Of Virginia Woolf’s five books of non-fiction published in her lifetime two are extended essays springing from feminist topics, A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN and THREE GUINEAS, and another, FLUSH, the biography of Elizabeth Barrett’s spaniel. The remaining two volumes are collections of her longer reviews and literary essays, THE COMMON READER and THE SECOND COMMON READER. They share the occasional acerbity and extended argument of the two long essays mentioned above and the grace and light comedy of the spaniel’s life. Together they suggest that Mrs. Woolf worked comfortably in the shorter forms of literary journalism and the longer forms of fiction. The title of her two collections is taken from a common-sensical dictum by Samuel Johnson in his LIFE OF GRAY; it contains a delicate pun on her own critical position—she adopts the stance of a common or “garden” reader, not that of a scholar-critic—and on the chronological ordering of the pieces in each collection which makes them a critical reader by periods or a handbook to English literature.
It is a moot point whether to distinguish the two books or to conflate their contents so as to present Virginia Woolf’s comments on English literature from 1390 to 1930. Since there is little change in style or critical position in the ten to fifteen years over which the essays were written, conflation seems the sensible course. The conspectus then offered is like that in ORLANDO: A BIOGRAPHY, that curious work which stands between Virginia Woolf’s fiction and her other prose. Some of the attitudes in the essays are seen in ORLANDO: her delight in the sunny Elizabethans, the damp she feels in Victorian England. Even more there is a similar tone of graceful propriety, the search for the right touch which she shows best in her treatment of eighteenth century writers Chesterfield’s “art of pleasing” and cultivation of the Graces This is the mark of Bloomsbury which so offended outsiders like Katherine Mansfield in the 1920’s. We know that the proprieties failed under the terrible stresses of 1940 in the writer’s own life. How well does that tone sound today? It reminds us of the virtues and failings of an almost forgotten art, the light and very “English” literary essay and review. Above all, the speaking voice she employs brings to life the writer herself.
The essays can sometimes be dated internally, and some lift the veil of anonymity from those she contributed to the London Times Literary Supplement. Between three and seven thousand words long (generally the former), each is marked by her characteristically vivid openings and abrupt conclusions. She uses ample and effective quotation and considerable allusion to English social history, particularly to the class structure. She is particularly effective in analyzing style and in relating it to the material and perspective the writer is using, as in her analysis of Defoe, the only writer discussed in both books.
As a handbook to or a common reader’s commentary on English literature, its partiality seems largely dictated by the subjects she was asked to write on and those that attracted her, perhaps two aspects of one factor. Of the twenty-one essays in THE COMMON READER and twenty-two in THE SECOND COMMON READER, only one is on drama, the Elizabethan drama whose extremes of passion and crowded scenes repel her because they make impossible the fine analysis of character Virginia Woolf as novelist preferred. Likewise no poets are discussed except for a passing use of Chaucer in exploring the Paston letters and an essay each on Donne and Christina Rossetti; both studies concentrate on the poet’s personal life, Donne because he was an Elizabethan and the paucity of real details about his life tantalized her imagination, and Christina Rossetti because she was a woman.
In the essays, surveying English prose from late medieval letters to Hardy and Conrad, Mrs. Woolf’s prevailing metaphor is one of seasonal change, decay, and growth. Less than...
(The entire section is 1,117 words.)