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Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris

Zehra Mustafa

Zehra Mustafa

By Zehra Cranmer
                                    
There is an entire shelf in my bookcase dedicated to Virginia Woolf; her novels, her diaries and biographies so it is hardly surprising that I became intrigued by a new biography. What new light can possibly be shed upon one of the most scrutinised literary figures? Do I not know all that needs to be known? Such questions fluttered haphazardly in my head before I even cracked the book’s spine. It’s also terribly important to take heed when approaching a biography; one must question the writer’s motive, background and avoid a sensationalist account at all cost.

Once it was clear that the writer, Harris, was an English lecturer at the University of Liverpool, a Woolf scholar, a teacher of modernist and American literature and so forth, I plunged in further. From the offset, still taking small steps with caution I might add, Harris talks about the many biographies written about Woolf, from Hermione Lee to Quentin Bell and states that her own approach to Woolf and this book is a “…first port of call for those new to Woolf and as an enticement to read more...” and for those that know her works and life, she hopes it will “…set off a few fresh ideas.” This is in fact what she has certainly achieved. If the reader does in fact know a great deal of Woolf’s life and her writings thoroughly then this book will only act as a form of “recap”.

Harris offers up a brief history of Woolf’s life and how her novels mirrored her constant restyling of thought and this in itself is rather refreshing. She impart ‘s quite a few interesting ideas, some that were somewhat new and refreshing yet there was a niggling sense and desire for her to chip the surface just a  little more, even if it was to reveal yet another layer. It is true, there is only so much that one can put in a 170 page book made up of 46 illustrations, but the human mind yearns for more.

Harris brushes upon the obsession with Woolf’s life, she writes, “The appearance of completeness has been one of the seductions for readers of Woolf, and one of the dangers…Whatever else emerges from the depths of archives and desk drawers…there will be no finished picture of Virginia Woolf.” It is within the last few pages that Harris offers what could be considered as a critical study and a sharp one it is and not only that, she is poetic and full of deep feeling, leaving the reader with an ache in their chest and a sting in the throat, a true melancholic thrust in the ribs. The true magic in this book lays in this sentence, “Virginia Woolf has a habit of changing shape to stay alive,” which is why, most of us will continue seeking out other works on Woolf, for she is very much alive and can never be too sure how or where she will reappear.

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