Julia Briggs

Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life

listerm16pic1.jpg Virginia Woolf is assuredly now one of those canonic writers whose work will never fall out of fashion. Nor will her life and work ever fail the critical industry which began more than sixty years ago, well before her death in 1941. The industry is thriving: the 16th Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf will take place at the University of Birmingham in June 2006, and at the last count, the Library of Congress devotes more than thirty subject-headings to those categories on which Woolf and Woolf-related studies have been produced. These include critical works on: Woolf and aesthetics, archives, characters, death and burial, ethics, friends and associates, health, homes and haunts, journeys, and knowledge and learning, without forgetting the more obvious subject-headings for Woolf’s own work in fiction and the many biographies that have been written about her.

Julia Briggs’ An Inner Life is the latest in a number of those recent, impressive biographies of Woolf. This is almost a new form of life-writing, placing as much, if not more, emphasis on Woolf’s creative process, as on the life. And what distinguishes Briggs’ approach is her use of Woolf’s own words from her letters and essays and diaries to describe and evaluate the process of writing. Briggs’ own interest is focused less on the social life of her subject than on ‘Woolf the Creative Writer’ and her revealing self-documentation. ‘While the story of her inner life cannot be told (except as another fiction), it is possible to track down a number of factors that brought her books into being, by following the genesis and process of their writing as reflected in the surviving drafts, and supplementing these with the accounts she gave to friends, or confided to her diary as aids to reconstruction.’

In these regards, and in terms of her aims, Briggs has done a hugely successful job in leading ‘readers back to Woolf’s work with a fresh sense of what they might find there.’ This ‘fresh sense’ is augmented by the novel approach of providing at the end of each chapter an ‘aftermath’ section which details: the print-runs of each of Woolf’s books and other publication information, digests of the ‘notices’ or reviews each received, as well as Woolf’s own feelings about these reviews, and an instance of Woolf’s own infuriating and endearing ‘bad habit of making up the review I should like, before reading the review I get.’ Such an admission of self-awareness in an artist must be unique! While Briggs suggests that each of these aftermaths ‘can, of course, be skipped, as can the endnotes,’ they contain a great deal of valuable production and bibliographic information which is sometimes difficult to track down elsewhere. Far from being ‘too specialized to appeal to the common reader, for whom this book is primarily intended,’ as Briggs too diffidently suggests, it is the very stuff that literary biography is made of.

Just one example of the kind and quality of such material is that found in the chapter on Orlando. The title-page described the work as a ‘biography’, and pre-publication, ‘booksellers were chary, no one wants biography. But it is a novel, says Miss Ritchie,’ the splendidly uncommercial traveller of The Hogarth Press. Sure of her instincts, Woolf felt ‘it was going to be one of the popular books’ – and it proved to be the turning-point in her career as a ‘successful’ novelist. In six months, it sold twice as many copies as To The Lighthouse had done in its first twelve, and it was certainly much easier to read! ‘Orlando taught me how to write a direct sentence,’ Woolf was to record. And while Woolf, ‘in my hoity toity way,’ turned down an invitation to publish it with Penguin, Orlando was to become the first of her novels to go into paperback, as a Penguin in 1942. Briggs adds, without need of amplification or further comment, ‘a note on the cover identified the author as ‘the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, KCB, and the wife of Leonard Woolf.’ Greeted as a succès fou, it was received by some as a ‘high-spirited lark’ or a ‘jeu d’esprit‘, though one critic, acknowledging its sense of history, wrote, ‘Mrs Woolf seems also to have the story of English literature and the English people in mind.’ Since its publication in 1928, Orlando has provided the dramatic material for stage and screen, and Woolf herself ‘anticipated a musical version.’ Its great success and its lasting appeal to many readers did not prevent Angela Carter some fifty years after its publication from dismissing it as ‘a slobbering valentine to an aristocrat!’ (Though this kind of attack is much more good-humoured than those Mr and Mrs Leavis were to launch on Woolf’s Three Guineas and Between the Acts. It would be rather fun if someone were to write a musical about the Leavises. Now, that would be a most fitting revenge.)

The real triumph of An Inner Life is not that it provides the reader with any hitherto unknown biographical information, rather that it puts the writing ‘back absolutely at the centre of Woolf’s life.’ This Briggs does with critical acuity and consummate skill. She ‘illuminates Woolf’s creative practice and process, which demonstrate, as all her writing does, her capacity to find, at every stage of her career, another and a newer way of expressing her vision.’

Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, Julia Briggs, Allen Lane/Penguin (ISBN 0713996633 HBK £30)

© Michael Lister 2006