“A self in process”: contemporary biofictions of Virginia Woolf
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date25/01/2024
Chen, Nicole Xuan
This thesis studies the presence of Virginia Woolf as the protagonist-subject in a sudden plethora of contemporary biofictions published within decades or so from the end of last century. The main hypothesis of this research is that, while biofiction has been accused of as a necrophiliac genre that contaminates life-writing with fiction, it can transmit contemporary writers’ diverse outlooks on the protagonist-subject’s life and work and present responsible interpretive readings of the protagonist-subject’s life with novelistic techniques and imaginative creativity. While contemporary biofictions stage various, competing and even contradictory versionings of Woof, collectively they expand the scope of Woolf’s life and the contour of her self and explore those secrets and historical pasts that have no definite answers, thus engaging with reconfiguring Woolf’s afterlife. To substantiate these arguments and reveal how biofictions present what Woolf calls “the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggest and engenders” (“TAOB” 150), I analyse the following works: Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Norah Vincent’s Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf, Susan Sellers’s Vanessa and Virginia, Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel, and Gillian Freeman’s But Nobody Lives in Bloomsbury. The first and second chapters intend to build up a theoretical context for this project. As a response to the surprising gap between the momentum this hybrid genre has gained since the late twentieth century and the dearth of scholarship in this field, Chapter 1 presents a systematic theoretical framework of biofiction by answering the following questions: (1) how do we define biofiction? (2) are there any generic features of biofiction and how do they help us to distinguish biofiction from its neighbouring genres? and (3) is biofiction fiction, non-fiction, or a hybrid genre locating in a spectrum of life-writing between fiction and scholarly biography? Basing on the premise that the “historical-author-as-character” tradition serves as an agile “thermometer” to the question of authorship, Chapter 2 centres on contemporary biofiction writers’ obsession with writing the lives of literary forebears and traces its pre-history alongside with the emergence and consolidation of the modern authorship. To interrogate the kinship between biofictions of literary writers and modernist experiments with life- writing and Künstlerroman, I take key figures for case studies, including Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf. Set against this theoretical groundwork, Chapters 3, 4 and 5 seek to conduct textual analyses on the cluster of biofictions featuring Woolf and examine their different modalities of fictional reconfiguration. Chapter 3 focuses on Woolf’s “madness,” including her mode of being as an experiential subject of illness and the relationship between her illness and literary artistry, and interrogates how it is negotiated, re- purposed, and represented in works by Cunningham and Vincent. In Chapter 4, I examine the reconfiguration of the artist duo – Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf – in Sellers’s biofiction and argue that those ekphrastic episodes embody the convergence and mutual influence of the sisters’ sister arts and interrogate the efficacy of language and visual images as media for life-writing. Utilising works by Freeman and Parmar as cases studies, Chapter 5 demonstrates ways contemporary writers excavate Woolf’s public selves in the Bloomsbury Group and infuse Woolf’s reflection on such issues as selfhood, coterie, and conversation as art in their representation of Woolf. Finally, in the Conclusion section, I point out how contemporary biofictions collectively highlight the polysemy, nebulousness and contingency of Woolf’s life and character and exhibit a self that is porous, elastic, and multi-faceted.