The Essays of Virginia Woolf Essay - The Essays of Virginia Woolf (Magill's Literary Annual 1988)

Virginia Woolf

The Essays of Virginia Woolf (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

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 in two collections of her mature years—a boon to her bibliographers, incidentally, who must...

(The entire section is 1899 words.)