As a professor of English at Princeton University, Maria DiBattista specializes in British literature and Modernism, but she also has an indelible enthusiasm for writing about authors. In particular, she’s no stranger to the works of Virginia Woolf. She first tackled her work in Virginia Woolf: The Fables of Anon (1980), and then in First Love: The Affections of Modern Fiction (1991), DiBattista examined how writers like Woolf, but also D. H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, to name a few, reinvented how we think about first love. This time around, Imagining Virginia Woolf singularly focuses on the life and writings of the famed English author, but—just like DiBattista’s previous work—it is a pastiche of Woolf’s writings. It is not a memoir or conventional biography about the life of Virginia Woolf. Rather, it seeks to explore the extent to which the real person was embedded within her novels, literary criticism, and letters. In what she calls “the figment of the author,” DiBattista is in search of Virginia Woolf—how she located herself in her writings and also in the fictive imagination of her readers.
Imagining Virginia Woolf is not a book about her life. It will not, in a traditional sense, tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Woolf. What does it succeed in doing is layering not only how we read a book, but also the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways the author incorporated elements of her life into her work, and how that might impact our perception of her—who was she and what inspired her to write?
The book is divided into three sections. In the first part, DiBattista defines “the figment of the author,” differentiating between a critical and traditional biography. The subject is Virginia Woolf, “the figment who exists as much in the minds of her readers as in the pages of her books” (9). In the second part, DiBattista identifies five dominant personalities that come out in Woolf’s work: The Drawing-Room Sibyl; The Author; The Critic; The World Writer; and The Adventurer. In each section, DiBattista thoughtfully intertwines Woolf’s real-life—her travels, frustrations, likes, and dislikes—with her writing. If you are not well versed in Woolf’s works, this book might serve as a good starting point, as it considers both the words on the page and her life experiences that likely influenced her writings. It is a complex negotiation, DiBattista suggests, between what we know of the real Virginia Woolf, and what we think we know from what she has written. The final section is an Epilogue that is only a few pages in length, but it is the first time we get the opportunity to look into DiBattista’s mind as she provides some insights about reading the works of someone she greatly admires.
DiBattista explores the question, which Woolf herself asked nearly a century ago—how should one read a book—by starting with a short literature review of other books that have asked a similar question, such as Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read (2007) and Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (2007). She does not, however, provide a similar literature review of critical biography. It might have been useful to contextualize the field by situating her book within a wider discussion. Though DiBattista does cite Roland Barthes’ Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1976), a work that she borrowed from in terms of understanding how an author leaves a text that impacts our lives, it might have added to her arguments if she contextualized the field of critical biography a bit more by placing her approach alongside other books that asked a similar question.
Ultimately, this book is aptly titled, as it demands that you not only imagine who Virginia Woolf was, but also consider how you engage with her work. Imagining Virginia Woolf leaves room for readers to question Woolf’s writings and DiBattista’s arguments as well. You might find yourself returning to one of Woolf’s novels or a collection of her letters, to see if DiBattista was right after all.