Virginia Woolf, By Alexandra Harris


A sapling in the Woolf forest, this brief, elegant study 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.

Harris deftly takes us through Woolf's stodgy Victorian childhood, when the always surprising Virginia was a demon cricket bowler, the mysterious abuse by half-brother George and the first assault of bipolar disorder at 14, which transformed her life into "a narrow pavement over an abyss".

Harris stresses her outsider role: "Almost everything she wrote as an adult is shaped by the fundamental fact of her not having being to school or university." Her infamous comparison of Ulysses to "a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples" was not prompted by disgust at Joycean earthiness, but "seeped out from her most angry feelings about the exclusivities and irrelevancies of the male educational establishment".

Noting the "leaping confidence and agility" of Woolf's oeuvre, Harris gives vivid, succinct accounts of the astoundingly varied novels, especially the "wild goose chase" of Orlando, "connected with the skimming, glittering voice of her correspondence". It is a shame that Harris hasn't the space to quote more from these sprightly, naughty letters. Similarly, significant figures in her life can appear with startling suddenness. Lytton Strachey's unlikely proposal of marriage in 1909 is his first appearance.

Contemplating suicide in late 1939 with her husband Leonard (since he was Jewish, Harris notes, "they could expect the very worst from the Nazis"), Virginia reflected that a morphine overdose would be "a peaceful matter-of-fact death". In March 1941, she left a note for Leonard ("You have given me complete happiness"), put a heavy stone in the pocket of her coat and "drowned herself in the very cold, fast-flowing water". Her posthumous Between the Acts is "one of her greatest books… restlessly, acrobatically experimental". Harris's lively appreciation makes you hungry to read the wilder Woolf.