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Virgina Woolf is the greatest of all British women writers and one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century writing. She was a novelist utterly immersed in books, wholly original, passionate, vivid and with a steely dedication to her art. Yet given that what we value about Woolf's life is her nine great novels, most writing about her tends to revolve around her social life and the planet of the Bloomsbury set.
Julia Briggs' aim in this fresh, absorbing new book is to put the writing back absolutely at the centre of Woolf's life; to read that life through her books, using the novels themselves to create a compelling new form of biography. Using Woolf's own matchless commentary on the creative process through her letters, diaries and essays, Julia Briggs has produced a book which is a convincing, moving picture of an artist at full stretch, but also a brilliant meditation on the whole nature of creativity.
Reviewed by Daphne MerkinThe famous question, surely, needs amending by now: who isn't afraid of Virginia Woolf of writing about her, at least? Ever since this most singularly gifted of women, whose genius is as protean as it is profound, committed suicide at the age of 58 in 1941 at the height of her creative powers, her life and work has engendered an unremitting flow of books. These have included massively researched tomes and slender impressionistic volumes on every aspect of Woolf, from her pedigreed background and difficult Victorian childhood to her unconventional marriage to Leonard, the "penniless Jew," her Sapphic inclinations and the modernist Bloomsbury circle in which she moved. Certain subsets of questions what was the particular nature of her mental illness? Did she or did she not suffer sexual abuse as an adolescent at the hands of her two half-brothers? have inspired whole bookshelves of answers. In the more than half-century since Woolf put a large stone in her pocket late one March morning and walked into the Ouse River near her house in Sussex, the documentation and speculation have not ceased. Enough has been said, or so one would think. I might add, with all due lack of humility, that I am in a particularly good position to think thusly, since it would not be stretching things too far to say that I have read the vast majority of these books, including Hermione Lee's magisterial biography, which appeared in 1997. So it is the more surprising to find Julia Briggs's new intellectual biography of Woolf not only a mesmerizing read but one that adds fresh dabs of paint to what I had otherwise assumed to be a finished portrait. The emphasis on Woolf's "inner life" on her ongoing creative process and on her response to the critical reception of her work is especially suited to a writer who was in the rapt habit of watching herself think, keeping track of the quicksilver movements of her own mind like a fisherman on the lookout for the sudden tug on his pole, the flash of a fin. (Woolf was drawn to water imagery throughout her life as a metaphor for the process of intellection.) And Briggs has done an extraordinarily skillful job of interweaving Woolf's experience as a writer with her experience as a woman in the world, one who pondered the "life of frocks" and who had arguments with her cook."How I interest myself!" Woolf wrote in a diary entry. And how she continues to interest us, not least because of the fascination she exerts on other talented readers and writers, like Julia Briggs. That this book is a must for Woolf fans goes without saying, but it is also a must for anyone interested in the nature of female consciousness at its most self-aware and the workings of artistic sensibility at their most illuminating. B&w photos. Daphne Merkin is the author of Enchantment, a novel, and Dreaming of Hitler, a collection of essays. She writes a book column for Elle.