Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris
One of the authors who intrigues me is Virginia Woolf, not only because she is considered such a major writer, but also because she was part of the lives of so other many amazing artists, such as one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Bowen.
I found this book Virginia Woolf in the new section of our library. Alexandra Harris got a lot of attention for her first book, Romantic Moderns. This Woolf biography is the first that I’ve read. I’ve seen one or two of her books done as movies (such as To the Lighthouse) and the movie The Hours (roughly based on her life) and read some of her work, but many years ago (and I’m not sure I ever finished any of it). I didn’t know much about her except what I’d learned from mentions here and there. I very much enjoyed this biography. Harris grabbed my attention early on and kept it throughout.
Virginia was part of a large family with many step-children as both her parents had children from former marriages. She was closest to her sister, Vanessa Bell, and Harris includes many of Bell’s works, especially paintings of Virginia and other family members, in the book as well as work by other artists who immortalized Virginia or her parents.
Virginia’s early life was difficult. Her mother Julia was loving, a great beauty immortalized as the essential Victorian beauty by her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, but very busy with her volunteering outside the home and with care for her many children. Virginia’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a famous intellectual and writer of 19th Century Britain and artists, intellectuals, and bohemians were part of the family’s life. Her mother died from rheumatic fever when Virginia was 13. Her father, never very present in mind, was devastated and the family began to fall apart. Virginia fell into a nervous breakdown, probably the first clear sign of her manic depression that would cost her so much throughout her life. And two of Virginia’s older half-brothers molested her and at least one of her sisters for years up until Virginia was 22.
On the other hand, her father recognized her intelligence and helped her develop her philosophy and style. Neither she nor Vanessa went to school – at this time this was not surprising for middle class girls. But Virginia learned how to think and to write from her father and Vanessa was a self-taught painter of some reknown.
Over the course of her life, Virginia would strive to relive some of the joys of her childhood while struggling with the demons that followed her out of it. She had serious, sexual, long-term relationships with women at different points in her life although she married Leonard Woolf and remained, in her way, devoted to him through their marriage. In many ways, her adult life was both very rich and very difficult. She was hospitalized many times, sometimes for years, suffering from her manic depression. Yet she always had good friends and work and her relationship with Leonard was strong.
Early on she began to write reviews and essays and to make a small living as a writer. Over time, her writing turned to her many books, all of which were pathbreaking within the field of 20th Century literature. Her books always used a theme from some part of her life and by middle age, she was an acclaimed author, part of the Bloomsbury group, and well-known within her country. Then, of course, at 59 in 1941, she drowned herself in the middle of the depressive cycle of one of her illnesses.
This was a very well-written, engaging biography that quickly gives a sense of the texture and major themes and events of Woolf’s life. It was not designed to be a detailed, definitive biography. For someone like me who has some, but not a deep, deep interest in Woolf, it was perfect. Aside from her, likely genetic, manic depression, it also explained how she got to be the way she was. At some point, I plan to give some of her novels a go. But, since she made her mark by writing many different types of experimental fiction, I won’t be surprised if I have a hard time of her work. Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I’m a pretty traditional reader who likes classic linear narratives. But I’m very glad I found this biography and if you are at all interested in Virginia Woolf, I highly recommend it.
Have any of you read great biographies? If so, let me know in the comments section – I’d be interested to learn which they were.
Happy Reading, Ruby