Virginia Woolf: The Life and Work

By Charles Matthews
San Jose Mercury News, 2005

A Review of
Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life
by Julia Briggs

When Edward Albee published a play in 1962 about squabbling academics, its title wasn’t just a joke. (Who could possibly be afraid of Virginia Woolf?) It also carried a hint that only effete intellectuals like the ones in the play would have any reason to know or care much about her. Brawny writers like D.H. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway were in the ascendancy. Woolf seemed to be in danger of slipping into the footnotes of literary history as one of those somewhat precious “experimental” writers you always meant to read but never got around to.

But by 1999, when Michael Cunningham won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Hours,” things had turned around for Woolf. Cunningham’s novel is not only a tribute to Woolf and an incisive portrayal of her personal and artistic struggles, it also examines the centrality of her art to the lives of her readers. By the ’90s it was Hemingway and Lawrence whose reputations were on the wane.

What happened between ’62 and ’99 is that a new generation, inspired by feminism, began to re-evaluate literature with the consciousness that the lives of women are no less valuable than those of men. But criticism can go only so far toward establishing an artist’s lingering reputation. Feminist critics rediscovered a lot of writers, such as Woolf’s contemporaries Djuna Barnes and Dorothy Richardson, who have sunk back into the footnotes. It’s the passionate originality of Woolf’s mind and art and the depth of her moral vision that helped her to regain stature.

In “A Room of One’s Own” Woolf summed up the prevailing attitude in her day toward literature: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.” But for Woolf, the significance of literature depended less on whether it took place on the battlefield or at a dinner party than on its ability to let the reader participate in the lives of other people. As the British scholar Julia Briggs puts it, Woolf “was as capable as the next person of ignoring the selfhood of others, but within her fiction, she encourages her readers to extend their sympathies through the use of the imagination.” She belongs to “a tradition of women’s writing in which moral awareness carries the reader across the boundaries of gender, class and race in the interests of wider sympathy and understanding.”

Briggs’ “Virginia Woolf: An Interior Life” is a keenly thoughtful and often eloquent work of biographical criticism – or of critical biography: It’s hard to pigeonhole the book into a genre because the works and the life are inextricably mixed in Briggs’ account of them. She does give us the key biographical details: The traumatizing deaths of her mother, when Virginia was 13, and of her brother Thoby 11 years later. The childhood sexual molestation by her two half-brothers. The mental breakdown that lasted from the summer of 1913 to the spring of 1915, and the speculation that she suffered from bipolar disorder. The marriage to Leonard Woolf, which took her across barriers of class and ethnicity – he was Jewish and the grandson of a tailor. Her affair with Vita Sackville-West. And, of course, her suicide by drowning in 1941.

But the structure of Briggs’ book centers on the works rather than on the life. Each chapter focuses on the composition of one of Woolf’s books, from “The Voyage Out” in 1915 to “Between the Acts” in 1941. In each, Briggs indicates how the external details of Woolf’s life worked their way into the book. For example, the death of her mother informs that of Mrs. Ramsay in “To the Lighthouse,” and the gender-switching novel “Orlando” draws on her affair with Sackville-West. But as Briggs’ subtitle indicates, it’s the “interior life” – the creative process itself – that most concerns her. Drawing on diaries, letters, and manuscripts, Briggs shows us Woolf writing, reflecting, revising, publishing, and responding to criticism.

In taking on the inner Woolf, Briggs has set herself a daunting task. The creative process isn’t inherently dramatic, and occasionally Briggs’ book feels a little airless. You may long for the harder, brighter edges of conventional biography, and if so, there are plenty of other books about Woolf and her Bloomsbury associates – Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington, Vanessa and Clive Bell, Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson and Leonard Woolf – to turn to.

But if you’re looking for lucid insight into an intricate mind, a biography that’s also a companion to reading Woolf’s fiction, Briggs’ book is what you want. As Briggs puts it, Woolf strove for fiction that would “hold together the multiplicity, inconsistency and variety that characterize our experience of living” and that would provide “pictures rather than explanations, questions rather than answers, the elusiveness of the short story rather than the solidity of the novel.” So subtle a writer demands a subtle treatment. Fortunately, Briggs is up to it, and she’s produced a book that sheds light not only on the works of Virginia Woolf, but also on the nature of literature itself.