VIRGINIA WOOLF By James King Norton. 699 pp. $35 ALL BIOGRAPHERS believe that they have a new story to tell about their subject, even if previous biographies exist. Either new documents or other significant information have come to light or a new angle of approach suggests itself. In the case of Virginia Woolf, the biographer's challenge is especially keen, since her life has been so amply and masterfully delineated -- not only in the biography written by her nephew, Quentin Bell, but by the author herself. During the past two decades, a veritable Woolf industry has produced 11 meticulously edited volumes of her diary and letters as well as a slender but central volume of her autobiographical essays (to say nothing of shelves of scholarly books and essays).

From these sources, many of the details of Woolf's life are known. She was the third child of four born into a prominent Victorian family that would now be termed "blended": her parents, Leslie Stephen and Julia Duckworth, were both widowed with children from their previous marriages. Her father was a notable literary critic and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography; her mother was a selfless and generous "angel in house." The family talent extended to Virginia's siblings; her sister Vanessa became a painter, her brother Adrian was among the first British psychoanalysts. (The other brother, Thoby, died of typhoid at the age of 19.) Yet this promising crucible of creative genius was blighted by a series of equally life-defining traumatic events. Virginia's mother died suddenly when Virginia was 13; besides Thoby, her half-sister Stella and her father died within the following decade of her life. And, as if these emotional traumas were not enough for an already psychologically fragile child, Virginia's two half-brothers, Gerald and George Duckworth, sexually molested her more than once, beginning when she was only six or seven years old.

Yet, struggling with these injurious experiences, Woolf uniquely transcended and transformed them, creating some of the most original and luminous novels of our century. Along with James Joyce and William Faulkner, she helped to shape the literary language and experimental narrative forms of Modernism: Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse rank among the literary masterpieces of our era. Additionally, Woolf was an early and strong voice for feminism, wittily documenting in A Room of One's Own the history of women's invisibility as literary creators.

We know, too, that despite her sexually traumatized youth, Virginia went on to form a satisfying if unorthodox marriage with Leonard Woolf and to have a significant liaison with Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for her comic anti-biography Orlando. And we know, sadly, that despite her extraordinary creative genius, Woolf finally succumbed to the suicidal urges that repeatedly plagued her: She drowned herself at the age of 59.

So, one must ask, what new angle or new information justifies James King's lengthy new biography, which he terms the first actual "literary biography" of Woolf? The answer, I regret to say, is: not much. Despite King's admirable intentions and his obvious appreciation for his subject, his life of Woolf is ultimately a plodding and uninspired affair.

Too often recapitulating the quotidian at the expense of the profound, King cites Woolf's own comments concerning her family and Bloomsbury friends, her moods and fears, her travels and her writing. He faithfully identifies in her journals and letters the sources of quoted passages. However, with equal frequency, King fails to cite Woolf when he is indeed using her own words to describe aspects of her experience. The result is a deceptive patchwork of facts, images and observations, far too many of which are simple (but unacknowledged) transpositions of Woolf's own startlingly original turns of phrase. Her wonderfully spontaneous language and riveting thumbnail sketches of friends and acquaintances -- the "Diamonds of the Dustheap" of her rapidly penned letters and diary entries -- are all too often absorbed into King's far less scintillating prose. For example (and there are many, ranging from phrases to paragraphs), Woolf sketches in her diary her impressions of a wet, wintry day in Rodmell in 1936, invoking an artist's sensitivity to color and pattern:

"The clouds were an extraordinary tropical birds {sic} wing colour: an impure purple; & the lakes reflected it, & there were droves of plover black & white; & all very linear in line & pure & subtle in colour . . ." King's "paraphrase" (or, less politely, appropriation) of this passage reads: "One day in early January, the sky, after a rainstorm, was the colour of a tropical bird's wing. The lake reflected this deep, impure purple and scores of black and white plovers flew overhead." By submerging the connections between the author and her words, King cheats both Woolf and the reader of the emotional authenticity of this and many other passages. EQUALLY SERIOUS, other sources of information or interpretation are treated with astonishing disregard for acceptable scholarly method. The shadow of Quentin Bell, Woolf's first biographer, is especially visible. King is also indebted to a number of scholars whose illuminating analyses of Woolf's novels and other writings have unquestionably helped to shape his own understanding. Yet, apart from listing titles in a general bibliography, he nowhere acknowledges his debt. Surely King -- who has published biographies of William Cowper, Paul Nash, Herbert Read and William Blake -- should know better.

When King does step back from his earnest recapitulation of Woolf's every move, his generalizations are, if not dubious, sometimes mechanical. One questions whether (on the basis of one of Woolf's own rather hasty generalizations) King is entitled to conclude that this genius of honest self-examination "was often unaware of her real feelings." Elsewhere, tracing the impact of the approaching World War II, King falls into cliche, writing, "The ascent of Hitler meant that phallic man had triumphed -- and that Virginia's island nation would soon be destroyed . . . Her back was against the wall."

Granted, there are some new insights here, including King's speculation that the Woolfs' decision not to have children (a source of lingering regret for her) may actually have been decided by Leonard as much on the basis of his own anxieties about fatherhood as on his concern for his wife's fragile emotional health. King also surmises that during adolescence Virginia and Vanessa Stephen had a lesbian relationship. However, given Woolf's profound and lifelong need for maternal nurturance, it seems a stretch to label such emotional fondling between sisters "lesbian."

Ultimately, King's Virginia Woolf is derivative at best and deceptive at worst. A reader is far better rewarded by Bell's masterful biography. Better still, read Woolf in the original -- her fiction, essays, letters, diaries, memoirs -- in order to verify, without the intervention of a reductive intermediary, her modest view of herself (confided to her diary early in her career) as "one of the interesting -- I will not say great -- but interesting novelists" of this century. Roberta Rubenstein, professor of literature at American University, has published several essays on Virginia Woolf as well as books on Doris Lessing and on other contemporary women writers. CAPTION: Virginia Woolf.