Virginia Woolf – Alexandra Harris

Over a year ago, I read Alexandra Harris’s book, Romantic Moderns. I was so inspired by her survey of modernist English writers & artists that I had great plans to read more about them, especially the fiction of Virginia Woolf. Now, just to give me another nudge, Alexandra Harris has written a biography of Virginia Woolf.

This is an elegantly written, concise survey of Woolf’s life & work. It would be ideal for someone who knew little about Woolf & wanted to know who she was. Harris acknowledges the magnificent biography of Woolf by Hermione Lee, which Harris called, “the book that showed me what literature can do and sent me off to study English.” Woolf’s life is economically described. Her happy early childhood, the summers at Cornwall that inspired To The Lighthouse, her despair & breakdown after the death of her beloved mother, Julia. Her education, directed by her father, Leslie Stephen, & the revelation of books & literature. The escape from conventionality that was only possible for Virginia & her siblings after their father’s death. Life in Bloomsbury, Richmond & Sussex, marriage to Leonard Woolf. Her relationships with friends & lovers. The mental illnesses that punctuated her life & the soothing work at the Hogarth Press that helped her to recover.The last years with the threat of war & her final decision to commit suicide when she felt the mental illness returning in 1941.

I found it especially invaluable for the insights into the fiction, which I’ve never really been able to love, & the connections between the life & the work. I always feel at a bit of a distance from Woolf’s fiction. I’ve read most of the novels but my real love is the Diaries. From A Writer’s Diary, the selection that Leonard put together to show Virginia as a working writer (about to be reprinted by Persephone) to the complete six volumes, I loved Woolf’s voice.

Woolf did not conceive her diary as a place of guarded privacy…She started to write for her older self, imagining conversations with Virginia Woolf at fifty. And she was fully aware, especially as she became more famous, that her diary might well be read by others. Reading her accounts of meetings with Yeats or T S Eliot, for example, one feels her shaping the moment for posterity. There is surprisingly little about the boredoms, humiliations, and terrors of illness. As usual, she bothered to think through the reasons for this: “I want to appear a success even to myself.” The diary feels so full and expansive that it is tempting to imagine that all her life is here. It is not, but here is the version of life she wanted to remember.

I find it fascinating to pick an event from the diaries & then read the letters she wrote at the same time. As we all do, she had different voices for different people & she can write several letters about the same incident to different people, putting a slightly different slant on it each time. It’s even more exciting to open A Writer’s Diary as I just did & find myself reading the entry she made on October 27th 1928 when she returned from giving the lecture that became A Room of One’s Own.

Thank God, my long toil at the women’s lecture is this moment ended. I am back from speaking at Girton, in floods of rain. Starved but valiant young women – that’s my impression. Intelligent, eager, poor; and destined to become schoolmistresses in shoals. I blandly told them to drink wine and have a room of their own. … I fancy sometimes the world changes. I think I see reason spreading. But I should have liked a closer and thicker knowledge of life. I get a sense of tingling and vitality from an evening’s talk like that; one’s angularities and obscurities are smoothed and lit.

I also prefer the essays to the fiction. The Common Reader books are just so full of Woolf’s wide reading & Harris describes how much research & reading went into just one essay. I recently treated myself to Vol 5 of the Collected Essays edited by Stuart N Clarke which contains the second series of The Common Reader as well as the essay Women & Fiction that became A Room of One’s Own & I’ve been reading an few essays every week.

Inspired by this biography, I did read Between the Acts last week. I admired it but it left me cold. I think I’ll just have to admit quiet defeat & keep reading the essays, letters & diaries.

Virginia Woolf is a beautifully produced book. A compact hardback with almost 50 illustrations it’s an example of a book that doesn’t need to be a single page longer. The final chapter is a survey of Woolf’s reputation since her death, & is especially good on the various feminist interpretations that portrayed Woolf as a victim of the patriarchy & the medical establishment or a lesbian feminist heroine. Alexandra Harris’s version of the life is admirably balanced & gives full weight to all the aspects of Woolf’s life. I enjoyed it very much.

11 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf – Alexandra Harris

  1. This sounds great. I have always preferred reading about Virginia Woolf than reading any of her novels, though I have got To The Lighthouse on my reading pile. I would love to love her novels. I'm not prepared to admit defeat just yet!


  2. This new biography sounds excellent. My favorite is the one by Quentin Bell. I'll never forget reading it when it first came out, I couldn't put it down. I also read her letters which are wonderful and literary and so much fun! They are a window into the life of the times and also her social world, and what was going on with the Bloomsbury Group. What a time it was and what a life she lived! Sadly her emotional issues overcame her.


  3. I loved the Quentin Bell biog as well. It had that added dimension because he was her nephew & knew her so well, even though some of her personal issues weren't discussed. I'm yet to read all the letters although I saved them from a library booksale so I will get to them one day.


  4. I have so many unread biographies of Virginia Woolf… but I want to add this to the pile! It sounds wonderful. And I still haven't read Romantic Moderns. The next Woolf biog I want to read, though, is the one by Winifred Holtby, written while VW was still alive (which must have been a little awkward – but at least won't focus on her death.)

    (I'm very jealous that you have inline blog replies that work!)


  5. Hi Lyn: This Alexandra Harris bio sounds excellent. As does Romantic Moderns. It is only this year that I've started reading bios while working my way through an author's work – I love it. Sometimes I enjoy the bios as much or more than the author's work. Hermione Lee has written bios on so many of my favorite authors – Bowen, Cather – but I haven't yet read any Lee biography – a deficit I hope to correct soon. Ruby


  6. I loved the biogs by Lee & Bell but this was an excellent short introduction to the life & work. I'm sure you could make room, Simon, & it would meet your short book criteria too! I have the Holtby book but haven't read it. I think it's more an appreciation of her work & I seem to remember Woolf being quite sniffy about it in her diary. The blog reply thingy is good, isn't it? There was a blog post when I went to the Dashboard the other day with the instructions. It wasn't hard to set up but I've forgotten how I did it.


  7. Kathy, I've always been addicted to author biographies although sometimes I've disliked the author so much afterwards that I haven't been able to read their work again. That's rare though, thank goodness! Hermione Lee's books are wonderful, I believe she's researching Penelope Fitzgerald at the moment so something to look forward to.


  8. I found the Lee bio wearying… this one looks more up my street, but.. the Holtby fits into A Century of Books! Decisions, decisions…

    I've found the dashboard link to inline comments (thanks for the tip!) but it just crashes when I try to open it… still, at least I know where it is now!


  9. Femke, it's a very accessible biography, not nearly as detailed as Hermione Lee's but it's not trying to be exhaustive. It's an excellent overview of VW's life & work.


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