VIRGINIA WOOLF by James King

VIRGINIA WOOLF

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Despite its claim as the first full-scale literary biography of Virginia Woolf, King's (William Blake, 1991) thick work breaks no new ground, but instead tries lugubriously to make the writer into a self-help heroine and her books into a kind of therapy. From the constrained Stephen household to bohemian Bloomsbury, Woolf's life is readily and voluminously available in her collected letters, diaries, and memoir fragments (as well as in her nephew Quentin Bell's candid authorized biography)including her early sexual abuse by her half-brothers, her mental instability and breakdowns, and the development of her innovative novels and acute criticism. While King doggedly recounts the familiar details, he fixates, pseudo-psychoanalytically, on the conflicts of her character throughout her various relationships with family and friends. The legacy of her emotionally distant mother plays out in her intense female friendships and ambivalent sexuality (as expressed in her affair with Vita Sackville-West); the need to both identify with and separate from her sentimentally tyrannical father leads to competitive skirmishes with T.S. Eliot, Lytton Strachey, and others. On a positive if drab note, her marriage to Leonard Woolf comes across as a source of comforting stability, between the Hogarth Press and his attentions (his frustrations with their sex life apart). If King's amateur Freudian checkup ignores her wit and humor, his Cliff Notes summaries of her work, which digress only for biographic parallels, do not support his vague discussion of Woolf's ``feminist aesthetic'' as opposed to a ``masculine literature,'' Woolf's search for a place as a woman writer and contemporary feminists' debt to her notwithstanding. In interpreting her life as a heroic struggle against her morbid impulses, King ironically portrays Woolf's life and literary achievement with the gloom she sought to overcome. (16 pages b&w photos, illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: April 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-393-03748-7
Page count: 720pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1995