"Another book about Virginia Woolf?" you cry, and not entirely without cause. One may well wonder what remains to be said about Woolf after Hermione Lee's 1997 biography, but then, biography is as much about the prism through which the subject's life is viewed as it is about the subject. (Besides, if we stopped writing biographies of people after the publication of very good ones, Quentin Bell would have had the last word on Woolf back in 1972.) Mitchell Leaska, a professor of humanities at NYU, has devoted his academic career to the study of Woolf's writing, and while he uncovers no surprising new facts about her life, he weaves a masterful interpretation of those facts that shows, in part by quoting extensively from her own writings, how her life informed her work.
The main thrust of Leaska's version of Woolf's life is a medical and psychological one. If we accept the hypothesis that Woolf was afflicted with manic-depressive psychosis, and knowing as we do that this condition is not neurotic but a genetically transmitted affective disorder, Leaska asks, "Does this genetically transmitted disorder account for--indeed, 'explain'--Virginia Woolf's extraordinary powers as a novelist and essayist?" Well, as he immediately admits, "probably not," but it does help us to understand how certain events of her life (the deaths of loved ones, sexual molestation by her half-brothers, the marriage of her sister Vanessa to Clive Bell) may have functioned as "triggers" to her illness. Leaska is particularly strong in drawing out the implications of the loveless marriage between Woolf's parents, and the young woman's intense emotional attachments to other women, in clear prose that respects the psychological complexities of the situations without descending into psychobabble. Anyone who has read Woolf, or thinks they know about her life, will find in Granite and Rainbow a solidly attractive argument against which to test their own responses. --Ron Hogan