Book : Virginia Woolf

This beautiful life portrait written by Zena Alkayat and illustrated by Nina Cosford is sensitive and revealing. There are many quotations by other publications of the life of one of 20th century’s greatest authors and is moving, evocative and generous in its approach.

It is interesting to note that this well-known author was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on 25 Jan 1882 in England to a family filled with books, letters and mementos. She read and wrote obsessively, loved to take long walks and listen to the waves breaking, and adored playing cricket and was an ace bowler. Her mother died when she was 13, and her father died 7 years later. She was insolable until she co-founded the Bloomsbury Group with one of her brothers. This was made up of friends who were writers, thinkers, artists, an art critic and an economist. She began reviewing books, writing essays and articles, and was a formidable critic. the Blooomsbury Group produced avant-garde work such as hosting an exhibition about the Post-Impressionists that included radical and anti-formal artwork by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin and Matisse. London was shocked, amused, outraged and challenged.

Virginia and her brother conceived a communal living plan and Leonard Woolf, a writer and intellectual who had worked seven years in the Civil Service was one of the tenants. Virginia and Leonard married on 10 August 1912. Virginia became suddenly ill after the honeymoon and was on the brink of a breakdown by 1913. She took an overdose of sleeping drugs in September that year but survived, though she suffered a relapse before 1916. (Her first book, The Voyage Out, published during this period, took 15 years to sell 2000 copies.) She wrote Night and Day in 1919 and Jacob’s Room in 1922; and ventured into designing book jackets and set up a printing press with her husband and published works by the likes of E M Forster, T S Eliot and Kathering Mansfield.

Back in London in 1925, Mrs Dalloway was published and its form was an ambitious and adventurous experiment, and fiction was never the same again. In 1927, she wrote To The Lighthouse, an ode to her parents. This was quickly followed by Orlando (1928) which contains the line, “Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade, especially happiness from melancholy”. Her other books include

  • A Room of One’s Own (a provocative essay on women’s place in the male-dominated literary history);
  • The Waves (1931) (a poetic meditation on the inner voice following six friends over a lifetime; it was Virginia’s experiment with rhythm in place of plot, and a homage to her Bloomsbury clique);
  • The Years (1937) (it took five years to write and sold 43,909 copies in the first six months)
  • Between The Acts (1941) (which contains the line, “Books are the mirrors of the soul”.) This book was published posthumously because Virginia committed suicide on 28 Mar 1942. She was 59.

I wish I had read something similar to this book (published in 2015) before watching the biopic (starring Nicole Kidman) about a decade ago.

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