In part because of its brevity, Alexandra Harris’s study of Virginia Woolf brings home how late in life she wrote her well-known works. In rapidly scanning the years, Harris emphasises how many were lost to self-doubt and illness, but also how only during her most severe breakdowns did Woolf actually stop writing.
Harris succinctly captures Woolf’s work ethic, evident from childhood when she would stand to write at a tall desk to match her sister Vanessa’s easel. A prolific essayist and reviewer, Woolf prepared for novel-writing by habitually recounting an event in three different letters before committing it to her diary, “but rarely was a single phrase repeated”.
The critical evaluations of Woolf’s novels are elegant and searching; the analysis of Orlando is especially acute, with its insistence that the book’s satire and humour can be found everywhere in Woolf, if in subtler form. Harris acknowledges how well-trodden the ground she covers is, but her take on Woolf is an ideal introduction.
Virginia Woolf, by Alexandra Harris, Thames & Hudson, RRP£14.95, 192 pages