A year or so ago, I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, that book by the Japanese organizational guru. I found many of her techniques to be truly useful (my sock drawer became, and has remained, a thing of joy and beauty). But when it came to books, she insisted that people get read of unread books, because likely you'll never read them. Now, admittedly there is some truth to that. But the fact that I like books in my life, whether I've read them or not, slowed me down from following that advice. But the other thing is, there are books I haven't read that I truly mean to. Sure, there were books I'd purchased on impulse, "it" books of the moment that I was never that interested in, and I divested myself of those. But I had a stack remaining of books I really wanted to read. The overriding factor in not having read most of them? Intimidation. A 750+-page book in fine print about Virginia Woolf? Yes, I want to read it, but lord almighty, that's an undertaking. And I have many of these tomes, quite a few of them literary biographies, that I want to read. I decided there was nothing for it but to start, and to just take it slow, a few pages here and there while reading other books.
It figures that I immediately found Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf to be a fascinating, gripping book. In Lee's afterword, she mentioned having begun work on it in 1991, and the copyright date is 1996. I cannot fathom what it took to research and write this book in that short a time period.
Besides the fact that the quality of the writing and research is high, there's another aspect that makes this book so worthwhile. Woolf's life is told roughly chronologically, but each time period is broken down into different themes: Houses, Paternal, Maternal, Subversives, Failures, among others. Things sometimes get told out of order, but by looking at them thematically gives a deeper sense of Woolf as both human and as writer. And also as a flawed human--Lee doesn't sugarcoat or apologize for some of Woolf's attitudes, especially towards servants, just presents them as they were.
If there was one complaint I had, it would be that this maybe isn't the best book for a Woolf novice. I didn't know an awful lot about Woolf before I read it, although I've read several of her novels. Lee assumes some prior knowledge and does things like refer to Woolf's having been abused as a child in passing before the abuse gets fully discussed. Not having known that she'd been abused, I had no idea what Lee was talking about. But that's fairly minor in comparison with the positives. One chapter in particular stood out to me: Lee pored through Leonard Woolf's meticulous records to track down what medications and treatments Woolf was given during her breakdowns, and did a current-day review of them. The results were not encouraging.
Lee also examines how two world wars affected Woolf and concludes (reasonably, I think) that it's a mistake to say that Woolf's suicide was completely the result of the onset of WWII. Certainly it had an impact--WWI had a terrible effect on her, and seeing another war coming had to be difficult. But there were so many things going on in Woolf's life, and in her head, that to point to one external cause is oversimplifying, and in calling that out and proposing a more complex theory, Lee does a wonderful service.
And of course, reading about how Woolf's great written works came to be, what inspired them, and how often she felt they were terrible--apparently she very rarely read any of her work once it was published--is fantastic. Her family and friend intrigues, the gossip, the appearance of so many iconic people (Joyce! Yeats!) makes this almost as good as a novel.
So, on to the next book in the stack. Who should I read about next? Yeats? Dickens? Louisa May Alcott? Emily Dickinson?