Writing yet another biography of a famous person must be a difficult task. Claire Tomalin is an example of an author who is so skilled at this craft that she makes any great life an exciting read, no matter how often is has been written about before. As with her recent insightful offering about birthday boy Charles Dickens.
In her latest biography of Virginia Woolf, cultural historian Alexandra Harris acknowledges that hers is not a definitive version of this literary life, but rather a guide to her writings, with snippets of Woolf’s life thrown in. And, although quite a slim volume, it is very readable in that context, with some great illustrations and prints included to bring it to life.
Woolf is a difficult woman to write about and achieve any degree of warmth from the reader, as she could be aloof, snobbish, and was certainly privileged. But, as I discovered myself when reading her diaries for the first time a couple of years ago, she can be completely fascinating. She famously suffered from an early age from ‘breakdowns’ and severe depression, probably brought on by her mother’s death when she was just thirteen. Her illness frames her life and her literary career, as with the closing of each writing process as one novel came to an end, she knew that a depression would inevitably arrive and be in danger of overwhelming her.
Harris shows how some of her great friendships and relationships shaped her writing, in almost an exact opposite manner to the way Woolf herself reveals similar details via her diaries. And there are some interesting facts revealed about her, as when she turned down an honorary degree from the University of Manchester due to her hatred of the trappings of fame and her love of privacy.
The shadow of Fascism loomed over Virginia and her Jewish husband Leonard. They made practical preparations for how they would commit suicide together if the Nazis managed to invade Britain. But famously it was Virginia who committed suicide alone; preferring to drown herself rather than go through another bout of severe depression when she was approaching sixty. She also could not bear to put her husband and close friends through the trauma of looking after her again.
She asked her husband to destroy all her papers after her death. Thank goodness he didn’t or else we would not have her diaries to savour. For she is one of the most interesting and readable diarist there ever has been. And in this primer for her novels, Harris makes a good case for going beyond her journals to sample her fictional writings too.