Biography complicates the life of an individual in the mind of a reader. Biographers enter the genre determined to present a specific reading of their subject’s life, and the various biographies of Virginia Woolf’s life are no different. Each biographer makes use of the tomes of letters and the volumes of diaries to present their perception of Woolf’s life.
MItchell Leaska’s Granite and Rainbow is no exception. Leaska’s biography engages the reader with fact, giving the reader confidence that they are reading the work of a masterful biographer. His portrayal of Woolf is that of a woman perpetually trying to come to terms with the death of her parents, Julia and Leslie Stephen, a woman purposefully needy to gain the attention and love of those closest to her—her sister Vanessa Bell, her lover Vita Sackville-West, and her husband Leonard Woolf. Leaska also portrays Woolf as a woman for whom work was the only thing that made her whole or real. These two needs come together in Leaska’s biography as constantly feeding from each other. Woolf writes to satiate her need for attention—letters begging for attention and novels begging for praise. Further, Leaska presents Woolf as a woman with an odd Electra complex, one where she constantly seeks to kill her mother to gain her father’s love, but only after the death of both parents.
Leaska’s evidence is well documented (and as a Woolf scholar, I appreciate this). However, we must keep in mind the impressive amounts of primary materials Woolf created during her life and remember that Leaska does not present all the possible information. The evidence presented most certainly supports his reading of Woolf; however, other Woolf biographers also use the same primary materials, though different excerpts, to support their own reading of Woolf. So while I appreciate Leaska’s reading of Woolf through the selected materials, I raise objections to his argument that Woolf’s neediness, her projected need for attention, praise, and love, was purposeful. There is no doubt Woolf suffered from mental health issues. There is no doubt that she was deeply affected by all the deaths that occurred at 22 Hyde Park Gate. These two facts alone make me question whether losing her parents, her brother, her half-sister all to death, and her sister to marriage led to a sincere need for attention and love or, as Leaska argues, motivated her to appear needy to receive her attention and love she desired.
I appreciate Leaska’s reading of Woolf’s life, but I cannot appreciate his reading alone. I appreciate Leaska’s reading of Woolf as part of a larger dialogue about Woolf’s life. I take his perspective on Woolf along with those of other biographers, as one reading of Woolf’s life. Yet, I also take his perspective into consideration with all the material available. The plethora of letters and diaries Leonard Woolf chose to pass on for posterity offer a much more nuanced reading of Woolf, and I firmly believe that the only way to begin to understand this much more nuanced reading of Woolf’s life comes from critically reading the many perspectives on her life in concert with her own writings about her life.