Sunday 20 February 2022

Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris

I wrote this piece in April 2020 but never published it, so it is getting its first outing almost two years on….

April 2020

We are living in a strange time in April 2020, the whole of the country is in lockdown and the pace of life has slowed down considerably. We are surrounded by the invisible threat of Coronavirus, Covid-19, but for those of us like me, who are lucky enough to be able to continue to work and live in houses with outside space, we have the luxury of the world slowing down and so much more time to sit and read. 

I have been drawn back to this project, in part because I have the time to sit and think about it, but also because I want to think about how Virginia Woolf dealt with challenging times in her life. I wondered if the Spanish flu of 1918 was something that touched her life (it gets a brief mention in a 1918 diary) and I’ve also been thinking about the periods of confinement that Virginia was subject to when she was unwell. All of these thoughts led me to picking up and reading Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris. I was given it as a birthday present last August, but having such a busy life has meant it has sat languishing on the “to be read” pile for some months. 

It has been a long time since I read a biography of Virginia Woolf, you can read about Hermione Lee here and Quentin Bell here and Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris was the perfect way to get back into reading about this author who I have been fascinated by for so long. 

Each chapter of the book represents a period in Virginia Woolf’s life and makes mention of the books she was writing and the wider things going on at the time. Having already read Hermione Lee’s ‘Virginia Woolf’ and Lyndall Gordon’s ‘Virginia Woolf: A Writers Life’, I knew a lot of the detail of her life, but this biography presented it in a different way to me. Being shorter, I was better able to see the connections between her life and her writing, understanding how each book fitted in with her life. 

It has reinvigorated me in my project to read all of Virginia Woolf’s work. I’ve had Virginia Woolf as a companion for a long time, but with more of a focus for the last 11 years after starting this blog in March 2009. As I read her diaries, I  was fascinated by the fact that we were born 100 years apart, it was easy to see how old she was as it matched my age (plus 100 years) and as it has taken me so long to tackle this project I am just about reading her books in the time it took her to write them. I love exploring her life at the time when we are the same age, seeing how she changes with age and how I have changed too. More so than men, a woman’s choices in life are often judged in relation to her age.  

I’ve am just about to start reading Night and Day (which I’m slightly behind on as it was published October 2019) and have a few blog posts to write about Two Stories, which features The Mark on the Wall and Kew Gardens, which I have read but not yet written about.

Reading this book has also inspired me to get walking again, after not having left the house for over a week. I went for a walk this evening whilst listening to Alexandra Harris on her radio series A Walk of One’s Own for BBC Radio 4, you can listen here.