The Essays of Virginia Woolf Essay - The Essays of Virginia Woolf (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)

Virginia Woolf

The Essays of Virginia Woolf (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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 generation of Joyce, Richardson, Proust, and Woolf was absorbing, more or less independently,...

(The entire section is 2246 words.)