In Winifred Holtby’s critical study of Woolf’s life and works, aptly titled, Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir, one is given the chance to truly understand the nuances of Woolf’s writing. Virginia Woolf, modernist, feminist, intellectualist, and critic, is one of the nineteenth century’s most revered and influential writers. Coming from a highly intellectual background, surrounded by the foremost writers and scholars of the period, including her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf grew up to be a woman of impeccable literary tastes.
What really makes this book an especially engaging study is the fact that Holtby actually had the chance to interview Virginia Woolf herself. Published in 1932, this book looks at both the biographical and the bibliographical life of Virginia Woolf. Holtby discusses some of the biographical details of Woolf’s life that seem to directly influence her writing, such as her depiction of her own parents in the portrayals of some of her characters. Holtby also examines Woolf’s unusual upbringing among the elites of the Victorian literary society and her parents’ well-connected friends in both the arts and literature.
I personally loved that Holtby not only provided an in-depth critique of Woolf’s literary works and her writing style, but also a study of the life that led up to these works. Anyone who has read a book (or several) by Virginia Woolf can notice the themes, the motifs, the people, and the places that share a common thread of similarity in her stories. Whether it was her parents’ doppelgangers in The Voyage Out and To the Lighthouse, or her haunting love of the sea borne of those summers spent on the Cornish coast, Woolf’s cloistral yet uniquely fascinating life is portrayed in her writing.
Holtby is not merely criticizing an author’s stories and stylistic choices, she is giving the reader an opportunity to know and to understand the writer behind them. While maintaining the objectivity of a scholar throughout the book, Holtby also manages to convey the veneration of a delighted colleague, and that is what makes an otherwise very scholarly book feel more like a story being shared with friends around a cozy fireplace.