Rethinking the Art of Biography: Virginia Woolf's Orlando and Writing a Life of One's Own

Dr. Sylvia Shurbutt
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Writing to tell one’s story, or "to write," as it were, one’s life, Carolyn Heilbrun has posited the proposition that there will be no true narratives of women's lives until [women] cease to live their lives isolated in the houses and in the fiction of men (Writing a Woman's Life 47). Virginia Woolf addressed this issue in her brilliant, satirical tour de force of biographical "revisioning," Orlando. Commonly studied and taught as Woolf's tribute both to androgyny and to her aristocratic lover, Vita Sackville West, Orlando is a rich and creative rendering of Woolf ideas about the nature of art (literary art in particular), being an artist, and the relationship between art and life—a relationship made all the more complex if the artist happened to be a woman. Framing the dilemma with poignant clarity in A Room of One's Own, Woolf wrote: "Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body?"
Orlando, however, is also brilliant satire, of the most delicious sort, of the art of biography, inspired by Lawrence Sterne's irreverent pseudo-biography Tristram Shandy. Like Tristram’s biographic narrative, Woolf's telling of Orlando's life turns both traditional biography and story-telling upside down. What Woolf gives the reader is not only superb satire and a lively and original tale but an extraordinary "revisioning" of the art of biography, a revisioning of the “book” calculated to pale those eminent Victorian’s life stories. This paper will explore Woolf's unique and artful revisioning of the “book.”

Keywords: Revisioning Biography
Stream: Books, Writing and Reading
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Dr. Sylvia Shurbutt

Professor of English, Department of English and Modern Languages, Shepherd University
Shepherdstown, West Virginia, USA

Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt received her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia in 1982 in British Literature and Linguistics. She currently teaches in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Shepherd University, where she is Director of the Appalachian Heritage Writers Project and the West Virginia New Writers Fiction Competition. Shurbutt also serves as the University Representative to and State Chair of the Advisory Council of Faculty in the state of West Virginia; she was chosen WV Professor of the Year in 2006 by the WV Merit Council. Shurbutt's recent publications include biographies/critical studies of Zelda Fitzgerald, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Flannery O'Connor for Scribner's American Writers series (Jay Parini, editor), as well as a study of the work of Margaret Atwood for the World Writers Series. Shurbutt has published in Women and Language, The Southern Literary Journal, Southern Humanities Review, Women's Studies Journal, Essays in Literature, Victorian Poetry, and a variety of other scholarly and interdisciplinary journals. Book publications include Reading/Writing Relationships (Kendall Hunt, 1986), the introduction to Caroline Norton's Lost and Saved (Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1989), and "Writing Lives and Telling Tales: Visions and Revisions" in Untying the Tongue: Gender, Power and the Word (Greenwood Press, 1998).

Ref: B07P0042