Except for Jacob's Room, my only experiences with the novels of Virginia Woolf ocurred in college. We read Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and several of her essays/talks, including "A Room of One's Own" and "Modern Fiction."
Except for "A Room," I found myself underwhelmed by what I read. Most likely, it was because I didn't approach her unique and experimental style with an open mind. I knew what I liked, and I found her works too bewildering to enjoy. Perhaps now, when I'm more seasoned, I'll be able to appreciate them more.
Despite all of my complicated feelings about Woolf the writer, I found myself loving Woolf the woman after listening to this account of her life by Nigel Nicolson, son of Woolf's friend and sometime-lover Vita Sackville-West (married to Harold Nicolson). While Nigel only saw Virginia once in a while, and mostly when he was a child, he remembered her vibrant personality, intense curiousity, and brilliant conversation. Nicolson explores Woolf's early years and the rise and fall of the Bloomsbury group, as well as Woolf's complicated relationship with her sister, Vanessa, and her love for Vita.
Quoting often from Woolf's letters, essays, and journals, Nicolson offers us a glimpse into the troubled but also exhilirated mind that produced works like To the Lighthouse and Orlando. We learn about Woolf's frequent battles with depression and hallucinations, and her determination to continue writing, working at the Hogarth Press, and traveling with her husband Leonard. Her painstaking work on each of her novels and her developing political and social views, as expressed in her essays and talks, reveal a mind intensely curious about the world around it, but also determined to help shape it.
Nicolson inserts himself only a few times into the narrative (which is somewhat jarring), but his respect for and admiration of Woolf is obvious. This may not be the definitive and exhaustive biography of Virginia Woolf, but it's a great place to start for anyone interested in learning more about her life.