In her foreword to this short study of Virginia Woolf, Alexandra Harris writes that ‘it is meant as a first port of call for those new to Woolf and as an enticement to read more’. There is some justification for such a book — a synthesis giving the outline of Woolf’s life with pertinent interpretative commentary on the novels and other writings. While such an aim is not new, the book will inevitably reflect the concerns of the moment, the stamp of each generation’s particular interest. If this is so, the longer appeal of such a study is not necessarily guaranteed. Harris presents a Woolf for the early 21st century.
Over the years, the variety of approaches to Virginia Woolf has been greater, perhaps, than for many another considerable figure. Early critical studies were overwhelmingly formalist, placing her novels within the framework of a modernist aesthetic. After A Writer’s Diary (1954), the personality revealed there began to inflect interpretation. In the 1970s the first full biography by Quentin Bell and, hard on its heels, the complete diaries and letters, altered the whole landscape forever. Soon enough, we had Woolf and feminism, and madness, and abuse, and politics, Woolf and patriarchy, her marriage, and her sister. So it has continued, the emphasis changing, decade to decade.
The portrait of Woolf herself has been repainted. The semi-invalid of Tavistock Square, fine-tuning her sensations amid a tight coterie of friends, has been vanquished. A far more robust image has emerged — wide-ranging in interests, humorous, combative, politically alert and professionally astute. At the same time, her novels gradually threw off their long shadow of Leavisite denigration. To be sure, there are still pockets of resistance, usually among middle-aged male novelists and the diminishing band of Bloomsbury’s enemies. They will always be with us.
No such Leavisite body odour clings to Alexandra Harris. Her first book, Romantic Moderns, on the sometimes conflicting demands of being British and going ‘modern’, had an unexpected success last year. Woolf had a place in its subtitle and a role in its thesis. Harris’s new book takes us on a lightning tour of Woolf’s life and writings.
The scenery is pretty familiar by now and our guide rarely stops to catch her breath or embroider a statement before we shoot on to the next landmark. Woolf is a married woman by p. 49, writing The Waves on p. 112 and dead on p. 158. The Stephen family tragedies, the first breakdowns and the independent move to Bloomsbury are briskly dealt with.
Suddenly we are in the age of post-impressionism: the lines are sharper and the colour of life intensifies. We linger only when Harris reaches the canonical novels around which the chapters are structured. Those who know their Woolf will find little that is new here: indeed Harris pays full tribute to Hermione Lee’s comprehensive biography of 1996, whose engrossing weave of biography and criticism finds echoes throughout her own study. But what she may lack in novelty or primary research, she makes up for with enthusiasm and readability.
When she does stop for breath, she is particularly good on two aspects of Woolf’s life. The first is her ability to recover from illness with her imagination unimpaired and her creative drive unchecked. The worst breakdown occurred between her suicide attempt in 1913, a year after her marriage, and her gradual recovery in 1916. This terrible period saw the publication of her first novel, The Voyage Out. Of this event she knew nothing. As soon as she was allowed to write again, she began and completed her long, ambitious if somewhat conventional novel, Night and Day (1919) and wrote several highly original short stories (Harris doesn’t mention the incomparable ‘Kew Gardens’); her journalism flourished and the Hogarth Press was founded.
The second aspect concerns Woolf’s experiment and innovation, one book after another, in the 20 years that followed Jacob’s Room (1922), ‘each taking a huge gamble by adopting untried methods’. Even in the relatively traditional biography of Roger Fry (1940) we find, as Harris points out, shards from her fiction that illuminate both structure and impression. The posthumous Between the Acts suggests several new directions Woolf might have taken, with its short sentences, quotidian dialogue and its direct depiction of emotional and sexual desire.
Along the way, Harris proves her alertness to Woolf’s style through well chosen quotations and phrases, bringing out Woolf’s habitual metaphorical mode and an inexhaustible gift for similes. A little more might have been said about her expository essays on fiction and her brilliance as a book reviewer (in spite of her occasional archness and the red herrings allowed to swim too far); and I think something on the contemporary critical reactions to the major novels might have been useful. Nevertheless, Harris achieves what she set out to do with considerable aplomb.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 15, 2011