I’ve come to realise that when your TBR is as big a mountain as mine is, a regular reshuffle of the piles is essential to stop coveted arrivals disappearing into the stacks. A case in point is a wonderful book I read recently – “Virginia Woolf” by Alexandra Harris. I first read about this back in 2018 on Simon’s blog and loved the sound of it; I’ve read *a lot* by and about Woolf over the decades and I absolutely love her. I was reassured by Simon’s statement that this was a book even a well-versed Woolf-lover could enjoy, and merrily sent away for a copy. It’s languished in the stacks ever since, to my shame, and when I stumbled upon in during a recent rummage it was exactly the book I was in the mood to read.

Author Alexandra Harris is someone I’ve read before, although I have to say that I was a tiny bit underwhelmed by “Romantic Moderns” when I explored it pre-blog, finding it not quite holding together enough for me. Here, though, her focus is firmly on one woman, the very inspirational Virginia Woolf. In ten relatively short chapters (the book is only 191 pages, including illustrations, notes, appendices etc) she relates clearly Woolf’s life, her work and her legacy in a wonderfully readable tome. Her early life in Hyde Park Gate, holidays in Talland House at St. Ives, the family tragedies, the move to Bloomsbury, the break with convention, the struggles to write, and the successes – all is here, covered brilliantly and evocatively. Also present is the illness – Harris treats Woolf’s breakdowns sensitively and sympathetically, always with a carefully balanced view. And I think it’s this latter element that really stood out for me in the book.

Virginia Woolf has attracted an immense amount of scholarship since her untimely death; much of it is partisan, some of it is downright weird. It was only when I read the section entitled “Afterwards” that I realised how much strangeness has been projected on Woolf over the years. To her credit, Harris is measured in her discussion of this (as with everything in the book) and that was really refreshing. It’s a concise book yet tells you everything you need to know about its subject and that’s a real achievement.

Reading was also, quite practically and literally, a means of survival. Virginia learned how to use it to stabilize herself when she felt the ‘agitation’, the ‘fidgets’, and mood swings that were a part of her illness. She learned this out of necessity during these difficult years.

Even though I’m very familiar with the facts of Woolf’s life, I got much from reading this book. Harris is particularly strong on how Woolf’s life fed into her work, and she gives you the essential VW in a clear and balanced form. I have to say that I have one very minor caveat, and that is that I wouldn’t suggest reading this book *before* you’ve read all of Woolf’s works. There are inevitably spoilers when it comes to discussing the books, and one particular one from “To The Lighthouse” which is a particular bugbear of mine. The specific event which I’ve seen spoiled on a number of occasions had a terrific emotional impact on me when I first read “Lighthouse”, and I do feel that you should read that book with no knowledge of what is to come.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Putting that aside, however, I can highly recommend Harris’s book as a great way to explore Woolf and her life once you’ve read the work. It rekindled my love for Woolf (if it ever needed that!), and really brought wonderful insight into the relationship between Virginia’s life and her writing. Harris’s work was originally published by Thames and Hudson in 2011, 70 years after Woolf took her own life in the River Ouse. When I saw the publication date, I suddenly realised that on the 28th of this month, it will be 80 years since then, and it’s also 40 years ago that I first read her work. Time has passed but Woolf’s work is no less brilliant and will endure – a tribute to her genius and her fight against her demons to produce the works she needed to write.