Alexandra Harris’ short biography of Virginia Woolf can be construed as a starting point, or an introduction, into Woolf’s works, life and family history. As the topic for my dissertation, Woolf is often confusing and it was difficult knowing where to start. So I started from the beginning. This 160-page biography really is a short and sweet introduction to Woolf’s life, and although Harris only scratches the surface, she paints a vivid and engaging vision of what Woolf was like.
Harris claims that her inspiration for writing such a biography, and studying English Literature in the first place, was the ginormous 760-page biography by Hermione Lee (something I’m still attempting to read, even though I’ve had it out of the library for two weeks). She said Lee’s was “the book that showed me what Literature can do and sent me off to study English”. Harris often draws upon Woolf’s own works and diaries/letters as evidence for her points but moves very quickly through each section of Virginia’s life. The Independent points this out, claiming: ‘the pace is not always even. There are occasional lurches forward in chronology which are quite disconcerting. Whilst discussing the early writing in 1910, she suddenly invokes Rhoda in The Waves, which was not written until twenty-one years later.’ While I can agree with this, Hermione Lee’s biography, whilst it is not fast moving, seems to leap around time periods, and is organised by theme rather than by time. Lee’s chapters move through Virginia’s childhood and adolescence, but there are also chapters entitled ‘Siblings’, which jumps through time to explain the relationships of Virginia and her step-siblings and her biological siblings. Harris does not do this. Her chapters are clearly labelled with time periods that she covers within those chapters: ‘Making a Mark, 1916-22′, ‘Voices, 1929-32’ etc. On a more positive note, the Independent claims that Harris’s is a “brief, elegant study [that] offers the chance for greenhorns to get to know a fertile and adventurous writer in a few hours of enjoyable reading and for old hands to relish a dynamic, sympathetic portrait.” These were exactly my reasons for reading this book – aside from the fact that my dissertation supervisor asked me to. It is ‘brief’ and I wanted a brief history to begin with to ease me in gently. Harris’s was a great place to start, while Lee’s is slightly more intense reading. But they also point out that it was a “few hours of enjoyable reading”; I read it in one sitting in about three hours.
Woolf was a major sufferer of ‘self-doubt’ and Harris draws on this fabulously, although the Guardian claim it was done “more sketchily” than Lee. They said there was not much room for “this kind of speculation in Harris’s new biography, because she has to get through the life at such a pace; the value of the work and the validity of our fascination with the life have to be taken pretty much as given.” It is understandable that with not much room in terms of page numbers, not too much time can be wasted dwelling on Virginia’s mental issues, although these were clearly a major part of her life. Another criticism they had was that as the novels crop up throughout, Harris summarises them briefly, “which can seem blandly vague”. ‘Bland’ might be the wrong word choice here, as it implies something being boring, however, I found Harris’s book to be very useful, interesting, and informative.
This book has already helped me so much with my research, and I hope people do continue to read it, especially those interested in Virginia Woolf. The book contains 45 photographs of Virginia and her family to enable us to picture her life much more clearly.
Overall rating: 4/5.
‘I Prefer Reading’ blog
Next review: The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins