What I’m Reading: ‘Virginia Woolf’ by Alexandra Harris

‘Hers was a life lived with intensity from moment to moment and shaped into the lasting patterns of art.’ (1)

A friend found Alexandra Harris’s Virginia Woolf on the streets of Brighton and gave it to me, knowing my love for the eccentric characters that made up the Bloomsbury set. It has been an infinite source of inspiration. It is the tale of a young woman armed with a notebook determined to become one of the greatest writers of all time. She was defiant of convention and strong despite suffering with mental illness for most of her life.

Desire for freedom

At the age of 29 Virginia wrote to her sister Vanessa, saying: ‘to be 29 and unmarried – to be a failure – childless – insane too, no writer.’ (2) She had suffered the loss of her mother, father and older brother. And yet, after many years of having no choice but to rigidly stick to Victorian social norms in the family’s big old house at 22 Hyde Park Gate, she finally had some of the freedom that she so often expressed a need for.

Just as her sister Vanessa had always known that she wanted to be an artist, Virginia always knew that she was going to be a writer. As children they worked competitively and pushed each other to improve their respective arts. Neither of the sisters had a formal education, and Virginia taught herself to write by compiling notebooks and setting herself exercises. She insisted on writing standing up so she could stand next to Vanessa, who painted at an easel, and the two girls stood for many hours on the top floor of the house, determined to perfect their crafts.

Follow your instincts 

Having never been to university Virginia was often forced to challenge convention, especially in academia. In her short essay How to Read a Novel, she wrote that “the only advice that once person can give another … is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions” (3). Many of her works focus on the inner lives of women, a subject that had not often at the forefront of a novel. Those that did received little critical acclaim, but Virginia was too impressive to be ignored.

In the months after their mother’s death, Virginia experienced the first of her breakdowns. The desire to write left her for two whole years. Though she slowly recovered and began to write again, her illness remained with her throughout her entire life, and there would be many periods where she would be unable to write.

Boundless creativity

Now, seventy years after her death, Virginia is celebrated for her moving novels, essays, memoirs, letters and diaries. Alexandra Harris tells Virginia’s story beautifully, and offers the perfect introduction to her writing. Even if you are not a fan of her books, it is hard not to admire Virginia for her boundless creativity in the face of adversity.

I think we can all relate to sometimes feeling not good enough, not creative enough. We have things that hold us back, experiences that shape us for good or bad. But despite these things Virginia was forever determined, and held an untiring interest in the world around her.


(1) A. Harris, Virginia Woolf (Thames and Hudson: London, 2011), Blurb.

(2) A. Harris, Virginia Woolf (Thames and Hudson: London, 2011), p.7.

(3) V. Woolf, The Second Common Reader (1932).




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