According to Hermione Lee, author of a “definitive” biography published nearly a decade ago, “Virginia Woolf’s story is reformulated by each generation. She takes on the shape of difficult modernist … or comedian of manners, or neurotic highbrow aesthete, or inventive fantasist, or pernicious snob, or Marxist feminist, or historian of women’s lives, or victim of abuse, or lesbian heroine, or cultural analyst, depending on who is reading her, and when, and in what context.”
So there’s always room for another retelling—but why bother, when all the obvious angles have already been explored?
All the angles? Not exactly. Here’s a new biography of Woolf that does something basic and necessary and does it quite well, with a minimum of fuss and posturing: Julia Briggs gives us Virginia Woolf as a prodigiously hard-working professional writer. Ms. Briggs is interested in the mechanics of composition, the sequence of drafts and the process of publication, and she’s keenly interested in the writing itself: Woolf’s sources and influences, her stated aims and actual literary achievement, and the reception of each new work. Because she wants to know how Woolf mulched the stuff of life into words on a page, she combs through the crowded who, what, where and when of her subject’s 59 years. But Ms. Briggs’ true focus is all inward; she trains her attention on the mysterious transaction that begins when Woolf settles her “writing board” on her knee—and never ends, not as long as we’re still turning the pages of her books.
If what you love is reading Virginia Woolf—immersion in her gorgeous, maddening lyric patterning—and don’t particularly care who in her Bloomsbury posse was temporarily sleeping with whom or what kind of kinkiness they favored, Ms. Briggs’ circumscribed approach is just right. If, on the other hand, you crave the total Woolf experience, with heaps of gossip, avant-garde aesthetics and all the intricacies of London’s literary life, Hermione Lee’s masterful 900-page biography remains the place to go. (For an insider’s view, see the 1972 biography by Woolf’s nephew, Quentin Bell; or the brief, elegant sketch published five years ago by Nigel Nicolson, son of Woolf’s most famous lover, Vita Sackville-West.)
Ms. Lee writes about Woolf’s writing, too—brilliantly, in fact—but it’s more than 200 pages until we get to the first novel, The Voyage Out. Ms. Briggs, by contrast, gets there in her second sentence and only doubles back to Virginia’s childhood after a dozen pages dedicated to the laborious writing and rewriting (five times!) of that auspicious debut.
Luckily for Ms. Briggs—and for us—Woolf writes beautifully about the process of composition. This is from a letter dated Sept. 28, 1930, when she was halfway through The Waves:
“I … shall gently surge across the lawn (I move as if I carried a basket of eggs on my head) light a cigarette, take my writing board on my knee; and let myself down, like a diver, very cautiously into the last sentence I wrote yesterday. Then perhaps after 20 minutes, or it may be more, I shall see a light in the depths of the sea, and stealthily approach—for one’s sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish; and if one brings it up it wont be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea. Now these are the great excitements of life.”
Is there a tinge of irony in that last sentence? Elsewhere, Woolf acknowledges that being a writer—a solitary, selfish calling—meant being “exiled” from the “profound natural happiness … [of] family love & being on the rails of human life.” In her case, as Ms. Briggs argues, being a writer was closely linked with being off the rails: “Woolf suffered from madness, as conventionally defined, yet there was also something of poetic frenzy in it, and her art drew on what she found there.” In her diary, Woolf wrote that “these curious intervals … are the most fruitful artistically.”
What did Woolf’s madness feel like? And why, at the end of March 1941, did she walk into the River Ouse and drown? Because she could sense the encroachment of another bout of insanity? Because the cure meant not writing for a time (a remedy, for Woolf, almost more awful than the disease)? Or was it the dread progress of the war? Ms. Briggs looks to Mrs. Dalloway—to Septimus’ shell-shock delirium—for clues to the nature of Woolf’s recurring illness, and it’s therefore no surprise, when we get to the sad end of the life, that the biographer blames the war: “[I]t may be that, in some mysterious way, mass murder, hatred and cruelty create a palpable psychic atmosphere that presses upon the sensitive.” Think of that last, deadly depression as the artist’s fatal war wound.
In her blunt discussion of Woolf’s anti-Semitism, Ms. Briggs hardly lifts her eyes from the pages of two brief but unpleasant texts, the “Present Day” episode of The Years and a story called “The Duchess and the Jeweller,” both published in the late 30’s, when anti-Semitic propaganda was at its most intense and most damaging. In this case, Ms. Briggs’ determination to stick close to the work seems peculiar (after all, Woolf was married to a Jew), but the judgment she finally makes is sound and proportionate: “Woolf’s anti-Semitism is characteristic of her class and her moment—casual, unsystematic, and apparently thoughtless. It was as invisible to her as sexism was to the rest of Bloomsbury.” (Note, in that last sentence, a useful precept in operation: If you have nothing nice to say, change the subject.)
To the Lighthouse will tell you plenty about Woolf’s parents—and even more about the pitfalls and private pleasures of being a woman artist. Ms. Briggs is a useful guide to all that, but what I liked best was a line she quotes from the diaries in which Woolf resolves to “let the Lighthouse simmer, adding to it between tea & dinner till it is complete for writing out.” (A few years later, when another novel—ultimately The Waves—was germinating, she again puts on the brakes: “I am going to hold myself from writing till I have it impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear.”)
Orlando, of course, is the doorway to the peculiar ambivalence that is Woolf’s sexuality, a narrow space dominated by the lively presence of Vita Sackville-West (“a heroine to everyone including her own darling self,” according to her husband, Harold Nicolson). In this letter to Vita, we catch a glimpse of Woolf unbuttoned:
“Should you say, if I rang you up to ask, that you were fond of me?
“If I saw you would you kiss me? If I were in bed with you would you—
“I’m rather excited about Orlando tonight: have been lying by the fire and making up the last chapter.”
A steamy moment—and yet Ms. Briggs, ever inward, argues convincingly that Orlando is actually “Woolf’s farewell to the flesh,” in which the real-life Vita is replaced with a delightfully implausible made-up character. Again, she quotes from the diaries: “[T]he only exciting life is the imaginary one.”
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.