By Rachel Bowlby
"No additional book about her is strictly necessary, but then neither is chocolate." Deliciously combining the tart and the indulgent, Victoria Glendinning's remark about lives of Virginia Woolf, made in 2005, has stayed in my mind - long after the book that prompted it will have disappeared into the deeper recesses of Amazon's warehouse. In a few aphoristic words, she suggested a great deal about the relatively harmless and mainly feminine addiction to Bloomsbury biographies, which is the counterpart to publishers and writers repeatedly producing the things in their many hundreds of pages - and reviewers reviewing them.
Now along comes Alexandra Harris's book with the latest version of Virginia - but this one is different. It carries no promise of startling discoveries or new lines of thinking about its subject. Instead, its selling point is a simple one: it is short. At under 200 pages (many of them photographs), this Virginia Woolf checks in at under a quarter of the normal page expectancy. Gone are the days when you might have spent months on end minutely following the young Virginia Stephen as she and her many siblings meandered back and forth between Cornwall and London in the closing decades of the 19th century; as Julia, the mother, died when Virginia was just 13; as a half-sister, Stella, also died not long afterwards; as Leslie Stephen, the father, raved through the years, rehearsing his destiny as To the Lighthouse's Mr Ramsay before dying, too, in the early years of the 20th century. Only then, after pages and pages, would you be down to the second layer of the chocolate box, with Virginia setting off on a semi-independent, post-Victorian life of her own, and Leonard waiting in the wings, for better or for worse.
So, imagine the shock of sitting down after breakfast one morning with Harris's slim volume and finding, after what felt like a very short while, that we were heading towards the major breakdown of 1913. I got up to make a cup of coffee, but by the time I came back not only was the crisis long over, the woman was apparently passing 40. Oh, no! Have I gone and missed Vita? But it's all right, we're just pausing for a moment of reflection. "She wanted her life to have form in the way that her novels had form. Now, at the end of 1922, she could feel herself being tugged in differentdirections and making the choices that would determine who she was in middle age." Good to take a moment to sort that out. But now there's no time to lose for Ginny Whizz: "She wrote very quickly, one after the next, four major novels, each completely different from the last, each taking a huge gamble by adopting untried methods." Amazingly, she also found time for the "growing mid-life relationship" with the glamorous Sackville-West.
And onwards into another decade, with even more great books and another passionate female attachment, this time to Ethel Smyth, always good for a spiky array of cartoon epithets: "this large, deaf, outspoken septuagenarian warhorse of the feminist cause". By way of some serious preoccupation with "politics" (this is the 1930s, after all), it is almost time for the end we all know to be on the way. But this is followed, in properly 21st-century style, by a further short chapter, called "Afterwards", which contains capsule accounts of various kinds of published and performed Woolfian lives after Woolf - her own letters and diaries, as well as biographies, and also novels and plays.
Don't get me wrong; this book is a very good read, assured and imbued with an infectious wish to impart an enthusiasm for all that Woolf made and was. Harris writes compellingly about Woolf's love of the rural places she knew - and this is something that Harris, as the author of Romantic Moderns, is concerned to convey as a neglected feature of Woolf's writerly affections. But when she expresses regret that "East Sussex is not signposted 'Woolf Country'", I think she is going a stile too far along this particular path. Woolf lived only part of the time, for part of her life, in one part of what is now East Sussex, and quite a few other writers, women included, are known to have lived in the county, too. Besides, surely this would be a form of authorial celebrity that she would have deplored. In the first paragraph of A Room of One's Own, Woolf mocks the expectation that a lecture on "women and fiction" should include, among other predictable names, "a tribute to the Brontës and a sketch of Haworth parsonage under snow".
More of a guidebook for first-time visitors to a much-visited site, Harris's brief life is not presented as offering an original version of Woolf - or as doing away with an existing one. It is avowedly indebted to Hermione Lee's 1996 biography, much the most important and influential of recent times; and it follows Lee in the stance that it takes on crucial biographical debating points, such as the qualities of her marriage to Leonard or the understanding of the recurrent episodes of depression and breakdown she suffered - they are, for Harris as for Lee, an intermittent "illness" that Woolf partly learned to live with. Harris is perhaps less directly interested than Lee in Woolf's status, in her lifetime and later, as a female writer, or
in whether her creative achievements should be seen as specifically those of a woman. You would not, from reading this account, pick up any sense of the critical battles that have been fought to claim Woolf's place as what Harris calls "one of the greatest writers of all time" - or the way that those battles have been very much bound up with a contested sense of what might count as great writing, for women or men, let alone for all time.
As the big picture implies, Harris distances herself from what she presents as overdetailed studies of Woolf's work: "the telescope as well as the microscope has its uses". Focusing on its established star, this Virginia Woolf is lucidly readable. It does not change what has been seen in Woolf, but it should play the part, as Harris hopes, of a pleasurable and informative "enticement to read more" - to read Woolf's own writing, that is. And, naturally, to read more Woolf biographies.
Thames & Hudson, 192pp, £14.95
Rachel Bowlby is the Northcliffe Professor of English at University College London