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Book Review: Modernist Lives

Dr Anne Reus, Sheffield Hallam University.

Claire Battershill, Modernist Lives: Biography and Autobiography at Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press (London: Bloomsbury, 2018)

Claire Battershill’s Modernist Lives moves the discussion of biography in the 1920s and 30s into the Hogarth Press Archives, not only shedding light on the Press’s commercial operation, but expanding our knowledge of Modernist life-writing and its contexts in the process. Combining literary studies and book history, Battershill presents a literary history of life-writing that challenges our tendencies to equate the Hogarth Press with Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury, and showcases the eclecticness of form that characterizes contemporary life-writing.

Battershill begins with a defence of the Press as an independent entity. In addition to Woolf’s oeuvre, it published a diverse and heterogeneous selection of books across all genres and followed the double imperative of selecting works of merit that would not have found a publisher elsewhere. With modes of production ranging from small batches of hand-printed pamphlets to commercial print-runs in larger quantities, ‘the Woolfs took what might now seem like the somewhat eccentric view that each title should earn its way both financially and aesthetically, regardless of category’ (26). As Battershill makes clear, this willingness to publish books on their own terms encouraged the flourishing of experimental life-writing which fell between traditional categories: ‘many biographical and autobiographical books published by the Press are trying even as they are published to work out what exactly they are’ (29).

The next five chapters offer an insight into the different forms this questioning could take. The ‘Books on Tolstoi’, published between 1920 and 1923, were the Press’s first foray into life-writing and offer a Russian influence on contemporary biographical debates. Maxim Gorky’s fragmentary Reminiscences of Tolstoi (1920), Sophie Tolstoy’s female autobiography, Tolstoy’s love letters (notably not to his wife), and a book of ‘table talk’ employ a range of different narrative methods to present competing interpretations of Tolstoy’s life. To Battershill, this signals ‘an act of Modernist cultural intervention’ (38): these slim and stylistically experimental volumes supplant the traditional Victorian celebration of the Great Man of Letters and usher in the theoretical debates of the New Biography.

Battershill draws on Leonard Woolf’s declaration of ‘the age of the biography’ (61) to examine contemporary debates on the history, form and future of biography. The chapter serves as an excellent reminder that Nigel Nicholson’s Development of English Biography (1927) participates in many of the same debates as the better-known theories of Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf, but its most innovative feature lies in the detailed attention paid to Leonard Woolf’s double perspective as publisher and literary critic. Battershill argues that Woolf invites readerly perspectives by legitimizing pleasure as a crucial factor in the production and consumption of biography: with an interest in substance (i.e., the suitability of a life) rather than form, Woolf’s criteria for a successful biography differ from those of his contemporaries.

Chapter 4 returns to firmly (Virginia) Woolfian ground: the discussion of the marketing, pricing and selling of Orlando (1928) and Flush (1933) serves as a useful reminder that Modernist experiments did not happen in a vacuum and had real life financial consequences for authors and publishers. However, Battershill also adds immensely to critical discussions of Woolf’s life writing by offering a thoughtful and nuanced evaluation of Roger Fry (1940). Rather than dismissing it as a failure of Woolf’s previous experimental method, she finds continuity in Woolf’s use of images and patterns, which also recall Fry’s own influence on her writing and perfectly suit its status as commemorative biography.

To balance this canonical focus, Batterhill next examines two little-known and short-lived biographical series commissioned by the Hogarth Press in the 1930s. Leonard Woolf’s Biographies Through the Eyes of Contemporaries, inspired by a French series, sought to present great writers in their historical context: the well-researched volumes dispensed with narration and explicit author interference and instead traced lives through historical documents only. Conversely, World-Makers and World-Shakers was not far of Victorian exemplary biography: the series consisted of short, readable lives of famous historical figures targeted at children. While neither series found a large readership, Battershill shows that they form an attempt to ‘shape modern culture by staging debates about contemporary literary critical and cultural ideas’ (121) through the Press’s publishing catalogue.

The final chapter offers a brief analysis of late modernism at the Hogarth Press: Christopher Isherwood and Henry Green’s autobiografictions refuse the absolute candidness readers had come to expect from life-writing, but are written with confessional urgency in the face of World War II. Again, material reality impacts literary forms: paper rationing during the war years limited the Press’s ability to print and market new works outside its core collection of Virginia Woolf’s works, leading to its transformation into a Chattoo & Windus imprint in 1946.

Modernist Lives feels like a series of snapshots that barely scratch the surface of a long neglected resource. Without doubt, Battershill successfully demonstrates that publishers’ archives offer a practical route into the reality of contemporary literary debates. One of the books greatest strengths is Battershill’s deft combination of archival research and literary analysis: the radically different focus of these chapters clearly shows how reductive equating Modernist life-writing with the New Biography and similar canonical texts can be. While this eclecticism sometimes works at the cost of deeper analysis, most of all, it suggests a wide open field for future research – not least on Leonard Woolf: he emerges from his wife’s shadow as a perceptive literary critic and publisher whose role in shaping Modernist biography is still not fully acknowledged.

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