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Book Review: Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris

Posted By Ed Voves On September 30, 2011 @ 10:00 am In Biography,Books,Great Britain,Non-Fiction Reviews,Writers | 2 Comments

Virginia Woolf
by Alexandra Harris
Thames & Hudson, 192 pp.
CLR Rating:


A Mind of Her Own

On a sunny September morning during the late 1930’s, Virginia Woolf sat writing in her county home, Monk’s House, in Sussex. Looking up from her work, Woolf noticed a moth fluttering from one corner of the window to the next. To Woolf, the energetic efforts of the moth testified to the power of life and of the unavailing struggle against death. In a now famous essay, “The Death of a Moth,” Woolf wrote that the tiny insect was empowered by a “fibre, very thin but pure, of the energy of the world.”

As with the moth, so with Virginia Woolf. Thanks to a perceptive new biography by Alexandra Harris, the degree to which Woolf channeled “the energy of the world” into her novels, short stories, diaries and essays is powerfully evoked.

Harris, a young British scholar, gained widespread attention with her recent book, Romantic Moderns, which focused on the achievements of leading British artists and writers, including Virginia Woolf, between the world wars. In the present book, Harris distills the essence of Woolf’s life and literary output into an amazingly succinct volume. Woolf bequeathed an impressive, indeed intimidating, body of work for generations of scholars to study. Most treatments of her life are correspondingly long. The most recent “standard” biography, by Hermione Lee in 1997, runs to 893 pages. Harris’ Virginia Woolf is a model of brevity at 192 pages.

Harris’s biography, however, is not a light-weight introduction to Virginia Woolf’s life and times. Harris omits none of the salient events and achievements of Woolf’s life. From Woolf’s Victorian childhood through the years of the Bloomsbury artistic circle to the gathering shadows of World War II, this concise portrait is remarkable for its clarity and completeness.

Harris commences her narrative by quoting from a revealing 1907 letter which Woolf sent to Violet Dickenson, an accomplished, middle-aged woman who served as her role model.

“I shall be miserable or happy,” Woolf wrote, “a wordy sentimental creature, or a writer of such English as shall one day burn the pages.”

For Woolf, writing remained a source of both joy and misery, professional fulfillment and self-doubt. Writing and living were inseparable pursuits. This is especially true since Woolf utilized her observations of the people around her as a primary source of subject material. Only one other realm of experience was of equal, perhaps superior, importance: the rigorous self- examination of her own thoughts and strivings that is so evident in her amazing diaries.

Woolf utilized her perceptions and reflections to create a kind of literary alchemy. Her novels and stories are vivid slices of life, delicately attuned to the characters and aspirations of her protagonists. And in an uncanny way, Woolf was so extraordinarily sensitive to life that her words exude awareness of the characters and aspirations of her readers, including those born long after she wrote her final sentence.

Woolf spent much of her life trying to free herself from the grasp of the past, specifically the Victorian milieu of her childhood. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was the editor of the prestigious Dictionary of National Biography and a personification of the Victorian pater familias. Woolf both loved and rebelled against him. She suffered a severe nervous breakdown following his death in 1904. Yet it was not until her father died, that she was able to liberate her emotions to the point where she could begin a serious career as a writer.

When Woolf came to write about her parents in To the Lighthouse, she did so in part, as Harris astutely notes, “to take control of her relationship” of her memories of them.

Woolf approached To the Lighthouse from an audacious vantage point. Rather than developing a dramatic plot, Woolf summoned the inner lives of the Ramsey family, as she called her family surrogates, to life. The perceptions of her protagonists supply the “action” of the novel. “Time Passes.” And as it flows, so the surviving members of the Ramsey family gain a measure of self-awareness and mastery of their lives.

The insight that Harris brings to Woolf’s writings is of the same exceptional degree as her careful scrutiny of Woolf’s private life. The following quote from Harris’ reflections on To the Lighthouse, provide an example of the high caliber of literary criticism to be found throughout the book.

When Woolf looked at her parents she found aspects of herself. She saw things she needed to rebel against and things which, for better or worse, there was no getting away from. So when she laughs at the self-involved Mr. Ramsay, who leaps around, arms waving, quoting poetry, seeking truth, she is getting an ironic distance on her father and also on herself. She is not going to write concise lives of national heroes in alphabetical order, nor conceive her intellectual life as a logical progression from A to Z.

Woolf had more to escape from than her father’s domineering personality or the sheer magnitude of the Victorian ideology that he personified. There was also the emotional and sexual abuse that she suffered during her youth at the hands of her half-brothers, Gerald and George Duckworth. The extent of the physical violation cannot be determined. Whether or not it was actually rape is never conclusively stated in Woolf’s private writings. George Duckworth’s physical and psychological attentions toward her as a teen, was perhaps the worse of her experiences in this regard. However, she could still remember him as “dear Georgie” when he died in 1934, regarding him more as pathetic social-climber than as a monster.

Yet the effect of whatever happened in the darkened bedroom of the Stephen family home at 22 Hyde Park Gate in London left permanent emotional scars. It later contributed to Woolf’s acclaim as a symbol of the oppression of women by proponents of the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1970’s and 80’s. Harris writes very sensitively and cogently about this tragic chapter of Woolf’s life and of its influence on her subsequent reputation. But following the lead of Hermione Lee’s biography, Harris cautions against defining Woolf in terms of victimization.

Woolf certainly played a major role in advancing the cause of equality and justice for women. Her book-length essay, A Room of One’s Own, which was expanded from lectures she gave at Cambridge University in 1928, ranks as one of the defining statements of the rights of women. Woolf asserted that women deserved to be accorded the same scope for intellectual endeavor and rewards for achievement as men. With deadpan wit, she skewered the dragon, or at least wounded the beast, in its “Old Boy” lair.

The use of humor to reinforce a courageous espousal of human liberty was typical of Woolf’s multi-faceted approach to learning and living. Both A Room of One’s Own and her later book of reflections, Three Guineas, should not be treated as solely concerned with the rights of women but rather affirming the need of just standards for all.

Humor interwoven with seriousness also highlights the quicksilver nature of Woolf’s complex character. She certainly had her share of quirks. Happily married to a Jew, Leonard Woolf, she could be insufferably anti-Semitic in some of her remarks. An intellectual “high-brow,” Woolf was devoted to writing in an unpatronizing way for general readers. Although never a flag-waving patriot, Woolf’s love for England and the English people was especially notable in her last novel, Between the Acts.

Harris somehow finds space to treat the full-range of Woolf’s life and literary achievement. But there is one aspect of Woolf’s thought, her life-long opposition to militarism, that is not examined by Harris with the insight so evident in the rest of the book.

However, another scholar, Alex Zwerdling, has provided a detailed assessment of Woolf’s life-long pacifism and sincere efforts to promote peace. In Virginia Woolf and the Real World, Zwerdling traces the effect of World War I in Woolf’s writings, noting perceptively that she had a marked aversion to the masculine warrior ethos to be found even in anti-war novels and memoirs and in the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and Sigmund Freud.

Harris’ treatment of Woolf’s suicide in March 1941 is overly abrupt, noting Woolf’s fears of a nervous collapse and of the affect it would have on her husband, Leonard. These factors certainly played a part in Woolf’s resignation “to a lonely death.”

Woolf battled depression throughout her life and had survived several earlier suicide attempts. The outbreak of World War II affected her spirits profoundly. She noted in her diary that the declaration of war in September 1939 was “the worst of all my life’s experiences … One merely feels that the killing machine has to be set in action.”

As Hitler’s “killing machine” blitzed its way across Europe, Woolf’s worst fears were coming so close to her doorstep that she had to lie face down on the lawn of Monk’s House as Luftwaffe bombers roared overhead on their way to bomb London. She and Leonard planned on committing suicide if the Nazi forces landed in Sussex, as they seemed poised to do in the fall of 1940. But by the spring of 1941, as the Germans became increasingly engaged in Greece and North Africa, the prospect of invasion was fading. Did Woolf put a large stone in her pocket and wade into the quick-flowing Ouse River because she simply did not want to place a burden on her husband, who had stood by her through similar bouts of depression?

Woolf’s mind, like Britain, was under siege. Might a greater horror than fear of German paratroopers or of her own helplessness have haunted her thoughts? Prophet that she was in so many respects, she saw that the world was turning into a permanent armed camp. The minds and spirits of the young were being warped by their very devotion to fighting Fascism. This had happened to her nephew, Julian Bell, who recklessly threw his life away during the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps it was the spectacle of seeing her loved ones, her friends and her country settling in for a “good war” that caused Woolf to write in her suicide note, “…I know that I shall never get over this…”

Despite her final chapter which surveys Virginia Woolf’s influence on the post-war world, Harris does not consider this intriguing interpretation of Woolf’s last days.

Speculation like this should never distract our attention from the primary form of Virginia Woolf’s self-expression, her profound and moving writings. Woolf is one of those rare authors whose writing is so compelling and of such a broad scope that one could easily be absorbed in it to the exclusion of all else. That’s not a bad idea, at least as a first step, of reflection leading to action. For Woolf’s novels, essays and diaries are really about coming to terms with life and then getting-on with living.

The best reading of Virginia Woolf’s writing — and of Alexandra Harris’ commendable introduction to her life and work — is to do exactly that. Engage with life. Partake of the “energy of the world,” as Woolf and the moth at Monk’s House did, struggling with all their strength toward the light.


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