►→ also see ►→Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Virginia Woolf’s output as an essayist was prodigious: in addition to two lengthy feminist monographs, she produced over 500 pamphlets, articles, reviews, and notices.
The breadth and variety of her essays are likewise impressive, expanding well beyond the literary review-essay to encompass travel essays, autobiography, art reviews (on drama, painting, film, and photography), and commentaries on aspects of culture and society— even extending to cookery. The new critical attention being given to Woolf’s essays and the increasing tendency to read them in relation to one another (stimulated both by Andrew McNeillie’s publication of the complete essays and by a general resurgence of interest in nonfictional forms) is contributing to the ongoing revision of earlier constructions of Woolf as a Modernist confined to subjective reality and aesthetic form.
While evidencing Woolf’s abiding interest in the issues of writing, reading, and publication, the essays reveal an approach that is firmly grounded in a recognition of social, material, and historical contexts.
Woolf’s career as an essayist was established primarily in the Times Literary Supplement and consolidated through the two volumes of The Common Reader published by the Hogarth Press in 1925 and 1932. While contributing as well to periodicals aimed at a more select and literary audience such as T.S.Eliot’s Criterion— Woolf also published in more popular journals such as Vogue and the Atlantic Monthly, and in the feminist weeklies Woman’s Leader and the Common Cause and Time and Tide. The diverse audience she thus addressed has an important bearing on Woolf’s style as an essayist; as she herself wrote, writer and reader are bound together in a collaborative and symbiotic relation: “twins indeed, one dying if the other dies, one flourishing if the other flourishes” (“The Patron and the Crocus,” 1924). The reader in her text is well read and literate but not necessarily of the educated or privileged class; if the letters she received from individual readers are indicative of her general audience, she was read not only by members of the male establishment but by students, aspiring writers, housewives (particularly wives of academics), school teachers, and members of the working class (including at least one bus conductor).
Addressing herself to such a large “patronage,” Woolf separates herself from the increasingly professionalized character of English studies and reaches beyond the male upper-class literati. Nevertheless, she expects a high intellectual level in her readership.
Her French remains untranslated; she assumes a broad cultural and historical knowledge and a familiarity with the texts she discusses. However, such assumptions of knowledge are unlikely to block an understanding of her essays; meanings are contextually lucid and the presumed familiarity with the subject simply allows her to leap immediately to a level of provocative ideas which can serve as either foreword or afterword to a reading of the text.
Woolf’s self-identification as a “common reader” and her assumption of an informed but nonspecialist audience are reflected in connections between her style and that of the familiar essay. Her vocabulary, while extensive, is never obscure or uncommon: the essay, she writes, is the form of literature “which least calls for the use of long words” (“The Modern Essay,” 1922). Her reader is directly addressed, in a conversational tone: “Let us watch Miss Frend trotting along the Strand with her father” (“Lives of the Obscure,” 1924). Her ideas develop frequently through narrative and metaphor: Defoe presents us with “a plain earthenware pot” (“Robinson Crusoe,” 1926); Addison, with “pure silver” (“Addison,” 1919). Mrs. Carlyle’s letters emit a “crooning domestic sound like the purring of a kitten or the humming of a tea-kettle” (“Geraldine and Jane,” 1929).
Unlike the formalist critic, Woolf rarely quotes from her reading; furthermore, when she does provide quotations, it is to present the text in its own voice, rather than to pursue detailed textual analysis.
These stylistic elements help to produce the normal speaking voice of the familiar essay, as opposed to the authoritative voice of the formal essay. This personal voice enables an approach, like that of the familiar essay, that is speculative and open-ended rather than definitive and conclusive. But Woolf’s characteristic handling of multiple viewpoints is complex and challenging, figured in skillful ironies and subtle shifts in discourse and in voice. She does not employ the direct confrontation of argument but instead leads the reader to “inhabit” differing points of view. The resemblance of this style to the discourse of the “proper lady” has led some critics to dismiss the seriousness of the essays, citing Woolf’s own reservations about the “Victorian game of manners” (“A Sketch of the Past,” wr. 1939–40, pub. 1976). Recent readings, however, tend to emphasize the dialogic nature of Woolf’s style and its subversive and revisionary effect. Instead of adopting a stable point of view, the essays enact a continual questioning of opinion, in a manner which Woolf once referred to as her “turn & turn about method” (Diary II, 13 June 1923). By emphasizing such rhetorical twists, critics now propose that Woolf foregrounds the ideological assumptions that underlie any construction of “knowledge.” She is thus seen to be as concerned with the process of interpreting as she is with interpretations. Her Modernism is still linked to subjectivity; the difference is that instead of identifying Woolf with an ahistorical and aestheticized approach to reality, most critics now see her as engaged with the social and political implications of attitudes and beliefs. As a woman, she is seen to use her perspective as an outsider to critique the assumptions underlying the dominant patriarchal ideologies of her time; in a broader sense, she can be seen to situate all views in terms of their historical, national, or gendered contexts.
Given Woolf’s foregrounding of the problematic nature of knowledge, it is not surprising that the essayist with whom she appears to be aligned most sympathetically is Montaigne. Woolf celebrates his multiplicity, his contradictoriness, his provisionality, his inconclusiveness; adopting his own travel metaphor, she describes his focus on the process of his thinking in a way that could describe her own essays: “the journey is everything” (“Montaigne,” 1924). But whereas Woolf is drawn to Montaigne’s selfpositioning and self-questioning, encapsulated in his question “Que scais-je?,” her style is informed as well by her interest in more overtly dramatized forms, from the Platonic dialogues (“Art and Life,” 1909; “On Not Knowing Greek,” 1925), to Walter Landor’s Imaginary Conversations (“Landor in Little,” 1919), or George Moore’s reconstructed conversations with Mr. Gosse or Mr. Balderston (“Winged Phrases,” 1919). Noting, however, that these dialogues are often, in effect, situated within the one voice, Woolf herself sought a more oppositional and contestatory form and experimented in dramatizing strongly divergent points of view (“Mr. Conrad: A Conversation,” 1923).
While ultimately rejecting fictionalized debates because too much of the essay had to be devoted to the creation of characters, she nevertheless frames her essays around oppositional views, often installing the dominant or conventional view and then proceeding, through a dialogic process, to position and examine it. Again recalling Montaigne, these shifts produce a structure of rambling circularity as opposed to the logical linearity of the dominant Western rhetorical mode.
But while Woolf’s style has much in common with the familiar essay, her essays do not fit easily into any category. It may be best to regard them as a hybrid form, as befitting a writer who did not herself believe in discrete genres. On the one hand, her style is informed by the “great tradition” of canonical prose writers, with affinities to such writers as Johnson, Hazlitt, Lamb, De Quincey, and Pater, in addition to Montaigne. On the other hand, Woolf’s essays are equally consanguineous with the alternative tradition of diaries, letters, and memoirs which women had used to record their thoughts.
There is another interesting “split” in her writing that is perhaps even more significant.
While her commitment to a common readership and her rejection of an authoritative voice link her essays in style and approach to the familiar essay and forms of everyday writing, the literary issues that she addresses connect her essays in content with the academic professional article beginning to emerge. Her discussions of specific writers are framed by larger academic questions about the significance of tradition, the standards used to interpret and evaluate it, and the assumptions encoded in these standards. She addresses problems concerning the inclusion or exclusion of non-canonical works, the effect on a writer of outer circumstances, and the relation between writer and audience.
But though Woolf’s approach to these issues is as compelling as Eliot’s, her manner of writing was overshadowed by Eliot’s impersonal and doctrinal discourse, which came to exert a strong formative influence on the academic article in English studies. Thus in the years after her death, despite the attention she herself devoted to lost or forgotten works of literature, her own essays suffered the fate of being marginalized themselves.
The situation at the end of the century has substantially reversed, and Woolf’s essays tend to attract more attention now than Eliot’s. In this light, it is salutary to recall the strongly positive reception of Woolf’s essays by her contemporaries, many of whom considered them to be her finest work. Reviewers praised her combination of “historical sense” with “wideness of sympathy,” of “keen analysis” with a “synthesizing humanity,” of “the science of criticism” with “the insight of the novelist.” All of these comments testify to Woolf’s ability to integrate the intellectual and the personal, but it was Olive Heseltine in the Daily News (4 August 1925) who most evocatively captured this strength: in an appropriately Woolfian image, Heseltine summed up The Common Reader as “a marriage of true minds consummated between a wood nymph and a don.”
Daughter of the writer Leslie Stephen. Born 25 January 1882. in London. No formal education; studied privately. Lived in Bloomsbury, London, 1904–15 and 1924–39, Richmond, Surrey, 1915–24, and maintained Monks House, Rodmell, near Lewes, Sussex, 1919–41. Published some 500 essays in periodicals and collections, beginning 1905. Associated with a group later known as the Bloomsbury Group, which included writers E.M.Forster and Lytton Strachey, painters Vanessa Bell (her sister) and Duncan Grant, economist John Maynard Keynes, art critic Roger Fry, and others. Married the writer Leonard Woolf, 1912. Founder, with Leonard Woolf, Hogarth Press, Richmond, Surrey, later London, from 1917. Awards: Femina-Vie Heureuse Prize, 1928. Subject to mental breakdowns throughout her life. Died (suicide by drowning) in Rodmell, 28 March 1941.
Essays and Related Prose
The Common Reader, 1925; edited by Andrew McNeillie, 1984
A Room of One’s Own, 1929
The Common Reader, second series, 1932; U.S. publication as The Second Comtnon Reader, 1932; edited by Andrew McNeillie, 1986
Three Guineas, 1938
The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, 1942
The Motnent and Other Essays, 1947
The Captain’s Death Bed and Other Essays, 1950
Granite and Rainbow, 1958
Contemporary Writers, edited by Jean Guiguet, 1965
Collected Essays, edited by Leonard Woolf, 4 vols., 1966–67
Motnents of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings, edited by Jeanne Schulkind, 1976
Books and Portraits: Some Further Selections from the Literary and Biographical Writings, edited by Mary Lyon, 1977
Women and Writing, edited by Michèle Barrett, 1979
The Essays, edited by Andrew McNeillie, 4 vols., 1986–94 (in progress)
A Woman’s Essays: Selected Essays, vol. 1, edited by Rachel Bowlby, 1992
The Crowded Dance of Modern Life: Selected Essays, vol. 2, edited by Rachel Bowlby, 1993
Other writings: nine novels (The Voyage Out, 1915, revised edition, 1920; Night and Day, 1919; Jacob’s Room, 1922; Mrs. Dalloway, 1925; To the Lighthouse, 1927;
Orlando, 1928; The Waves, 1931; The Years, 1937; Between the Acts, 1941), short stories, a biography of Roger Fry, six volumes of correspondence, five volumes of diaries, and journals. Also translated Dostoevskii and Tolstoi.
Kirkpatrick, Brownlee Jean, A Bibliography of Virginia Woolf, London: Hart-Davis, 1957; revised edition, 1967; 2nd revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980; 3rd revised edition, forthcoming
McNeillie, Andrew, An Annotated Critical Bibliography of Virginia Woolf, Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1983
Majumdar, Robin, Virginia Woolf: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1915–1974, New York: Garland, 1976
Rice, Thomas Jackson, Virginia Woolf: A Guide to Research, New York: Garland, 1984
Bishop, Edward, “The Essays: The Subversive Process of Metaphor,” in his Virginia Woolf, London: Macmillan, 1991: 67–78
Brewster, Dorothy, “The Uncommon Reader as Critic,” in her Virginia Woolf, New York: New York University Press, 1962; London: Allen and Unwin, 1963
Caughie, Pamela, “Virginia Woolf as Critic,” in her Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism: Literature in Quest and Question of Itself, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991:169–93
Cuddy-Keane, Melba, “The Rhetoric of Feminist Conversation: Virginia Woolf and the Trope of the Twist,” in Ambiguous Discourse: Feminist Narratology and British Women Writers, edited by Kathy Mezei, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996:137–61
Delord, J., “Virginia Woolf’s Critical Essays,” Revue des Langues Vivantes 29 (1963)
Dusinberre, Julie, “Virginia Woolf and Montaigne,” Textual Practice 5 (1991):219–41
Fernald, Anne, “A Room of One’s Own, Personal Criticism, and the Essay,” Twentieth Century Literature 40 (Summer 1994): 165–89
Goldman, Mark, Virginia Woolf as a Literary Critic, The Hague: Mouton, 1976
Good, Graham, “Virginia Woolf: Angles of Vision,” in his The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay, London: Routledge, 1988:112–34
Johnson, Georgia, “The Whole Achievement in Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader,” in Essays on the Essay: Redefining the Genre, edited by Alexander J.Butrym, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989
Kronenberger, Louis, “Virginia Woolf as Critic,” in The Republic of Letters: Essays on Various Writers, New York: Knopf, 1955
Meisel, Perry, The Absent Father: Virginia Woolf and Walter Pater, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1980
Pacey, Desmond, “Virginia Woolf as a Literary Critic,” University of Toronto Quarterly 18 (April 1948):234–44
Richter, Harvena, “Hunting the Moth: Virginia Woolf and the Creative Imagination,” in Virginia Woolf: Revaluation and Continuity, edited by Ralph Freedman, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980
Rosenberg, Beth Carole, Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson: Common Readers, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995
Sharma, Vijay L., Virginia Woolf as Literary Critic: A Revaluation, New Delhi: Arnold- Heinemann, 1977
Steele, Elizabeth, Virginia Woolfs Literary Sources and Allusions: A Guide to the Essays, New York: Garland, 1983
Steele, Elizabeth, Virginia Woolfs Rediscovered Essays: Sources and Allusions, New York: Garland, 1987
Wellek, René, “Virginia Woolf as Critic,” Southern Review 13 (1977):419 37
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