From the Voyage Out to the ego's world within

Virginia Woolf
February 17, 2006

According to the publicity leaflet, Julia Briggs's Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life is "both biography and a series of inviting introductions to her books". Actually, it is neither. What it attempts - much as you would expect from a book with a subtitle such as this - is to enter into the psychological maelstrom out of which such great novels as Mrs Dalloway , To the Lighthouse and The Waves emerged, and to assess them as works of art and as objects in a cultural marketplace. This it does very well indeed.

It would be hard to imagine anyone covering the scholarly ground more thoroughly: of the book's 528 pages, more than a hundred are taken up with notes to Briggs's text, each one packed with information. Her ability to explain how and why the data inform the biographical record is evident throughout but particularly in the bibliographical interludes or "aftermaths" in which, after discussing the content of each of Woolf's volumes, she deals with critical reception, print runs, reprints, adaptations and the present standing of each in the canon. These sections contain a host of materials that shed light on aspects of Woolf's writing that are likely to fascinate all serious students of her work. Mrs Dalloway , for instance, was a slow seller at first, with just over 2,000 copies sold in this country in its first year. And it is interesting to note that, as with others of her books, the American text was different from the British one because it was corrected from separate sets of proofs. To the Lighthouse is an interesting example; Briggs says the American text "differed significantly from the Hogarth Press edition, and the differences occur at key points - the ending of the first part, 'The Window', for example, or the parenthesis that records Mr Ramsay's reaction to his wife's death".

There is nothing dry about such exposition because Briggs understands the novels and the psychology that produced them so well, and those elements are shown to be part of a larger whole. Her book is structured chronologically - and to that extent it justifies the notion that it is "biographical" - enabling her to explore the evolution of Woolf's artistic development. For many, it will be most useful as a critical survey, and in that respect Briggs is an exceptionally sensitive reader. Her analysis of Mrs Dalloway is finely nuanced: for instance, against the assumption that the novel portrays English society as it was, she demonstrates that it "caricatured the English ruling classes - politicians, courtiers, aristocrats, heads of professions - and the way they dress up for their various roles". Indeed, the concept of the "inner life" obliges Briggs to deal with the manner in which the outer world impinged on Woolf's creative existence. This is one of the book's most successful aspects, as when she explores how Wagner influenced The Waves , how Eliot's "saturated moment" may have led to Woolf's "moments of being", and Orlando 's debt to Einstein.

Briggs wears her erudition lightly, though it is to her credit that this book is not ideal beach reading; instead, it demands every ounce of one's attention. On that count it would be hard to express any reservations, except perhaps to cavil about the odd missed trick. For instance, I wonder whether the fact that Dalloway-day is in June might be in response to Bloomsday, even though Woolf was not a fan of Joyce. And when in her account of A Room of One's Own, Briggs points out that Woolf made fun of D.H. Lawrence's obsession with "slipping off one's petticoat", I wondered whether in fairness something more might be said about Woolf's view of him? After all, there was more to Lawrence than that.

If there is a problem with Briggs's approach, it is that her subject's achievement is taken so much for granted as to leave little room for adverse comment. Of course, no one would seek to argue with the claim that Woolf was a pioneering feminist and a great writer, but neither achievement places her beyond criticism. Briggs describes a woman whose conduct towards others left much to be desired; Mrs Dalloway' s detested Miss Kilman has always stopped me in my tracks, making me wonder whether another kind of novel might be written about the day from her point of view. Likewise, Woolf's initial response to her peers was invariably defensive - Katherine Mansfield ("hard, cheap"), Arnold Bennett ("a source of annoyance"), Joyce ("filth"). I find it difficult to disentangle this from Woolf's attitude towards her long-suffering husband. Briggs offers an engaging account of Woolf's love affair with Vita Sackville-West, but says little about how Leonard Woolf survived it. And I was unable to understand how Virginia could harbour what Briggs concludes was a "casual, unsystematic and apparently thoughtless" anti-Semitism when she was married to a Jew - one who, moreover, stuck by his wife throughout her creative life, nursing her through lengthy patches of ill health.

Briggs's virtue lies in her sympathy with her subject, which may be what prevents her from being as disinterested as she might. Perhaps she is right to leave judgment to the reader. For my part, I found the Woolf that emerged from this book to be insufferably self-regarding, self-obsessed, fixated on the things that were likely to give her pleasure and grimly oblivious to those around her, especially her husband. Even the suicide note that she left him in March 1941, which Briggs reproduces in facsimile, reads like a document of monumental egotism, the word "..." appearing several times in each sentence. The most painful thing about it is Leonard's inscription at the bottom: "This is the letter left for me on the table in the sitting room which I found at 1 on March 28."

This book is not going to upset Woolf's admirers, nor does it set out to.

What it does manage is to admit the reader into her inner life and demonstrate how it informed her art. As such, it is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in how Woolf thinks; for instance, Briggs says that she "had an almost painful sense of the poignancy of things when they are emptied of us - our shoes, clothes, rooms, houses - emptinesses that she found at once melancholy and liberating for the alteration of scale and meaning they brought, the sense of slowed time and vast upheaval as a fold of material swung loose, or a light beam traversed an empty room".

This is Briggs at her best: a sentence worthy of her author that describes a quality that has eluded many - the almost mystic sensitivity to the material world that serves as a counterpart to the spiritual dimension of her novels. Readers of this volume will be grateful for such observations.

Duncan Wu is professor of English language and literature, Oxford University.

Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life

Author - Julia Briggs
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 528
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9663 3

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