and effective countertext, Leslie Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography. One part of the end of the 19th century was the general attempt, after evolution and Darwin had taken hold, to fulfill the original principles and goals of the Enlightenment and the French Encyclopedie. The DNB was the quiet, steady companion of the famous 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and the Oxford English Dictionary, and a good study might be made in comparing and contrasting these synchronous monumental works. In creating the DNB and determining his own participation in it, Leslie Stephen revisited Samuel Johnson’s original neoclassical model in his Lives of the Poets, and combined it with the enlightenment program of Johnson’s own Dictionary. But the form of the individual biographies in the DNB is most significant, seen when they are set against the concurrent crisis in biographical form and style at the end of the 19th century. Stephen rewrites and updates Johnson’s Lives, while adding the primary subsequent literary figures, and he does so according to his “science of biography,” principles of practice in accord with the current development of realism and photography. Alongside the famous “no flowers by request” dictum is a complete absence of Boswell’s hero-worship. The facts and deeds will speak for themselves, along with the most concise analysis, evaluation, and summation possible. Samuel Johnson showed the way, and Stephen refined it, doing so at the same time that Dr. Chekhov began using surgical practice and concision to transform fiction.

And Johnson showed the way too, in his dictionary, that the simple gathering and review of materials and statement of facts was a truly Herculean task. Stephen took up the challenge, and he was broken by the process and the grind, but the DNB was much bigger than he was. It was well-launched, and Stephen gave it everything that he had. It was a crowning literary achievement, one that might have given him timeless fame if he didn’t have a profound reticence. “Mr. Ramsay” was always haunted by the idea that he had fallen short somehow, that even at his youthful, George Mallory-best, he would never quite make it to the top of the ultimate peak. Somehow he didn’t believe that he deserved to get there, and he buried his work and veiled his ambition in the vast snows of the DNB, the frozen body of his own life and work hidden, like Mallory’s, near the summit, Just as Woolf sketched out in To The Lighthouse. He believed himself a footnote, and presented himself that way. Again, his absence is closer to Chekhov, the writer and biographer’s elimination of personal and autobiographical material, in an attempt to create classical simplicity.

Virginia Woolf grew up under the paternal tutelage of this great biographer, and it can be said that her literary parentage included the DNB itself. In 1926 she completed the fiction that began as an attempt to tell the story of “the old man,” and To The Lighthouse is, of course, a family portrait worthy of the highest artistic tradition. It is deeply imbued with modern painting technique, from Manet and Van Gogh through Cezanne to Gauguin and Picasso. And it rejects Realism and Rationalist philosophy, while it celebrates pastoral lyricism and concision. Woolf had been possessed for many years, intermittently to the level of mania and obsession, by the presence of her dead parents and the haunting images of her childhood. She liberated herself by capturing them and her family ethos in a work of fiction, a classic modernist text.

And then Orlando. Liberated and feeling a new spirit, Woolf created her most light and joyful mature text, one which shows a playful mastery and exploration of the possibilities of modernist technique. It provides all sorts of avenues for interpretation, beginning with gender studies. Just as obvious and inviting is its companionship to Woolf’s close friend Lytton Strachey’s biographical oeuvre, which includes not just Eminent Victorians but also Queen Victoria and Elizabeth and Essex. Orlando seems intended, like Eminent Victorians, to make standard 19th century character and biography look bad, to highlight its perfunctory limitations and numbing reticence, its banal morality and lifelessness.

But what do we make of Orlando in the present context, reviewing the general tradition of biography and the specific work and practice of “the old man”? The salient fact of Orlando as biographical critique is the way in which it crosses epochal lines and encompasses history. It directly addresses the central Carlylean conceit of the individual in history from the standpoint of fiction. It’s most interesting, perhaps, as an attempt to encapsulate the entire DNB, to write the whole of British history, in a single biography. Woolf leaves the character of her father behind in To The Lighthouse, where Mr. Ramsay appears in Leslie Stephen’s core, essential guise, as a failed philosopher and shipwrecked adventurer. In Orlando she addresses the broadest imaginable canvas of his literary work, his attempt to create a monument of British biography, one that will, in its turn, define British history. She wants to present the ambition of the DNB in one book, one lifestory, honoring both her friend and her father while making a powerful statement of the power of fiction and literature, and making it all look easy. The child, once carried towards the summit on her father’s shoulders, finds herself a mature artist, her technique and style both masterful and effortless. What was once so hard and so taxing for a parent, is now so easy, a plaything for liberated woman artist.



  1. This is another reason to return to Orlando, which I read probably 15 or so years ago (so it should be twice as clear in my mind as it is in yours? I doubt it) — in order to think about biography more. That sounds great to me, having become MUCH more interested in the genre over the last decade or so. Your account of Orlando is great. I won’t do this, but it would be fun to read Johnson’s Life of Savage (haven’t gotten to it), then Eminent Victorians (not yet), and then Orlando.

  2. The DNB and Leslie Stephens is a allusion in the novel but how and why does it function in the text?

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