BOOK REVIEW / Help] A Woolf in cheap clothing: Natasha Walter on a new life of Virginia Woolf, a woman deep enough to elude the grasp of biography: Virginia Woolf - James King: Hamish Hamilton pounds 22.50

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The Independent Culture
THE VAST sausage-machine of the biography industry has done it again: clonked and twisted and plopped out another fat, predigested rendering of a literary figure. Virginia Woolf has been well treated up to now, with Quentin Bell's nicely turned two volume life, and various other intelligent studies from Phyllis Rose's to Lyndall Gordon's. Virginia herself and her friends left behind them a mass of everchanging colours that all these lives attempt to give form to: what with her books, her diaries, her memoirs, her letters, their letters and their memoirs.

Is there anything more to say? James King is a Canadian academic who has provided, in his introduction, three reasons why his new biography is essential. One, it provides hitherto unknown detail on Virginia Woolf's childhood illnesses. No doubt we have languished too long without full knowledge of her brush with whooping cough. Secondly, it details the sexual nature of Virginia and Vanessa's relationship. There was nothing on that subject that I did not recall from Jane Dunn's evocative and moving book, A Very Close Conspiracy. Thirdly, it purports to describe Virginia Woolf's 'attempt, during her 1904 breakdown, to obtain a baby'.

How extraordinary. In 1904, Virginia was an unmarried, temperamental 22-year-old. Could there be any reason why anyone close to her should think this girl who had already attempted suicide should care for another life? King believes so, but understandably he thrusts his evidence into a footnote. There it sits, two ambivalent sentences from a letter Violet Dickinson wrote to Vanessa Bell when Violet was 78; 40 years after the event she described: 'I was terribly fussed over the Goat being ill that I brought her down; and she remained here for months. I went to Dr Schrwalback with Mrs Crum to try & get her a baby.' That 'her' is more than ambiguous. Who is Mrs Crum? Is it not more likely to be she who wants a baby?

James King would also like his biography to be considered the first 'literary' biography of Virginia Woolf. There are other contenders for that title, and far from leading us through the resonances and subtleties of Woolf's intellectual development, King is always suffocatingly reductive. On the tapestry of characters and their real-life shadows in Mrs Dalloway, he writes: 'The manipulative Lady Bruton is based on Sybil Colefax. Virginia's childhood crush on Madge Vaughan is reanimated in Clarissa's obsession with Sally Seton, but Virginia's fear of lesbian love is captured in her chilling depiction of the religious fanatic Doris Kilman. Virginia's own malleable early womanhood is portrayed in Elizabeth, Clarissa's daughter. The author's fear of sexually aggressive men is seen in Peter Walsh.'

Six hundred pages in the grasp of such a heavy-handed biographer is a lot. The wonder is also that King has managed to write at such length and yet so many of the details, the little cross-hatchings, seem to be missing. Where is any mention of the pamphlet Virginia wrote on Sickert, whom she admired for his 'literature' - 'Not in our time will anyone write a life as Sickert paints it'? Where are the contents of her other suicide letter, the one she wrote to Vanessa? Why does he retell the sweet story of Virginia and Desmond MacCarthy walking in the garden after Roger Fry's death: 'Don't die yet . . . Nor you' and yet miss out the poignant lines: 'It has been very lovely' and 'We have had wonderful friends.'

Maybe these are small things. But they cannot be much smaller than the size of the garden at Hogarth House or the names of the cooks (admirable in themselves) and the length of time they stayed at Tavistock Square. King has a way of mixing the banal and the extraordinary, not to fringe the banal with light, as Woolf could, but to make the two kinds of experience a uniform grey.

Of course, this problem is always present in biography: how to contain the large and the small, the random and the meant, the look of the life from the outside and the feeling the subject must have had inside, bumbling around without a lamp. And with few writers are these teetering swings more intense than with Virginia Woolf: a woman who was a snob and a socialist; a woman who wrote lovingly of gloves, 'should they be to the elbow or above it, lemon or pale grey?' and could not bring herself to buy new clothes; a famously experimental writer who seemed steeped in tradition; a woman treading on the cusps of masculinity and femininity, the 19th and the 20th centuries, madness and pellucid sanity. But James King hides from her paradoxes and the powerful, discordant song that flowed through them.

Why Virginia killed herself will always be a mystery. Oddly, it has never seemed a overwhelmingly dark or depressing mystery. 'Ripeness is all.' Maybe she just felt, as her suicide notes suggest, that it was time to die; the madness was approaching, and she could not bear that, the war was trudging on, and her world was coming to an end. We have to hold the tragic streak in balance with Woolf's larger-than-life joie de vivre and her ability to enhance our lives forever with her diamond-sharp visions.

James King's words on her death are particularly inapt: 'She died quietly . . . This well-known woman had become invisible - had retreated behind the curtains.' How could death make Virginia Woolf invisible, when her face shines out from Man Ray photographs and Vanessa Bell portraits and her quizzical tones and her lyricism trip out from all her books? James King is in a hurry, however, and quickly cuts off with her death. He does not even bother to tell us about her grave. 'Leonard told me,' wrote Vanessa Bell, 'that there are two great elms at Rodmell which she always called Leonard and Virginia. They grow together by the pond. He is going to bury her ashes under one and have a tablet on the tree with a quotation - the one about 'Death is the enemy. Against you I will fling myself unvanquished and unyielding, O Death]' Poor Leonard - he did break down completely when he told me.'

Presumably James King was too busy to get that down. He has already written biographies of Blake, Herbert Read and William Cowper, and he is no doubt rushing back to the factory to choose another life to pick over.

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