Mrs. Woolf, Uncommon Reader
Among the foremost stylists of the present day, Virginia Woolf is also among those whose words are more than ordinarily worth one's while to listen to. A keenly discerning critic of books and men, as proved by her first "Common Reader," her deserved reputation is enhanced by the second of these collections. "I rejoice to concur with the common reader," wrote Dr. Johnson. The common reader again has the opportunity to rejoice with Mrs. Woolf - and over Dr. Johnson, among others.
Not all of the papers in the collection at hand are new, and some of then first appeared in American periodicals. None has to do with any living author. The paper on Thomas Hardy cones nearest to the present day. Mrs. Woolf writes of Donne, Swift, Defoe, Sterne, Dorothy Wordsworth and Hazlitt among the ancients. There are some twenty or more papers within the covers of the volume, the last one of which bears the questioning title, "How Should One Read a Book?" The interrogation, it is pointed out, is to emphasize the fact that in the main one must answer the question for one's self. Granting which, there may be added a few words.
Most commonly wee come to books (writes Virginia Woolf) with blurred and divided minds. If we could banish all preconceptions, when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice.
And attempting to be her fellow-worker and accomplice is the one certain way to obtain the greatest amount of enjoyment from this "Common Reader," for if there is anything that stands out from Virginia Woolf's pages more than another, it is that the author experienced enjoyment with every line she wrote. Everywhere is evident her affection for words and sentences; paragraphs are put together and pages builded with a warmth of interest in the process which is rarely found. One is carried back to Sir Philip Sidney among the Elizabethans and to Sir Thomas Browne. Within living memory Stevenson was the last to display the same thing markedly. Yet frequently Stevenson carried it a bit too far; he was prone to err on the other side; his writing became, often, precieuse. Mrs. Woolf's style is controlled: warmth is a conspicuous feature, but it is tempered warmth.
It makes little difference at what point on the surface Jack Horner sticks in his thumb, he cannot avoid smacking his lips over the delectable fruit he is certain to draw forth. Take this:
The pressure of a tremendous faith circles and clamps together these little songs. Perhaps they owe to it their solidity. Certainly the owe to it their sadness - your God was a harsh God, your heavenly crown was a crown of thorns - Death, oblivion and rest lap round your little songs with their dark wave. And then, incongruously, a sound of scurrying and laughter is heard. There is the patter of animals' feet and the old guttural notes of rooks and the snufflings of obuse furry animals grunting and nosing.
Of whose songs is Virginia Woolf speaking? Who is it she is addressing in these lines? None could it be of course, but Christina Rossetti - unless, except for the animal reference and the rocks, it might have been Emily Dickinson. But what felicity of phrasing! What absolute exactness in discovering and characterizing the distinguishing note! One recalls the famous advice of Flaubert to his pupil Maupassant - so to describe the cab-horse, that it was instantly discernible how it differed from the next. And this, as a principle of fiction, is equally a fundamental principle of criticism. It is the first business of the critic to discover what it is in an author which distinguishes him from all other authors. Much of our criticism today falls of its usefulness because of the neglect of this principle. Not so Mrs. Woolf.
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