A biography of the last decade of Virginia Woolf’s life that generously grants the reader an intimate view of her extraordinary world.
Marder (English/Univ. of Illinois) outlines a simple and honest theory of biography in his introduction, and it is a tribute to his skills as a writer and to Woolf’s life as an artist that his resulting work sings her praises clearly while not flinching from her failures. Through the past 30-plus years of feminist literary criticism, Woolf has rightly emerged as an icon of feminism, and icons tend to be rather flat and two-dimensional; Marder uncovers the human features beneath the symbol in all of Woolf’s dignity and in her (ultimately contradictory) detail. The beauty of this biography is found in its small moments: Woolf haggles with John Lehmann, the manager of the Hogarth Press; she bickers with servant Nelly Boxall; she takes a trip to Greece with art critic Roger Fry and his wife Margery; she worries over the economic crises of 1930s England and frets whether Maynard Keynes’s warnings will sound in time to avert disaster. The ups and downs of domestic life with husband Leonard are delineated with artistic precision, as are the moments with her stubborn mother-in-law. Through it all, of course, Woolf writes, and she does so brilliantly. With judicious excerpts from her diaries and letters, as well as the words of her friends, Marder creates a breathing and multi-layered vision of a genius at work. The story ends, as it must, with Woolf’s suicide in the river; the bleak ending feels not as harsh as it might because Marder has given the reader a real sense of the woman and the causes for her untimely death.
A biography for those who love Woolf, and for those who want to love her all the more by knowing her all the better.