IN January 1915, when Virginia Woolf was 33, she and her husband, Leonard, resolved to do three things: lease a house outside London; acquire a printing press; and buy a bulldog. As Julia Briggs recounts in her intelligent and well-researched new biography of Woolf, the couple never got the dog, but the creation of the Hogarth Press – named after Hogarth House, their new home – significantly influenced 20th-century literature. Purposely seeking out “work that might not otherwise get into print,” they published T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Woolf herself. Freed from commercial pressures, Woolf could now pursue her most “radically experimental” leanings, and in her formal innovation, she became a pioneer of modernism.
Today, some of Woolf’s books seem stylized, at times experimental for the sake of being experimental – “The Waves” comes to mind – but her most widely read and admired works, including “To the Lighthouse” and “Mrs. Dalloway,” are read and admired for a reason. Briggs’s subtitle pays tribute to Woolf’s exploration of the inner life, her ability to capture the nebulousness of the human experience as it plays out second by second and translate it, in thrillingly nuanced ways, into words.