The Essays of Virginia Woolf (Magill’s Literary Annual 1990)
In March of 1923 Arnold Bennett, then one of England’s most popular and acclaimed novelists, wrote thus of a novel which had appeared the previous year:I have seldom read a cleverer book than Virginia Woolf’s Jacobs’ Room, a novel which has made a great stir in a small world. It is packed and bursting with originality, and it is exquisitely written. But the characters do not vitally survive in the mind because the author has been obsessed by details of originality and cleverness. I regard this book as characteristic of the new novelists who have recently gained the attention of the alert and the curious, and I admit that I cannot yet descry any coming big novelists.
Few critics could have singled out Jacobs’ Room, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as three literary events of 1922 that marked a turning point in literature. It seems likely that Bennett, who had published novels at the rate of better than one a year for a quarter century, thought he was doing well by Woolf’s third novel. He had deemed her book original, well written, capable of attracting the alert. Could he have guessed how inevitably his remarks would fire her indignation? Her book was a curiosity in a small world, obsessively clever. She could not create character. Virginia Woolf knew a put-down when she read one.
Her first public response appeared in the New York Evening Post in November of the same year in the form of a short essay called “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” and was soon reprinted in Boston and London periodicals. It was not the essay with which her readers are now most familiar. In May of 1924 Woolf read an expanded version to the Cambridge Heretics Society; two months later a further revision graced T. S. Eliot’s The Criterion under the caption “Character in Fiction.” Finally on October 30 Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press issued the Criterion essay as a pamphlet under its original title. Its proclamation that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” has been often and variously interpreted, but its main argument, a vigorous counterattack against Bennett’s notion of character and characterization in fiction, is well known. Subsequent developments have vindicated Woolf in her contention that Bennett’s was a frequently superficial realism which detailed the circumstances and surroundings of his characters but gave little sense of any inner life.
One of the great merits of Andrew McNeillie’s edition of Woolf’s essays is that he has printed all three versions of this essay including, as an appendix, a transcript of the much revised typescript of the Cambridge Heretics paper along with notes which permit the reader to follow the gestation of this important critical essay. The now familiar version appears, consistently with McNeillie’s editorial method, as “Character in Fiction,” a title less catchy than the usual one but incidentally more reflective of its author’s overriding determination to defend her method. Meanwhile she was exemplifying that method in Jacob’s Room and in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), written during the latter years covered by this third volume of the essays.
The essays of this period confirm her conviction, shared with Bennett, that characterization is crucial to the novel, and her profound disagreement with representative novelists of Bennett’s generation as to the means of achieving it. In April of 1919 she had labeled Bennett, H. G. Wells, and John Galsworthy “materialists” in a Times Literary Supplement essay, “Modern Novels” (a forerunner of her later “Modern Fiction”). Bennett’s characters live, she conceded, but “what do they live for?” They lived to travel luxuriously in railway coaches to even more luxurious resort hotels. Reviewing in the same year a reissue of a novel she admired, Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (1903), she objected nevertheless to the thinness of the characterizations. Passing remarks in reviews of minor novels repeatedly illustrate her psychological interest—often tempered, however, by her recognition that the externals so dear to Bennett could not be entirely neglected. “The balance between the outer and the inner is, after all, a terribly precarious business,” she notes in a review of a now-forgotten novel. Such remarks document her determination to hold other writers and herself to the highest standard. Forty years old when her first important novel appeared, she was still struggling to realize artistic convictions developed from years of reading and writing.
The year 1920 provides early instances of another development of importance, her feminism. She plunged into a controversy occasioned by a Parliamentary attempt to ban the importation of birds’ feathers used primarily to decorate women’s hats. While sympathetic to the Plumage Bill, as it came to be called, she boiled over at a magazine editor’s lament that so many birds had “to be shot in parenthood for child- bearing women to flaunt the symbols of it. But what do women care?” Observing that on five occasions the male constituency of the committee to which the bill was entrusted failed of a quorum, she hurled the rebuke back: “What do men care?”
In the same year she participated in an exchange on the intellectual status of women. As letters to an editor, they do not qualify for inclusion in the volume under review (they form part of The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume II, 1920-1924, on which McNeillie...
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The Essays of Virginia Woolf (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume II: 1912-1918 covers the years from 1912, when Virginia Stephen married Leonard Woolf, to 1918, when she was thirty-six. For much of the first half of this period, Woolf suffered from mental illness and wrote almost nothing. The first four essays date from 1912 and 1913; then, after two and a half years of enforced inactivity, she began to do literary reviews early in 1916. In addition to increasingly frequent work of this sort, she and her husband founded the Hogarth Press in their home in 1917. Among their early publications, her short stories “The Mark on the Wall” and “Kew Gardens” foreshadow her mature accomplishments in fiction. By the end of this busy period, she had also found time to complete her second novel, Night and Day (1919).
Of the ninety-seven essays in this volume, more than half have not seen print since they appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, her almost exclusive outlet for critical prose during these years. Published anonymously in accordance with editor Bruce Richmond’s policy, her contributions included many reviews of ephemeral books; some notices of works by such important contemporaries as war poets Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon; occasional reviews of significant reissues, several of them novels by Joseph Conrad; and a few miscellaneous literary essays, two of which are centennial tributes to Charlotte Brontë and Henry David Thoreau. She did not review any novels by the greatest of her contemporaries, James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, nor, because Richmond frowned upon reviews by authors’ close friends, did she satisfy her urge to write about Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians: Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Arnold, General Gordon (1918).
Although the best essays in this volume tend to be ones previously published by Leonard Woolf, this sequence complements the first volume of Anne Olivier Bell’s edition of Woolf’s diary in furnishing insights into her aesthetic of fiction, which was developing rapidly during the later 1910’s. In one review, while discussing the creative process, a subject which fascinated her, and noting poets’ frequent inability or disinclination to reveal much about their own processes, Woolf contends that “the best way of surprising their secrets is very often to read their criticism.” A perusal of these essays—even her discussions of now-forgotten books—turns up a number of her own “secrets.” To be sure, these critical comments do not apply particularly to Night and Day—which some critics and friends considered a retrogression from her first novel, The Voyage Out (written before her breakdown and published in 1915), for her husband and medical advisers were encouraging her to ease back into creativity with a conventional novel that would not impose too great a strain on her nervous system during her recuperation—but it is easy to spot ideas that would find embodiment in Jacob’s Room (1922) and even more notably in Mrs. Dalloway (1925).
Writing about a translation of a selection of Fyodor Dostoevski’s short stories in 1917, she praises hispower of reconstructing those most swift and complicated states of mind, of rethinking the whole train of thought in all its speed, now as it flashes into light, now as it lapses into darkness; for he is able to follow not only the vivid streak of achieved thought, but to suggest the dim and populous underworld of the mind’s consciousness where desires and impulses are moving blindly beneath the sod.
Any reader of these lines will mark the deftness with which she is delineating her own ambitions in the psychological novel and will realize also why Leonard Woolf did not want to rush his sensitive wife’s own literary plunge into that “dim and populous underworld.”
Her remarks on both major and minor Russian writers are especially revealing. Invariably, she drew contrasts between the English and Russian literary sensibilities with an eye to the latter’s superiority at presenting heightened psychic and emotional states. With reference to Valery Brussof, less well-known in the West than Dostoevski, she commends his ability to investigate “the borderland between sanity and insanity”—a borderland only too familiar to her. She complained that English literature tended to relegate fantasy to a special category remote from ordinary life, while the Russians understood how it impinges upon, and can be imaginatively related to, the everyday world.
A book by the English poet Sassoon entitled The Old Huntsman and Other Poems (1917) reminds her that “to call back any moment of emotion is to call back with it the strangest odds and ends that have become somehow part of it.” Despite the fact that a number of her contemporaries were beginning to exploit the possibilities of stream-of-consciousness fiction, poets and earlier novelists such as Dostoevski and Conrad more often provoked such observations. She had to force herself to read Joyce, whom she considered ill-bred; held at arms’ length the pioneering English practitioner, Dorothy Richardson; and resisted the attractions of Marcel Proust for years despite her close friend Roger Fry’s enthusiasm for À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981). The...
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The Essays of Virginia Woolf (Magill's Literary Annual 1988)
Decades after her death, Virginia Woolf continues to be served well by admiring critics and editors, much to the advantage of those who wish to study this great writer systematically. The first of these admirers was her husband. Leonard Woolf gave to this woman of precarious physical and mental health the support and encouragement that enabled her to publish regularly for a quarter century; after her death, he gathered many of her best uncollected essays and short stories in book form as well as an excellent selection of excerpts from her diary.
Since Leonard Woolf’s own death in 1969, a number of valuable works have appeared, including Quentin Bell’s candid but tactful biography of his aunt, Virginia Woolf (1972), and Nigel Nicolson’s six-volume The Letters of Virginia Woolf (1975-1980). The complete diary has been edited in five volumes by Anne Olivier Bell (1977 to 1984), enabling Woolf’s readership to trace her reflections on her art from 1915 until 1941. B. J. Kirkpatrick’s A Bibliography of Virginia Woolf (third edition, 1980) has kept up with a continuing stream of Woolf material.
In The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume I: 1904-1912, Andrew McNeillie, who assisted on the diary, presents in chronological sequence all the essays and reviews Woolf is known to have written from 1904, when, as twenty-two-year-old Virginia Stephen, she began to write for the periodical press, until her marriage to Woolf in 1912. Clearly these years were crucial ones, not only in the sense of being apprentice years but also in determining whether she could overcome the mental disorders to which she was subject. She had suffered her first serious breakdown in 1895 when she was only thirteen; the second occurred in the spring of 1904. The first essays in this book were undertaken in the fall of that year as part of her convalescence. It must be remembered that her illness followed upon a long period of ministering to her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, a noted writer who had finally died the preceding February. As a young woman who had inherited his literary aptitude and grown up among books and writers—James Russell Lowell was her godfather, for example, and young Virginia was accustomed to seeing Henry James in the house—she lacked an outlet for her talent. She keenly missed the university education which both of her brothers received as a matter of course. Her pursuit of private lessons in Greek beginning in 1902 signifies her desire to achieve an education equivalent to that which well-bred young Englishmen, whether academically inclined or not, regarded as their birthright.
A kind friend of her early years, Violet Dickinson, cared for her during her most difficult months and encouraged her to submit reviews and essays to the editor of the women’s pages of The Guardian, a weekly clerical newspaper. Shortly thereafter she began to teach in an adult education program in London. Writing was clearly her vocation, and within a matter of months she branched out into other publications. Most of the early reviews were of ephemeral books. An exception in 1905 was Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, which she praised in a mere one-paragraph notice. An essay on Jane Welsh Carlyle’s letters anticipates the kind of subject she came to relish: the personal revelations of people—especially women—in a literary milieu. Although the Guardian reviews were usually brief, they were not perfunctory. She generally contrived a shrewd assessment of a book’s weaknesses and closed with such praise as she could honestly bestow. She apparently regarded a plot summary of a novel as her duty and sometimes gave away more of the denouement than readers likely would have wanted.
Denied degrees and convinced by her teaching experience that her talents lay elsewhere, she had no inclination to academic criticism. The approach she favored insisted on no sharp divisions between book review and personal essay. Her pure essays—this volume contains a few with titles such as “On a Faithful Friend,” “Street Music,” and (significantly) “The Decay of Essay-writing”—are early work and represent what she accurately judged a dying convention. Her assignments from Bruce Richmond, editor of The Times Literary Supplement, gave her more room to develop her own ideas, to use the book at hand as a base from which to launch observations drawing upon her already extensive reading. She began early to develop the style familiar to the “common reader” she later addressed...
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
Booklist. LXXXIII, February 15, 1987, p. 870.
Booklist. LXXXV, March 15, 1989, p.1243.
Booklist. LXXXIV, April 1, 1988, p. 1305.
British Book News. September, 1987, p. 606.
Chicago Tribune. April 17, 1988, XIV, p. 6.
Contemporary Review. CCLII, February, 1988, p. 108.
Encounter. LXVIII, January, 1987, p. 57.
The Guardian. January 15, 1989, p.29.
Kirkus Reviews. LV, January 1, 1987, p. 52.
Library Journal. CXII, March 1, 1987, p. 78.
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