The naked truth

FROM HER DESK IN AN OAK-PANELLED room in New York Public Library, Hermione Lee can see the tattered remains of the splendid building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 42nd Street where the aristocratic, 17-year-old Edith Wharton had her coming-out party.

This being New York, of course, a new building is currently going up on the site, but Lee, a distinguished critic and award-winning biographer, is relishing living in the middle of the childhood landscape of the American novelist, who is the subject of her next biography - previous subjects include Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen and Willa Cather - which she is writing in the city while on a year’s unpaid leave from Oxford University, where she is a Fellow of New College.

We meet behind the scenes at the library, that magnificent Beaux Arts building that contains 50 million items and which offers the astonishing gift of silence from the relentless clamour outside. Lee has a room of her own here since she is a Cullman scholar, with a year’s residency at the library, a recipient of one of those uniquely American awards endowed by wealthy, philanthropic couples.

Dressed in chic monochrome, she bears no resemblance to the archetypal bluestocking and is an entertaining conversationalist. The first woman Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford, she has just published Body Parts: Essays on Life-writing, a collection of authoritative writings on literary lives in which she artfully examines the way in which a life can be brought home to us, the "greedy readers" of biography, with our insatiable appetite for detail and story.

Her wise and witty body of evidence, some of it culled and expanded from reviews and lectures, features Shelley’s heart and Pepys’s lobsters (we encounter Napoleon’s penis in the same chapter), Yeats’s bones, Einstein’s brain and Virginia Woolf’s nose (note Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic proboscis in The Hours, the Oscar-winning film based on Michael Cunningham’s novel; Lee’s biography of Woolf was one of the sources used for both). She also discusses the many versions of Jane Austen’s faint on being told the family was to leave Steventon for Bath - "one of the most dramatic moments in her life, and one of the places where all Austen’s biographers have to decide what to do with the handed-down family versions".

How, she asks, do biographers deal with the life of the mind and the life of the body? Not just the living body, but the dead one too. She notes the tremendous fascination we all have with the bodily relics of famous people, such as our interest in exactly what happened to Thomas Hardy’s heart - allegedly eaten by his cat - and Shelley’s corpse.

The life of the body, she points out, plays much more of a part in contemporary biographical narratives: "Masturbation, dental work, body odour, menstruation, gonorrhoea, addictions, and sexual preferences are all permissible subjects." Nothing would be out of bounds, she insists, if she were to discover something shocking in the papers about Wharton’s life, although in a bonfire of the vanities Henry James burnt nearly all her letters to him. "If I discovered, say, that she had anal sex with a lover, what a chapter that would be. The only taboo now is not saying something."

In Body Parts, Lee also forensically anatomises the courtroom drama of TS Eliot’s private life, JM Coetzee’s "heart of stone", and Colette’s gluttonous appetites, as well as the "life-writings" of Eudora Welty, Ellen Glasgow, May Sinclair, Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamund Lehmann, Angela Thirkell, Penelope Fitzgerald and her friend Brian Moore, the great Irish-born novelist who she fears has fallen into some neglect since his death in 1999. "I worry that he is being forgotten," she sighs.

"We all want stories and details and particulars in our life stories," writes Lee. "Whether we think of biography as more like history or more like fiction, what we want from it is a vivid sense of the person." She began thinking about this with scholarly rigour before she embarked on her perceptive study of Virginia Woolf’s life, which won the British Academy’s Rose Mary Crawshay Prize for English Literature in 1997. This magnificent 891-page book begins, not with Woolf’s birth, but with the agonised question: "My God, how does one write a biography?"

Lee says that she knew she could not write a straightforward biography of Woolf because so many had been done already, but she was much more interested in what Woolf herself had to say about the shape of a life as it is lived and the shape of it as it is processed. "I think a lot of her fiction is a form of life-writing - her phrase, actually - and she herself had a terrible struggle with the writing of a conventional biography."

So Lee’s biography of Woolf moves deftly between the personal - the sound of her voice, the style of her clothes - to the political - the writer’s struggles for feminism and against fascism. Biography, Lee concludes, is a process of making up, or making over.

Just before she moved to Oxford, where she lives with her husband, the academic John Barnard, Lee started an MA programme in life-writing at York University with a colleague. "We wanted to look at how all these different genres, which have been thought of as quite distinct, such as fictional autobiography, memoir, biography and history, all seemed to overlap and merge."

When she got her chair at Oxford she introduced an undergraduate course in biography, which had never been taught at the university as an academic subject. "There was some disapproval," she admits, elegantly raising an eyebrow. "I think TS Eliot has a lot to answer for - you know, the idea that the author and his mass of contradictions are separate from the work. The New Criticism in both the States and at home followed that idea that the work must be completely separate, a pure thing," she explains. "There was definitely a feeling at Oxford that there was something second-rate and too popular about biography. Too money-making." So she had to make a strong case for her course. "Yes, it was a bit of a battle," she concedes. Now, though, biography is part of the academic discourse. Currently, she is developing a one-year MA graduate course on biography.

With her warm, intelligent features, Lee seems a natural for television and was the presenter of Channel 4’s first books programme, Book Four, in the 1980s. She still broadcasts regularly on BBC radio, but someone should give her a TV slot again. She would be a refreshing change from the Schamas and Starkeys.

Made a CBE in 2003, Lee is the author of works of literary criticism, such as an insightful study of Philip Roth’s fiction, which she published in 1982, has edited and compiled numerous anthologies of work by Kipling, Trollope and Stevie Smith, and is a co-editor of the Oxford Poets Anthologies.

While in New York she has turned down countless requests to lecture at American universities, although she has lectured at Princeton and the university’s press will publish a selection of her Body Parts essays under the title Virginia Woolf’s Nose. Edith Wharton and her body of work are, however, all-consuming. "I’m drawn to women writers who don’t have children and are rather self-concealing. I can’t think why. Although I don’t have children I do have five step-grandchildren and I’m very open about my own life."

Interview over, we repair for drinks to the Century Club on West 43rd Street, one of those imposing New York literary institutions where the members look so venerable that they might have been guests at Wharton’s coming-out ball. Indeed, whispers Lee, her eyes bright with mischief behind her spectacles, you almost expect a rather grand Edith Wharton and Henry James to walk in and begin conversing by the blazing log fire.

We both giggle - ever so quietly - at the thought. "There are times when Edith makes me laugh, so I have to ironise her," Lee says, draining her whisky glass. "She was so bossy sometimes. Although I do admire her tremendously: she was awesome, as they say here. Nevertheless, thank goodness I only write about dead people."

• Body Parts: Essays on Life-writing, by Hermione Lee, is published by Chatto & Windus, price 20

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