Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, by Julia Briggs

The value of Virginia Woolf lies in her work, not her suicide. Lyndall Gordon enjoys a Life that counteracts 'The Hours'
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The Independent Culture

'My God, how does one write a biography?" Virginia Woolf asked one of her intimates, Vita Sackville-West, in 1938. "And what is a life?" Her uneasiness at the prospect of writing the life of Bloomsbury artist, Roger Fry, had to do with the more traditional biography expected in this case. In fact she was born to the most traditional form of the genre. Her father Leslie Stephen had been the founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, and could be heard throughout Virginia's childhood groaning over "Dry-As-Dust", the plodding contributor. Virginia's elder brother, aged five, had produced a box which he called his "contradictionary box".

'My God, how does one write a biography?" Virginia Woolf asked one of her intimates, Vita Sackville-West, in 1938. "And what is a life?" Her uneasiness at the prospect of writing the life of Bloomsbury artist, Roger Fry, had to do with the more traditional biography expected in this case. In fact she was born to the most traditional form of the genre. Her father Leslie Stephen had been the founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, and could be heard throughout Virginia's childhood groaning over "Dry-As-Dust", the plodding contributor. Virginia's elder brother, aged five, had produced a box which he called his "contradictionary box".

What was in it?

"Rubbish," said the boy.

His sister too took a contrary approach to lives, notably the six lives striding abreast, from childhood to old age, in her masterpiece, The Waves. She plumps for the inner as opposed to the public life, and deplores the "non-being" of head-masters, kings with golden teapots on their heads, and the librarian of Trinity College, Cambridge, who bars her way when she wants to see a manuscript. Such men, as Julia Briggs observes, are repeatedly seen to interrupt the "moments of being" that shape the inner life. The subtitle An Inner Life acknowledges the need to recast our narratives if we are to approach Woolf on her own terms. In To the Lighthouse, a Victorian father relishing "The Charge of Light Brigade" is dismissed to the periphery of a scene in favour of an artist intent on her painting and a mother reading to her child. In art, friendship, and domestic affections lie the future of civilisation. This was the dream that Virginia Woolf offered her generation - the generation of Englishwomen who gained the vote. She conceived a right to vote not for one party or another but against the whole edifice of power, and said: "I feel myself enfranchised till death, & quit of all humbug." This dream - still unrealised - is bound up with the plots we impose on lives. With complete assurance Woolf throws out the age-old narratives of rulers, heroes and war. What form of biography will replace them?

The comprehensive, book-by-book form of An Inner Life is well tried, but what stands out is the adaptation of Woolf's own "tunnelling process" by which, she said, "I tell the past by installments, as I have need of it." Briggs outlines a work, then tunnels back to its biographical and manuscript origins. An especially fine chapter on Woolf's most neglected novel Night and Day explores its origins in her worst breakdown in 1915. Her refusing to see her husband Leonard Woolf has often been thought to be in part a response to his fierce novel, The Wise Virgins, which his wife read two weeks before her breakdown began. This rare roman à clef, reissued by Persephone Press, invites a harder look at the Leonard character, the fierce Jew whom he calls Harry Davis. Despite his disillusion with human nature, Harry is the only person alert enough to lend himself to the "voyage out" character of the remote Camilla (Virginia). Briggs shows how Night and Day offers an answer to the separation of the couple in The Wise Virgins. It moves towards the "reconciliation" of a similar pair who come together from their different backgrounds as two dreamers who will join in marriage - a marriage bonded in their unseen, night-time selves.

An Inner Life sets itself to explain the gestation and aftermath of each work. Where did Woolf begin? Briggs locates the start in the manuscript drafts of The Voyage Out, which go back to 1907, and uses the drafts effectively to link the nightmare squalor and prostitution left over from Victorian London with the virginal nightmares of Rachel Vinrace. Yet, in a study attentive to drafts, it's surprising that Briggs does not clarify her position on the questionable marketing of these particular drafts as a novel in its own right. A few years ago a small Californian press published a book called Melymbrosia with international press releases announcing the first trade edition of what was claimed to be the earliest novel by Virginia Woolf. Bookshops still sell it as such, but it's actually inferior manuscript fragments of The Voyage Out cobbled together with finished chapters from that work.

Since these voluminous and uncommonly tedious drafts hardly make for an exciting start to the great enterprise, we might look a bit earlier at Woolf's barely-mentioned stories of 1906 about "women who cluster in the shade" and "keep silence". Or earlier yet: an unnoticed entry in the Cornwall Diary of 1905, where the young Virginia Stephen turns her back on the beaten track. "Once you step aside [from the road at St Ives] you must trust innumerable little footpaths, as thin as though trodden by rabbits, which lead over hills & through fields in all directions... The pedestrian then should sketch his path with a free hand... For the walker who prefers the variety & incident of the open fields to the orthodox precision of the high road, there is no such ground for walking as this." Her whole Modernist experiment in the novel is latent in this passage.

An Inner Life comes into its own with women's social history and Woolf's polemical works, particularly A Room of One's Own. In its opening word "But..." Briggs sees a signal to its female audience "to break the sentence, and break the sequence in order to make it their own." Woolf's humorous optimism is "utopian", even "messianic" in its promise that, in time, "Shakespeare's sister" will reappear. At that time, in the 1920s, D H Lawrence and Joyce suffered from censorship; for a female author, sex would have been even more taboo. Briggs is illuminating on Woolf's struggle in Jacob's Room to take on male sexuality, hardly assisted by unappealing information from her brother-in-law, Jack Hills, that men "had" women constantly, and from an assistant at the Hogarth Press, Ralph Partridge, who said his main pleasure in a visit to a brothel had been a sense of power in having girls paraded for him. An Inner Life has an abundance of apt detail. We learn that during and after World War One there were different treatments for breakdown according to class: electric shocks for the lower classes; rest cures for officers and ladies.

One of the most telling details is Woolf's intention to write a series of lives of eccentric women. "Memoirs of a Novelist" and "Miss Ormerod" are part of an invisible history which Woolf must invent as fictions, since records of her sex - so obscure, so marginal - have not survived. Briggs astutely observes that all this represents a different feminism from the political goals of the suffragists of the 19th century and demands for professional equality in the 20th century. This feminism is "less narrowly political and thus ultimately more threatening".

"What is a woman?" Woolf asks a younger generation at Newnham and Girton. What is Woolf, I wondered as we come to her suicide during the next world war: is she the eccentric, shading into doomed freak; or the experimental Modernist; or the sharp-tongued Queen of Bloomsbury; or the voyager out - a walker in the wake of her tramping father? The effect of this Life is cumulative, various. Briggs leaves this question open, respectful of her readers' initiative in shaping a Woolf of our own.

Our society still repeats stories of doom, as though genius in a woman exacts a terrible end; as though it must be unnatural. Stephen Daldry's film, The Hours, insists on shot after shot of the writer sinking down into the river near her home in Sussex. The camera hammers this in before a viewer has a chance to see any other fact about this life. During the flashback to the writing of Mrs Dalloway a diminished Woolf lies eye to eye with a little dead bird. Why should Briggs politely approve The Hours when her own story soars above the stale image of sad illness? She does in the end state that "Woolf's life, like that of Sylvia Plath, is too often read in terms of her death, as if that was the most interesting and significant thing that happened to her."

What then was the significant thing? This question reverberates ever more teasingly beyond Virginia Woolf's lifetime. Back in 1928 she alerted the next generation to "the great problem of the true nature of woman" - that problem stirs in the wings of An Inner Life. What this century will discover about the true nature of our gendered brains lurks in mental actions - hormones, nerves, waves - we can't yet measure.

Lyndall Gordon is the author of 'Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life' (Norton) and the entry on Virginia Woolf in the 'New Dictionary of National Biography'

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