Don't Be Afraid of Virginia Woolf; BIOGRAPHY

Daily Mail (London), September 23, 2011 | Go to article overview

Don't Be Afraid of Virginia Woolf; BIOGRAPHY


Byline: VAL HENNESSY

VIRGINIA WOOLF

BY ALEXANDRA HARRIS (Thames & Hudson [pounds sterling]14.95 [pounds sterling]12.99)

SO, WHO IS afraid of Virginia Woolf? Well, I'll admit, I am. She's not exactly easy reading, is she? There are scholars who claim she was a 'mad genius', others who believe she was 'the greatest writer who ever lived' (sob your heart out, Shakespeare) and others, including me, who find her experimental, stream-of-consciousness prose rather heavy-going, and who give up after ten pages.

Furthermore, the sheer bulk of the Woolf works -- novels, essays, social polemic, reviews, profiles, diaries and thousands of letters, not forgetting the mountains of Woolf biographies and academic research -- is terribly, terribly daunting.

It is a deterrent, enough to put a slow, timid reader into a right old panic.

Surely, with such a superfluity of output, the last thing the literary world needs is another book about Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)? Yet, here's the surprise. Harris has produced -- and mortar-boards off to her -- a wonderfully perceptive, unpretentious study which is pacy in style, riveting in content and perfectly accessible to the most obdurate Woolf-avoider.

It is also, incidentally, of modest length (180 pages) and packed with lovely sepia photographs.

HARRIS resolutely skates over Woolf's upper-middle-class childhood, death of her parents, sibling spats, the teenage round of balls, dinners, titles, toffs and happy holidays in Cornwall.

When she does allude to these events it is merely to relate them directly to Woolf's creativity and her evolving sense of herself as a writer.

In Harris's book, it is Woolf's writing that matters. 'When I see a pen and ink, I can't help taking to it, as some do to gin,' Woolf wrote to a friend, and to another: 'I see how I shall spend my days a virgin, an Aunt, an authoress.'

Interestingly, she possessed a wonderful capacity for sustained friendship and you envy those friends the sparkling letters, glittering with gossip, which they received from the woman who had, in her youth, vowed to be a writer 'of such English as shall one day burn the page'.

Biographers and academics have persistently delved through Woolf's archives making fiendish speculations, guesses and exaggerations. She may have been sexually abused by her step-brother. She may have had several lesbian lovers. She may have chosen a celibate marriage. She may have remained a life-long virgin. On the other hand, she may not.

And as Harris makes clear, there's little point in hypothesising.

Instead, she concentrates on the ways Woolf developed and honed her unique writing style.

In her copious journals, for instance, she frequently included those small, insignificant things which, with hindsight, often turn out to be 'the diamonds in the dust heap'. She did the same in her novels, using the importance of the unremarkable, knowing that drama and emotion accrues in things and places you might not at first suspect.

Woolf 's mental illness has never been fully explained. As a child she was, as people used to say, 'highly strung'. Following her mother's death, she became agitated, with racing pulse and overwhelming nervous energy, and was ordered by doctors to rest. …

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