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     Volume 4 Issue 42 | April 16, 2005 |

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Book Review

Inside the Lighthouse family

Jane Stevenson

Woolf's continuing status as a novelist is part of the reason why biographers find it hard to let her alone, but it is also true that hers is an iconic life. Good cheekbones, bisexuality, genius and suicide are all claims to posthumous celebrity, but it is as if Woolf's particular combination of talent, beauty and vulnerability has acquired significance beyond that of an individual story.

Her important contributions to feminist writing in England are an aspect of this, since the process of her thinking about women in the world is carried forward in her novels, her essays and even her suicide. Having invented the myth of Judith Shakespeare (in A Room of One's Own), she brutally illustrated the point that the world was not yet ready for a woman of genius by choosing her heroine's fate of death by drowning. Her tragedy, like that of Sylvia Plath, has therefore been treated as a paradigm for creative women's experience in the 20th century.

Julia Briggs's book is not quite a biography in the ordinary sense, but a study of Virginia Woolf as a writer. It starts with her lighting a cigarette and thinking about her first book. Each chapter charts the progress from her first thoughts through her drafting and redrafting to publication and how the result was received, both at the time, and subsequently.

Due to the vast battery of Bloomsbury letters and diaries, it is possible to establish in detail what Woolf was reading, thinking about and experiencing as she worked on each book. She was highly self-conscious about the processes of writing and reading, and profoundly interested in her own creative process, so she has left abundant material with which to complete such a project effectively.

This approach has the enormous merit of sidelining the whole problem of Woolf as victim and concomitant wrangles over precisely what she was a victim of; whether bipolar syndrome, genius, anorexia, hysteria, her father, stepbrother, her husband or patriarchy in general. Instead, we see how a writer's experiences, good and bad - nightmare memories of her father, falling in love with Vita Sackville-West or discussing aesthetics with Roger Fry - are put into the service of her work in progress with the vacuum cleaner-like efficiency which marks the successful novelist at work. (Briggs acutely observes this in action: 'The drunken woman singing in Kingsway, in chapter V, she had noticed on her way home a couple of months previously...')

Briggs shows how Woolf's developing feminism was often at odds with her desire to earn money and please her friends; her self-censorship in a world of largely male reviewers, commissioning editors and publishers.

Woolf writes eloquently and angrily about the compromises and disabilities forced on women as writers and readers, but never quite faced the fact that she was, for all that, a fully paid-up member of London's literary mafia herself, an influential reviewer and publisher of new fiction. Though she was, uniquely, in a position to meet the problem of publishing experimental novels by establishing her own press, unlike Lawrence or Joyce, she was not prepared to follow her principles through to the point where she risked alienating London's network of opinion formers.

Thus, as Briggs shows, clearly but with great charity, there were occasional yawning gaps between Woolf's principles and her life. She wrote in Three Guineas that women should not commit 'adultery of the brain' by writing for money, but as Queenie Leavis pointed out acidly, she never tried to answer the question of how anyone without a private income was to support themselves (nor was she indifferent to her earning power).

She was a lover of mankind in the abstract, whose intelligence, wit and humanity shine forth in her essays for The Common Reader, but who, in practice, could not endure the company of those without a respectable academic and/or social pedigree: her servants, for instance, and her inlaws; Leonard Woolf's sisters and mother are not even in Briggs's index.

Woolf outlined a loftily Utopian comic vision in a speech to a feminist society of an enraged patriarch in some future post-liberation moment, racing from room to room only to find his cook and maids reading Plato or dashing off a mass in B flat; one fears that if her own had shown the slightest desire to enrol at Morley College, her reactions would have been crisply patrician.

Her occasional failures of literary judgment are mostly class-related; egregiously, she dismissed Ulysses as 'the book of a self-taught working man' (though she was to argue that women's exclusion from establishment education allowed them to develop independence of mind). Woolf was repelled by Joyce and Lawrence. She could only deal with those whose internal censors were well in place, dimly aware of 'beastliness', perhaps, but never straightforwardly sexual. She killed 'the Angel in the House', but she never did in Sir Leslie Stephen's daughter.

Source: The International Virginia Woolf Society

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