Virginia Woolf marks one of the many returns of literary scholar and historian Hermione Lee to perhaps her favorite subject: the letters, memory, and ghost of Virginia Stephen Woolf. The biographer charts her subject's life according to distinct themes, and at each point shows how Virginia's memories of her childhood, siblings, parents, and husband (and nearly everything else) inform her subsequent literary work and shaped her psychological traumas. Lee argues that Virginia's genius lay not only in her artistic talents, but in her psychological and physical fortitude. Virginia did not cave to her "madness;" she fought with severe depression, courageously, for nearly her entire life, and perhaps only allowed her despair to overcome her out of love for her husband and respect for his work, a notion noble, strange, and sad. Virginia's suicide in 1941, Lee argues, represents the conclusion of a fifty-nine year battle, but does not represent defeat: "She endured... great agony of mind and severe physical pain, with remarkable little self-pity." As a cutting-edge modernist writer, Virginia "would have been horrified by interpretations of her work which reduced it to a coded expression of neurotic symptoms."
Lee writes a thorough, spirited, and complete biography of Virginia; further works on the great modernist author can only seek to add additional historical context to Virginia's time and place, or perhaps bring to bear new snippets of fact regarding her life. Lee's accomplishment stands as the pinnacle of historical work on Virginia Woolf. Lee relies on many primary and secondary sources, and the work of other historians, but her biography presents a uniquely compassionate portrait of Virginia as a writer and a human being. Attempts to sum Virginia's character (or even the character of her biography) threaten to undermine the power of Lee's accomplishment. Virginia Woolf seems so familiar in the popular consciousness, that the mere mention of her name evokes envy, annoyance, and admiration in every writer. Her death seems, all at once, tragic, wonderful, and pathetic. Lee's Virginia would understand such mixed reactions. At one point, Virginia reflects on her own memory of herself, and plaintively asks a friend, "Do you like that girl?" She tentatively replies to her own question: "I'm not sure I do, though I think she had some spirit in her..."