A review of Virginia Woolf by Julia Briggs

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life 
by Julia Briggs
2006, ISBN 0-15-603229-5, $16.00, 544 pages

Julia Briggs is a professor of English at Montfort University in Leicester, England. This is her fifth book of literary criticism and her second on Virginia Woolf.

Less highly colored and aggressive than Joyce, Woolf’s position as a modernist writer is less conspicuous. Her reactions to Joyce were ambivalent. His coarseness, as she perceived it, repulsed her but she was able to learn from him and apply his principals in ways more congenial to her. Briggs rightly emphasizes the importance of her story, ‘The Mark on the Wall.’ It predates any possible acquaintance with Joyce’s work and uses some of the same narrative strategies that he was working out for Ulysses. 

In this book Briggs sets up an interesting format. In each chapter she first considers a work of Woolf and then the aftermath of its publication. Although Briggs writes that the reader may ignore the aftermath sections, the reader would lose much of value were he or she to do so. As work succeeds work, details accumulate and enrich the progressive considerations. Briggs supports her sensitive account of the individual work with relevant recapitulation of the events in Woolf’s life. This differs from the customary critical account. Inner Life will not serve as a biography since the critical examination is uppermost, but the combination is one in which each element enriches the other. Briggs thus may be seen as imposing on herself restrictions as to length and content that result in a very judicious and sharply focused book.

There are lapses of focus. Briggs tells us that Leonard and Virginia decided to get a dog but then did not do so. She tells us this twice. There are a few other repetitions of this type as if each chapter were intended to be self-contained. A minor faults in so good a book.

The progression of works begins with first The Voyage Out and then with Night and Day. Neither is wholly satisfactory and less important in themselves than they are in regard to what will follow them. Jacob’s Room begins the series of books that are consistently distinctive. Of Mrs Dalloway Briggs makes the interesting observation that Mrs Dalloway and Septimus Smith may be seen as Woolfian equivalents of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. Briggs sees Orlando as the center of the trilogy composed of To The Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own. She describesOrlando as a large coded message. This is an approach that will make the book more readable to some although – as the most popular of Woolf’s novels – that may not be necessary. She also gives a comprehensive description of Woolf’s last book, Between the Acts. The exact condition of the text as Woolf left it may never be resolved, but by Brigg’s account, it was closer to a finished state than is usually supposed.

Briggs explores the circumstances of Woolf’s suicide with considerable care and marshals all the immediate and the remote facts. Although she refers to Thomas C. Caramagno’s The Flight of the Mind, she shies away – indeed, does not mention – from his conclusion that, tragically, Woolf’s illness could now be controlled and without the “rest-cure” horrors that the medical practice of her day inflicted on her. There were, after all, other factors involved – the state of the world, the threat of invasion, the deprivations of wartime, and the destruction of much that was dear to her. Briggs rightly rejects the notion that Woolf’s mental illness had any significant role in her creative life.

This book dwells necessarily on the Bloomsbury group, a subject of so many books that saturation impairs the urgency of its interest, but she surmounts this as much as possible by an emphasis on Woolf. She has written a model of what good literary criticism should be. This is an excellent book to add to the collection of any reader who requires a useful and intriguing book on a fascinating but often elusive writer.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places