Who needs yet another biography of Virginia Woolf? Not I certainly, who have been a VW aficionado for dozens of years, possibly ever since the day somewhere in the 1960s when I first came across one of the five volumes of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, borrowed from the British Council Library in Jerusalem, in the days when it was still situated in Jerusalem’s wonderful Terra Sancta building.
That book led me to my obsession with Virginia Woolf, Leonard’s wife and one of the leading writers of the twentieth century. As ever more volumes about her came out, whether other people’s memoirs about her, her own collected letters, diaries, and essays, and the monumental biography and literary analysis by Hermione Lee, pretty much the entire English reading public was swept away by the conglomeration of artists, writers and intellectuals who constituted what came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group, because of the area of London where many of them lived. By now I have several bookshelves containing her books as well as other people’s books about her and the group of friends that coalesced around her and Leonard.
But it’s been some time now since I immersed myself in Bloomsburyana and eagerly consumed everything I could about Virginia, so that this relatively slim volume (only 187 pages), which I received as a gift, comes as a succinct and well-written reminder of all the things that so fascinated me in the past.
First of all, Virginia’s life in and of itself is fascinating. Born into an intellectual and relatively wealthy family in London, she and her siblings were subjected to the rigours of a Victorian household, with the manners and mores that pertained to their standing. While her brothers went to public school and Oxford university, Virginia and her sister Vanessa were kept at home, where they were taught by private tutors and their father, the writer Lesley Stephen, and were given the run of their parents’ extensive library. This obviously rankled with Virginia, whose book-length essay, A Room of One’s Own, written many years later, criticizes the discrimination against women implicit – and often explicit – in so many British institutions. The situation has changed since then, it’s true, but reading those lines today still stirs feelings of resentment at the many injustices inherent in the system of education and administration.
For most of her life Virginia was periodically afflicted by some kind of mental illness which has been post-factum defined as mania-depression. Whether or not this was indeed the case, the fact of the matter is that she suffered bouts of terrible depression when she was unable to function normally, let alone write. But it was writing that was her raison d’être, and had it not been for Leonard’s careful and caring stewardship it is not clear whether Virginia would ever have managed to overcome them. Thus, despite the crippling bouts of despair, she managed to produce a large body of work, each of her ten novels was a ground-breaking contribution to contemporary English literature, and her non-fiction reveals an active and brilliant mind combining insights and understanding with a polished literary style.
So it is good to have this new and comprehensive little book, written with clarity and understanding and also containing copious illustrations – photographs of people and places, and of Virginia in particular, as well as paintings and illustrations produced by her sister, Vanessa, who was a talented artist.
Fearing both the recurrence of her mental illness and the consequences of a possible German invasion of Britain, Virginia Woolf took her own life in 1941 at the age of 60. Admittedly, her end was tragic, but her life was full and creative, and that is her legacy to future generations.