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Modernist Lives

Biography and Autobiography at Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press


Claire Battershill


Historicizing Modernism Series

London: Bloomsbury, 2018

Hardcover. xiii+231 p. ISBN 978-1350043817. £85


Reviewed by Cécile Beaufils

Sorbonne Université (Paris)



Modernist Lives, an in-depth study of a specific aspect of the publishing house The Hogarth Press, proposes a new, innovative outlook on a well-known and documented topic: the impressive popularity of biographical writings from the 1920s. The methodology which is developed in this book tackles the conditions of publishing in its material context, thanks to its archival dimension, as well as its generic, literary aspect. Claire Battershill, after an extensive work on The Hogarth Press archives, maps out the publishing house's relationship with biographies in an extremely detailed manner, which always includes new findings in a more general context. The book is divided into six chapters, followed by two extremely useful appendixes: the first one is a list of biographies and autobiographies and genre categories, and the second one is a list of prices, sales figures, etc. These two addenda are quite reader-friendly, and showcase a commendable attention to the reading experience and practical aspect of the text.

One of the main directive questions of the book is the issue of how literary categories are established and managed on a pragmatic level, and Claire Battershill leads her reader to question these pre-established categories in an extremely logical and progressive manner, with a constant attention to chronology which will be much appreciated by specialists and novices alike. The first chapter, entitled “ ‘Works of Merit’ : What the Hogarth Press Published (1917-1946)”, delves into the representation of literary genres in the publishing industry according to issues of revenue and literary prestige. Battershill immediately offers a panoramic view of the publishing house's profile, and seeks to establish the place biographies took during the period, using quantitative analyses of the various categories published by The Hogarth Press (translations, medical texts, travel, poetry, literary criticism, etc.) as well as nuances of said categories, by bringing together texts that may seem to belong to different genres like Vita Sackville-West's memoir, Pepita, and Virginia Woolf's Orlando.

The second chapter is a case study devoted to a specific category of books published by The Hogarth Press between 1920 and 1924, "Books on Tolstoi". As Claire Battershill argues, the publication of several biographies of the same author belongs to the modernist project: "in order to gain a real sense of a person, it is necessary to look at that life from a variety of different perspectives and to tell the life story using a variety of narrative methods." [16] In this case study, the author provides a detailed insight on these texts by several authors, often in translation. The third chapter covers the theoretical core of this investigation, which Claire Battershill calls "Elastic Categories : Debates about Biography and Autobiography (1923-1929)": she studies the impact of literary biographies in the literary world of the time. Battershill argues that current studies of the modernist publishing ecosystem would be "augmented by further examination of biography and its role in constructing the book world" [62], and such an outlook would shed light on present cultural hierarchies. Arguably the strongest argument of this study, this chapter focuses on a modernist trope, the "new", then on the impact of the reviews and essays written by Leonard Woolf, and finally Harold Nicolson's 1927 The Development of English Biography. The author provides evidence of the popularity of biographical writing by creating a dialogue between several critics of the period, in a comparative analysis that would have deserved more development, especially insofar as Battershill argues very convincingly that the Hogarth Press biographies have been crucial to our understanding of what constituted the "new biographies" of the period.

Several case studies are developed in the fourth chapter, with three emblematic works by Virginia Woolf: Orlando, Flush, and Roger Fry. Battershill examines the complex relationship between literary projects (and notably the precarious balance of fiction and biography), and the literary marketplace. Most convincing is the author's analysis of the marketing of Orlando: a work of fiction on occasion considered as biography, by certain booksellers. This chapter tackles theoretical issues like genre hybridity and the hierarchy of culture (wondering about issue of "seriousness" of certain works like Flush) in a convincing way. The last two chapters are devoted to later years of the publishing house, and respectively to their Biography Series, and to what Claire Battershill calls "Reticent Autobiografictions of Henry Green and Christopher Isherwood". She sees in particular how biographical texts were included in a general marketing strategy, how they were intended as didactic tools for children, and finally, how authors might walk a fine line between fiction and "truth-telling" [147].

Modernist Lives is then concluded by a helpful reflection on methodology, and the potential use of Digital Humanities to help work on archival material. All in all, this is an innovative outlook on The Hogarth Press, with which will interest both specialists of Modernism, book historians, and any researchers interested in new methodologies of archival analysis.



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