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Julia Briggs
Julia Briggs

Writing about Woolf...

Editor and author, Julia Briggs, was at the Cambridgewordfest talking about her latest biography: Virginia Woolf - An Inner Life. We caught up with Julia to find out more on Woolf and her special relationship with Cambridge.


The writings of Woolf are often forced on students at school, so memories of the work can be more about endurance and speed-reading, rather than of textual delight.  Do you think that the curriculum texts sing the kiss of death for an author?

"Next day, the Woolfs lunched at King's where 'Dadie' Rylands was now a Fellow..."
Julia Briggs

Being on the curriculum can sometimes spell the kiss of death, but it is also a chance for new readers to fall in love with a particular writer that they might not otherwise come across – so it can work both ways.

Woolf has been extensively read and extensively written about; what did you hope to achieve by revisiting her life and her work?

I wanted to put the work at the centre of the life, to see how doing so might change our reading of both of them – and for me, it did just that. I came to see, and wanted to show my readers how central Woolf’s writing was to her whole life.

"How I interest myself!"…tell us; was she simply on a massive ego trip (reminiscent, perhaps, of the saying "A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small package")?

People who write diaries have to be interested in themselves to some extent. This is a comment Woolf makes in her diary, where she is writing a kind of conversation with herself – but isn’t that just what a diary is, a conversation with the self? She could also be a very sociable person, according to her friends.

She was home-schooled by her father…do you think this isolation formed this almost scientific examination of the self?

She was actually taught by her mother rather than her father. No, I think she would have explored herself and the world around her because she was naturally intellectually curious – but there could be different opinions on this.

And she's credited with being one of the forerunners of modernism especially in her innovative introduction of stream of consciousness and interior monologue; ironically, whilst pioneering this style of writing, do you think it somehow contributed to her periods of depression and ultimate suicide?

No, I think the periods of depression were connected with the sudden death of her mother when she was only thirteen, the sudden death of her half-sister two years later, and the sudden death of her beloved older brother when they were both in their twenties. Her suicide was connected with the war – if Hitler had invaded, both Woolfs would have been arrested and executed, and an invasion was still expected in the spring of 1941, when she killed herself.

She delivered lectures at Cambridge University's Newnham and Girton colleges in 1928 - was the mood in the city receptive at that point to her work?

I don’t know about the mood in the city, but these weren’t public lectures, they were lectures to college societies, and the undergraduates who invited her were very eager to hear what she had to say – of course, they’d just finished reading Orlando.

Can you tell us what was Cambridge to Woolf?

Woolf had complicated feelings about Cambridge – her father, her two brothers and her nephews were all educated there, but she had missed out on all that. At the same time, she could see what a wonderful place it might be for a young woman. In Jacob’s Room, she originally included a chapter about Angela Williams, who is studying at Newnham. Later, she took it out again as it didn’t really fit in with the rest of the novel, but it is reprinted at the back of the Penguin edition by Sue Roe, and it gives a good idea of how Woolf thought Cambridge might look to a woman undergraduate.

Did the academic world / the pursuit of the self / the depth of the Bloomsbury conversations leave any room for happiness or frivolity in her life?

Woolf didn’t belong to the academic world, and she didn’t much like it, either, but she was often happy and frivolous, as many passages in her diary show – she loved giving and going to parties – she was a bit like Mrs Dalloway in that respect.

Finally, in revisiting and exploring her work and her life were there any big surprises? 

The biggest surprise was that her best novel, To the Lighthouse, is the one most closely connected with her love affair with Vita Sackville-West – more so than Orlando, even. But there were also lots of small surprises, all the way through...

last updated: 25/04/06
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