Books

Penelope Fitzgerald

Hermione Lee

Winner of the James Tait Black Prize for Biography 2014
Winner of the Plutarch Award for Best Biography
New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916–2000) was a great English writer, who would never have described herself in such grand terms. Her novels were short, spare masterpieces, self-concealing, oblique and subtle. She won the Booker Prize for her novel Offshore in 1979, and her last work, The Blue Flower, was acclaimed as a work of genius. The early novels drew on her own experiences – a boat on the Thames in the 1960s; the BBC in war time; a failing bookshop in Suffolk; an eccentric stage-school. The later ones opened out to encompass historical worlds which, magically, she seemed to possess entirely: Russia before the Revolution; post-war Italy; Germany in the time of the Romantic writer Novalis.

Fitzgerald’s life is as various and as cryptic as her fiction. It spans most of the twentieth century, and moves from a Bishop’s Palace to a sinking barge, from a demanding intellectual family to hardship and poverty, from a life of teaching and obscurity to a blaze of renown. She was first published at sixty and became famous at eighty. This is a story of lateness, patience and persistence: a private form of heroism.

Loved and admired, and increasingly recognised as one of the outstanding novelists of her time, she remains, also, mysterious and intriguing. She liked to mislead people with a good imitation of an absent-minded old lady, but under that scatty front were a steel-sharp brain and an imagination of wonderful reach. This brilliant account – by a biographer whom Fitzgerald herself admired – pursues her life, her writing, and her secret self, with fascinated interest.

Edith Wharton

Hermione Lee

The name 'Edith Wharton' conjures up 'Gilded Age' New York, in all its snobbery and ruthlessness - the world of The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. But this definitive biography by Hermione Lee overturns the stereotype. This Edith Wharton is not the genteel, nostalgic chronicler of a vanished age but a fiercely modern woman, writing of sex and incest, love and war - a woman of passionate conviction and conflicting ambitions and desires.

Born in 1862 during the Civil War, Wharton broke away from her wealthy background. She travelled adventurously in Europe, eventually settling in Paris: during the First World War she committed herself to war-work, and lived in France, her 'second country' until her death in 1937. She created fabulous homes in New England and in France, and her life was filled with remarkable friends, including Henry James, Bernard Berenson, Aldous Huxley and Kenneth Clark. She ran her professional life with fierce energy, but she also had her secrets, including a passionate mid-life love-affair, recorded in a coded diary. She was unhappily married, childless, and divorced, and knew loneliness and anguish. Her brilliant, disturbing fiction shows her deep understanding of the longing and struggle in women's lives.

This masterly new biography draws on new material and delves into every aspect of Wharton's extraordinary life-story. It shifts the emphasis towards Europe, placing her in her social context and her history. In particular, it shows in fascinating detail how she worked and what lies at the heart of her magnificent and subtle books.

Selected Letters

Virginia Woolf (and others)

EDITED BY JOANNE TRAUTMANN BANKS, WITH A PREFACE BY HERMIONE LEE

The finest and most enjoyable of Virginia Woolf's letters are brought together in a single volume. It is a marvellous collection - spontaneous, witty, often flirtatious and powerfully moving. Whether bemoaning some domestic travail, commenting publicly on the state of the nation, or discussing cultural, artistic or personal concerns, Virginia Woolf is one of the great correspondents. This volume displays not only Woolf's courage and brilliance, her generosity and love of gossip, but also her genius for close and enduring friendship.

Body Parts

Hermione Lee

As readers, we seem to be increasingly fascinated by studies of individual lives. In this timely, unusual and exhilarating collection Hermione Lee is concerned in different ways with approaches to 'life-writing': the relation of biography to fiction and history; the exploration of writers' lives in connection with their works; the new and changing ways in which biographies, memoirs, diaries and autobiographies can be discussed.

As the title suggests, she also unravels the complex links between physical, sensual details and the 'body' of a work. 'Shelley's Heart and Pepys' Lobsters', for example, deals with myths, contested objects and things that go missing, while 'Jane Austen Faints' takes five varied accounts of the same dramatic moment to ask how biography deals with the private lives of famous women, a theme taken up in 'Virginia Woolf's Nose', on the way that the author's life-stories have been transformed into fiction and film.

Rich, diverting and entertaining, these brilliant studies by a leading critic and internationally acclaimed biographer raise profound and intriguing issues about every aspect of writing, and reading, a life.

Virginia Woolf

Hermione Lee

Hermione Lee sees Virginia Woolf afresh, in her historical setting and as a vital figure for our times. Her book moves freely between a richly detailed life-story and new attempts to understand crucial questions - the impact of her childhood, the cause and nature of her madness and suicide, the truth about her marriage, her feelings for women, her prejudies and obsessions. This is a vivid, close-up portrait, returning to primary sources, and showing Woolf as occupying a distinct, even uneasy position with 'Bloomsbury'. It is a writer's life, illustrating how the concerns of her work arise and develop, and a political life, which establishes Woolf as a radically sceptical, subversive, courageous feminist. Incorporating newly discovered sources and illustrated with photos and drawings never used before, this biography is a revelation -informed, intelligent and moving.

A Room Of One's Own And Three Guineas

Virginia Woolf (and others)

WITH AN INTRODUCTION, PLUS EXTENSIVE NOTES AND REFERENCES BY HERMIONE LEE

This volume combines two books which were among the greatest contributions to feminist literature this century. Together they form a brilliant attack on sexual inequality. A Room of One's Own, first published in 1929, is a witty, urbane and persuasive argument against the intellectual subjection of women, particularly women writers. The sequel, Three Guineas, is a passionate polemic which draws a startling comparison between the tyrannous hypocrisy of the Victorian patriarchal system and the evils of fascism.

Biography

Hermione Lee is a biographer, critic, and teacher of literature. Her previous books include the internationally acclaimed biography, Virginia Woolf ('One of the most impressive biographies of the decade: moving, eloquent, powerful', Financial Times) and Edith Wharton ('A feat of exhaustive research... a glorious biography', Independent on Sunday), as well as books on Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather and Philip Roth. Her collection of essays on life-writing, Body Parts, was published in 2005, and her Biography: A Very Short Introduction in 2009. She is the President of Wolfson College Oxford. In 2013 she was made a Dame for services to Literary Scholarship. She lives in Oxford and Yorkshire.