The Friday Slot - author Alexandra Harris

I first met Alexandra Harris in August this year, at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I was chairing a panel with Alexandra and John Mullan, to discuss their books about Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. It turned out to be one of the most interesting, erudite and fun sessions I've ever chaired, and the audience loved it. It was also the quickest hour, over far too soon! We could all have happily had more.

Why it worked so well wasn't just because of the enthusiasm we all still have for Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, two of the most popular women writers in English Literature, but was particularly thanks to the passion and knowledge of both speakers. Specialists in their chosen subjects, they could have entertained us for hours, without notes, quite easily (or for as long as they could stand it!).

Alexandra came to prominence just two years ago, when she deservedly won the Guardian First Book Award for her superb study of 1930s and 40s English artists and writers, Romantic Moderns (Reviewing it for The Herald, I wrote: "What had begun as a reaction to the challenge of Modernism to make the world anew, became, with the advent of the war, a movement invested with a political need to keep things as they are. Harris doesn’t see this necessarily as a bad thing – the Modernism urge for detachment in the artist was rejected for a new involvement with the subject, as the population were soon to be told to stand as one against a common enemy...). 

Since then, she has also written a short study of Virginia Woolf, which I think is that rare kind of biography that makes you see the subject in whole new light. She emphasised the sheer variety of the work Woolf produced, and managed to marry the art and the life in a wholly sympathetic way, bringing in Woolf's upbringing, the loss of her mother, her relationships with women, to see how they impacted on the writing. It was real delight to read and if any fans of Woolf are looking for an inspired and inspiring introduction, look no further.

Teaching now at the University if Liverpool, Alexandra is currently working on a book about the weather, but she was happy to answer a few of my questions about her books so far.

LM: Your first book, Romantic Moderns has a wonderful sentence in it about 'ways of living' and the 'morality of possessions', something that bothered artists and writers of Virginia Woolf's era. I'm always struck by how little writers lived on during the early part of the century, how many rented poorly furnished rooms in run-down cottages in the country, etc. You suggest, though, that this wasn't just financial necessity, but representative of their approach to art, and to life? Would you argue that this was the era when the art and the life were most closely allied?

AH: In every period works of art have been inextricably linked with the lives of artists. Art proceeds from life (though it may react against it, or transfigure it in all kinds of complex ways). The effort to separate out 'life' from 'work' has always seemed to me more limiting than liberating. I don't think there's anything unique about the early twentieth century in this respect; think how intensely Cowper, Coleridge and Shelley, for example, cared about finding new 'ways of living'.

Still, artists in the 1910s and 1920s were certainly responding to some particular and distinctive challenges. Woolf was extremely interested in how women might achieve financial independence, which she understood - in a very practical way - as the prerequisite for intellectual independence. It mattered deeply to her that she should make enough money to live on. From her early reviews to her best-selling late novel The Years, she took pride in earning money - not money for its own sake, but money that would buy her time and space in which to think. She really fought against that ingrained middle-class dread of mentioning money: Woolf stood up and gave lectures about it, arguing famously to fulfill one's potential it is necessary to have 'money and a room of one's own'.

That linking of money and space is important: Woolf was always very conscious of spaces. She had grown up in one of those tall Victorian town houses packed with people and furniture. There was always somebody else in the room. All her adult life she valued private spaces, and houses in which she could live as she wanted. It didn't matter if they were rather run-down. At Tavistock Square she wrote in a terrible old armchair beside a ricketty gas fire. At Monk's House in Sussex rainwater poured through the kitchen and out the front door. But she and Leonard could decorate, eat, work, talk pretty much as they liked. That kind of autonomy is common now - what with today's smaller families, and much higher expectatations of space, privacy and choice, but in reading Woolf we learn not to take it for granted.

LM: Your biography of Virginia Woolf really opens our eyes, I think, to the fact that Virginia Woolf never write the same book twice. How extraordinary a feat do you think this is? Is it something we undervalue about her?

AH: Yes, her constant originally is truly phenomenal. Woolf is often caricatured in contemporary culture as a delicate aesthete, but no-one who has really read her work will be content with the caricatures. She dreaded being pinned down, and so she was always telling herself to move on, to try something different, to invent a new kind of book or a new way of living. Especially as she approached middle-age she felt how easy it would be to settle into old habits and to do what she knew she was good at. And she absolutely refused that easy option: she was an adventurer always wanting to discover something new.

In Jacob’s Room she not only chooses a male subject with experiences very different from her own, but she invents a whole new way of telling his story – in fits and glimpses, overheard conversations, the briefest of moments on a train. Then she writes about a society woman, Clarissa Dalloway, and a shell-shocked war veteran, following them through a single day and ‘tunnelling’ back into their pasts. A few years later she up-ends our conceptions about biography, history and sexuality by taking Orlando through four centuries, before developing a new genre of dramatic prose-poetry in The Waves, where six characters are also one. When she started a novel she never knew whether her conception was going to work, because no-one had done anything like it before.

LM:  I wanted to ask about Woolf and illness - you talk about the 'technical conservatism' of Night and Day, 'keeping Woolf out of danger'. Do you think the more experimental the book then, the greater the toll on her health? Which book do you think cost her the most?

AH: This is a very complicated and fascinating question. She wrote Night and Day under difficult conditions. Having had a prolonged breakdown, she was permitted by her doctors to write for just half an hour a day. The writing itself was therapeutic – she was a woman who had to write – but I think as she worked slowly on that book, she had a sense of holding back.

Did her most experimental books take more of a toll? No, I don’t think the equation worked quite like that, though sometimes you can see from the diaries very direct links between her writing and health. For example the ‘mad parts’ of Mrs Dalloway required her to think back into illness, which could be extremely distressing. The most difficult book was The Years, which does not – on the face of things – look more experimental than, say, The Waves. It was going swimmingly up to the end of the first draft and then became a nightmare. Did the book make Woolf ill, or did the onset of illness at this moment make the book feel impossible to complete? Both, I think.

But it seems wrong to talk about books and illness without also saying that books were what Woolf lived for. Most of the time, the process of writing, and thinking about writing, was a profound joy to her, and that joy gets into every one of her books.

LM: This is just a last question about research! Woolf must be one of the easiest writers to document in that we have such plentiful accounts by her own hand - letters, journals and so on. Can there be such a thing as too much material? Did she leave no gaps for you to fill in, no temptations to speculate that you might have liked? Did so much material indeed make your job easier or harder?

AH: Because there is so much material, and because the voice of the diaries is so wonderfully intimate, it’s easy to feel that you know her. But of course you don’t. I kept listening to the only recording of her voice – a BBC radio programme from 1937 – because she sounds so remote and terrifying and it put me on my mettle, reminding me how very little we know.

The gaps, in any case, are huge. Six volumes of letters are all very well, but letter-writing is often a kind of performance. These are complex literary texts open to interpretation. You could read some of them twenty times and still not quite gauge the tone or catch the allusions. And think what a tiny fraction of a life gets recorded in letters! There aren’t very many letters to Leonard, for example, because they were rarely apart. And the correspondence between Virginia and her younger brother Adrian hasn’t survived, so that’s a difficult relationship to interpret. And then there are so many things in the novels that I still don’t understand.
If someone published the Collected Conversations of Virginia Woolf in four hundred and sixty volumes, I’d settle down right now and read for the rest of my life.


  1. Very interesting interview. It has been so long since I read Virginia Woolf, this has inspired me to do just that. And to seek out Alexandra's book too.

  2. That's great to hear, thank you! It's an excellent book and Alexandra writes about Woolf so well.


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