Ilana Simons’ A Life of One's Own boasts a subtitle that rings alarm bells: A guide to better living through the work and wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Should one of the greatest modern writers in the English language really be posthumously roped into the writing of a self-help book? When Woolf’s writing is reduced to dating advice – Woolf, we are told, “suggests” that it’s best to “allow your partner to have some secrets” – the alarm bells seem justified.
This is snobbery, of course. Great literature has always been concerned with the question of how to live, and framing this as self-help (with chapter titles like ‘Take on Challenging Friendships’ and ‘Read Your Partner’) – however frivolous it may seem – is merely a matter of marketing and style. It cannot affect the essential wisdom at this book’s core. And, after all, one thing we learnt from Woolf is that true feminism will give the domestic and familial, the allegedly private or petty, the attention it deserves – and not seek to denigrate it as less important than government or war. The personal, inclusive of concerns about snaring a man or keeping him, is political.
My other concern about this book may be equally unfair, but it is less easily answerable. Drawing from Woolf’s experience, Simons (who is also a student of clinical psychology) gives advice on dealing with depression. Struggling with what doctors would today call bipolar disorder, or manic depression, Woolf avoided periods of despondency through long walks and other activities that distracted her from the pressure she felt to produce good work. This is a sound way to deal with such moods, when possible (it is not always easy to take such evasive action) – I do not wish to suggest that it is bad advice. But there is inevitably an odd ring to such advice, knowing what we know about Woolf. As an author, she had marvelous ideas about how to live well; in the end, as a person, she failed to live at all. Not to put too fine a point on it, she filled her pockets with stones and walked away from life at the age of 59. Did her avoiding tactics, then, simply not work?
It says a great deal that, even coming to it with these doubts, A Life of One's Own beguiled me entirely. I have a disgusting habit, when reading, of dog-earing pages that say something special to me personally. By the time I’d finished with this book, it had more folds in it than a flock of origami cranes. It is intimate, kind and wise.
This is Simons’ first book. But her intimidatingly teeming resumé to date, along with the crisp tastiness of her many published short stories, suggest that we can happily anticipate more to come.