Virginia Woolf's Essays -- A Great Art, A Sober Craft

Leonard Woolf, in selecting and publishing the shorter writings of his wife, Virginia Woolf, has taken occasion to emphasize, again and again, her long painstaking ways of working, her habit of many revisions and rewritings, and her refusal to publish anything until she had brought it to its final state. This fourth volume to appear in the nine years since her death will probably be the last, Mr. Woolf tells us. There seems to remain a certain amount of unfinished manuscripts-- unfinished in the sense that she had intended still to reconsider them and would not herself have published them in their present versions. One cannot respect enough the devoted care and love and superb literary judgment of the executor of this precious estate.

"In the previous volumes," Mr. Woolf writes in his foreword to this latest collection, "I made no attempt to select essays in accordance with what I thought to be their merit or importance; I aimed at including in each volume some of all the various kinds of essay." The titles of the volumes are: "The Death of the Moth" (1942); "A Haunted House" (short stories, 1944); "The Moment, and Other Essays" (1948); and now, "The Captain’s Death Bed."

It is easy to agree with him when he finds "The essays in this volume are* * *no different in merit and achievement from those previously published." Indeed, I found old favorites and new wonders in each of the earlier collections, finding still others again in this: the celebrated "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown"; "Memories of a Working Woman’s Guild"; "The Novels of Turgenev"; "Oliver Goldsmith." She speaks a convincing good word for Ruskin, such was her independence of taste, for surely this word is the first Ruskin has received in many a long year. She does a really expert taxidermy job on Sir Walter Raleigh, poor man, though he certainly deserved it; does another on reviewing, so severe her husband feels he must modify it a little with a footnote.

This book contains in fact the same delicious things to read as always; apparently her second or third draft was as good as her ninth or fifteenth; her last would be a little different, but surely not much better writing, that is clear. Only she, the good artist, without self-indulgence, would have known how much nearer with each change she was getting to the heart of her thought. For an example of how near she could come to it, read the three and one-half pages called "Gas." It is about having a tooth out, in the same sense, as E. M. Forster once remarked, that Moby Dick is a novel about a whale.

Now it is to be supposed that with this final gathering up of her life’s work the critics will begin their formal summings-up, analyses, exegeses: the various schools will attack or defend her; she will be "placed" here and there; Freud will be involved, if he has not been already; elegies will be written: Cyril Connolly has already shed a few mourning tears, and advised us not to read her novels for at least another decade: she it too painfully near to our most disastrous memories.

It turns out merely that Mr. Connolly wishes us to neglect her because she reminds him of the Thirties, which he, personally, cannot endure. A great many of us who have no grudges against either the Twenties or the Thirties will find this advice mystifying. And there is a whole generation springing up, ready to read what is offered, who know and care nothing for either of those decades. My advice must be exactly the opposite: read everything of Virginia Woolf’s now, for she has something of enormous importance to say at this time, here, today; let her future take care of itself.

I cannot pretend to be coldly detached about her work, nor, even if I were able, would I be willing to write a purely literary criticism of it. It is thirty-five years since I read her first novel, "The Voyage Out." She was one of the writers who touched the real life of my mind and feeling very deeply; I had from that book the same sense of some mysterious revelation of truth I had got in earliest youth from Laurence Sterne ("of all people!" jeers a Shandy-hating friend of mine), from Jane Austen, from Emily Brontë, from Henry James. I had grown up with these, and I went on growing with W. B. Yeats, the first short stories of James Joyce, the earliest novels of Virginia Woolf.

In the most personal way, all of these seemed and do seem to be my contemporaries; their various visions of reality, their worlds, merged for me into one vision, one world view that revealed to me little by little my familiar place. Living as I did in a world of readers devoted to solid, tried and true literature, in which unimpeachable moral grandeur and inarguable doctrine were set forth in balanced paragraphs, these writers were my own private discoveries. Reading as I did almost no contemporary criticism, talking to no one, still it did not occur to me that these were not great artists, who if only people could be persuaded to read them (even if by the light of Dr. Johnson) they would be accepted as simply and joyously as I accepted them.

In some instances I was to have rude surprises. I could never understand the "revival" of Henry James; I had not heard that he was dead. Rather suddenly Jane Austen came back into fashionable favor; I had not dreamed she had ever been out of it.

In much the same way I have been amazed at the career of Virginia Woolf among the critics. To begin with, there has been very little except of the weekly review variety. Compared to the libraries of criticism published about Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot and all her other fellow artists of comparable stature, she has had little consideration. In 1925 she puzzled E. M. Forster, whose fountain pen disappeared when he was all prepared in his mind to write about her early novels.

Almost everything has been said, over and over, about Virginia Woolf’s dazzling style, her brilliant humor, her extraordinary sensibility. She has been called neurotic, and hyper-sensitive. Her style has been compared to cobwebs with dew drops, rainbows, landscapes seen by moonlight, and other unsubstantial but showy stuff. She has been called a Phoenix, Muse, Sybil, a Prophetess, in praise, or a Feminist, in dispraise. Her beauty and remarkable personality, her short way with fools and that glance of hers, which chilled many a young literary man with its expression of seeing casually through a millstone--all of this got in the way. It disturbed the judgment and drew the attention from the true point of interest.

Virginia Woolf was a great artist, one of the glories of our time, and she never published a line that was not worth reading. The least of her novels would have made the reputation of a lesser writer, the least of her critical writings compare more than favorably with the best criticism of the past half-century. In a long, sad period of fear, a world broken by wars, in which the artists have in the most lamentable way been the children of their time, knees knocking, teeth chittering, looking for personal salvation in the midst of world calamity, there appeared this artist, Virginia Woolf.

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