A Lightning Tour

By Shone, Richard | The Spectator, October 15, 2011 | Go to article overview

A Lightning Tour


Shone, Richard, The Spectator


Virginia Woolf

by Alexandra Harris

Thames & Hudson, £14.95, pp. 191,

ISBN 9780500515921

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. …

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