Virginia Woolf and Her World
by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.95
Books about Virginia Woolf have become a thriving cottage industry. Some years ago John Lehmann set down his recollections of her in his memoirs. In My Own Time. Now he has taken on the unenviable task of writing the first life to appear since Quentin Bell’s masterly biography. By virtue of his lack of pretension he has avoided the trap inherent in the task.
There’s no revisionism here; no keys being turned to expose a closetful of new revelations. Instead. Lehmann has written a straightforward, urbane, and sympathetic account of a life whose fascination remains undimmed, however often it be told, and which, in spite of its encroaching tragedy, is life-enhancing: so much courage, intelligence, and unstayable energy, and such a marvelous belief in the power of the word.
Reinforcing the biography are Lehmann’s deft and independent discussions of the major works. I was pleased, for example, to find him saying kind things about The Years, even though fashionable taste, following the Mosaicdecree of Leonard Woolf, has decided that that novel was one of Virginia’s failures.
As a short life Lehmann’s work is hardly to be faulted. And its value is augmented by more than 125 illustrations, many published for the first time. and skillfully keyed to the text—not often the case in books of this kind. One example must suffice. Lehmann quotes from the passage in Virginia Woolf’s diary written immediately after she had finished The Hares: “. . . I wrote the last words O Death fifteen minutes ago. having reeled across the page with some moments of such intensity that I seemed to stumble after mv own voice. . . And then we are shown a reproduction of the last page of the manuscript: unmistakable, there, in that handwriting reeling across the page, growing larger and more undisciplined, not pausing for punctuation genius invoking its prophetic “O death.”
— William Abrahams