"I shall be miserable, or happy; a wordy sentimental creature, or a writer of such English as shall one day burn the pages," the 25-year-old Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to her friend Violet Dickinson in 1907. Over the years, she has been seen as both sorts of creature: for some a melancholy and frigid aesthete, for others the most significant female writer of the 20th century. In Alexandra Harris' biography, she is very much a writer who sets pages alight.
Woolf's story has been told and retold so often that the reader could be forgiven for wondering if yet another version is really necessary, particularly after Hermione Lee's magisterial Virginia Woolf (1996), the book that Harris credits with sparking her own career as a literary student and academic, and to which this new biography in many ways pays homage. Harris, like Lee, views Woolf's life as one of professionalism, of strong social and political beliefs, of laughter and wit, and of determination and courage in the face of continued depressive illness. Yet she also identifies another Woolf, one who was intensely happy, and whose work was "an extraordinary celebration of life".
Harris wears her scholarship lightly and is an engaging communicator, as amply demonstrated in her widely acclaimed first book, Romantic Moderns (2010), a revisionary cultural history of English modernism in the 1930s and 1940s, which won the Guardian First Book Award. She does not pretend in the current book to offer a comprehensive account of Woolf's life and work, and states that it is intended as "a first port of call for those new to Woolf and as an enticement to read more". There is not a great deal of new material here - that is not really Harris' purpose - but there is a fresh and appealing voice, persuasive in its enthusiasm for a Woolf who "makes one want to live more consciously and fully".
Just one example is Harris' treatment of Woolf's 1928 comic fantasy novel Orlando, which, with its exotic settings, time travel across the centuries and transsexual protagonist, seemed to the majority of readers on its publication and for many years afterwards a frivolous but thankfully brief departure (Woolf herself described it as a "writer's holiday") from her more serious, lyric novels. But Harris reads Woolf's extended love letter to Vita Sackville-West very differently, as the untrammelled expression of a joyous, sensual and teasing spirit within Woolf's novels more generally. Returning to the novels in preparation for writing the current book, Harris notes: "I saw more clearly than before the spirit of Orlando in all of them and watched the fun and fantasy getting into some of the darkest corners."
Thus the "flirtatious social manner" of Mrs Dalloway (1925), and the "dashing social comedy" of To the Lighthouse (19), for example, come more clearly into view. This is the kind of provocative shift of the lens at which Harris excels and which won so much praise for Romantic Moderns. I found myself wanting to read more about the Woolf who, on being unable to attend a party, lay in bed imagining how brilliant and beautiful she would have been at it, who was sought after by high society hostesses and the editor of Vogue, and who wrote in her diary of "the glow & the flattery & the festival" of life with Vita. Indeed, after beginning Harris' book wondering whether Woolf really needed another biography, I was soon wishing that this had been a rather longer one.
By Alexandra Harris
Thames & Hudson 192pp, £14.95
Published 26 September 2011