‘"But something betwixt and between": Roger Fry and the contradictions of biography’, in Contradictory Woolf, ed. by Derek Ryan and Stella Bolaki (Clemson: Clemson University Digital Press, 2012), pp. 82-7
This chapter forms part of an edited collection emerging from the 21st Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf, held at the University of Glasgow in June 2011. Print copies are available to order, but I’m very happy to see the online version is open access. [The series back catalogue is also available online, and I have a chapter on Orlando (1928) and the ‘limits’ of biographical representation in Woolfian Boundaries (2007).]
Although the paper evolved during the writing process, becoming increasingly concerned with the relationship between Woolf's theories of biography and Fry's theories of art and craft, I thought I would whet your appetite with a glimpse of my original abstract:
"But something betwixt and between": Roger Fry and the contradictions of biography
He chooses; he synthesises; in short, he has ceased to be the chronicler; he has become an artist. (‘The New Biography’, 1927)
And thus we come to the conclusion, that he is a craftsman, not an artist; and his work is not a work of art, but something betwixt and between. (‘The Art of Biography’, 1939)
Virginia Woolf’s Roger Fry (1940) remains the black sheep of the Woolfian canon. No critical edition is currently in print. It is conspicuously absent from the Penguin and Oxford ‘Classics’ lists, and though Vintage reproduces the text as part of its ‘Lives’ series, there is no scholarly introduction or editorial apparatus. It seems that Roger (to appropriate Woolf’s nickname for the work) has a bad reputation. This is due, in large part, to Woolf’s own response. In her diaries and letters, Roger becomes ‘donkey work & […] sober drudgery’, or nothing more than ‘a piece of cabinet making’. But it is the connection between Roger and ‘The Art of Biography’ that strikes the fatal blow.
This paper will explore Woolf’s contradictory theorising of biography, from the optimism of ‘The New Biography’ to the seeming retractions of ‘The Art of Biography’. Woolf bestows and then strips biography of its claim to art, with the result that Roger (contemporaneous with ‘The Art of Biography’) has been read as an embodiment of its conservative aesthetic. I will argue, however, that Woolf’s later writing on biography, far from enacting a volte face, serves to develop and adapt her earlier position. As such, I will offer a reassessment of Roger, using its method and practice to demonstrate an ongoing Woolfian experiment. In Roger, as in her earlier biographical works, Woolf exploits the productiveness of paradox and contradiction—that ‘something betwixt and between’ at the heart of ‘The Art of Biography’.