With this sixth volume The Hogarth Press completes a major literary undertaking - the publication of the complete essays of Virginia Woolf. In this, the last decade of her life, Woolf wrote distinguished literary essays on Turgenev, Goldsmith, Congreve, Gibbon and Horace Walpole. In addition, there are a number of more political essays, such as 'Why Art To-Day Follows Politics', 'Women Must Weep' (a cut-down version of Three Guineas and never before reprinted), 'Royalty' (rejected by Picture Post in 1939 as 'an attack on the Royal family, and on the institution of kingship in this country'), 'Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid', and even 'America, which I Have Never Seen...' ('['Americans are] the most interesting people in the world - they face the future, not the past'). In 'The Leaning Tower' (1940), Virginia Woolf faced the future and looked forward to a more democratic post-war age: 'will there be no more towers and no more classes and shall we stand, without hedges between us, on the common ground?' Woolf stimulates her readers to think for themselves, so she 'never forges manifestos, issues guidelines, or gives instructions that must be followed to the letter' (Maria DiBattista).
In providing an authoritative text, introduction and annotations to Virginia Woolf's essays, Stuart N. Clarke has prepared a common ground - for students, common readers and scholars alike - so that all can come to Woolf without specialised knowledge.
The Essays of Virginia Woolf Volume 1, 1904-1912 edited by Andrew McNeillie (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $19.95; 411 pp.)
Much of the first volume, and a preponderance of the pieces done between 1904 and 1906, are either brief three-or-four-paragraph reviews of forgettable books written for the Times Literary Supplement, or longer reviews and essays written for the Guardian--not what was then called the Manchester Guardian, but a trade paper for parsons.
Woolf, starting out, gives us conscientious plot summaries of such perishables as A. J. Dawson's "The Fortunes of Farthings," a novel about a young man shanghaied by pirates and sold to the Sultan of Morocco. Even more conscientiously, McNeillie searches out the book and gives us page citations for each of the quotes. Why? Is someone going to try to read "The Fortunes of Farthings"? Scholarship has its mysteries.
As a novice, Woolf struggles to observe the journalistic convention of her time that something nice should be said. She concludes the Dawson review, after observing that the author is sentimental, a jingoist and has a weak grasp of character: "But if the reader wants a long, amiable, and pleasantly garrulous novel to take to bed with him, 'The Fortunes of Farthings' will serve his purpose."
There are many such examples in this first volume. Woolf squeezes to find invisible virtues in the books she was given, but it is the invisibility she transmits, not the virtues. Later, still observing the conventions, she learns to put teeth in her smile.
And here we come to one of the interests of the collection: We see Woolf's literary bone structure emerge from the baby fat. Even while turning out the puffs, she would write scathing comments about the same books to a friend, and refer to herself by her private nickname "Goat." Gradually, never loosing her delicacy, she began to offer public glimpses of this private goat.
Even early on, a phrase stands out here and there. In a stilted essay about a dog, here is an obvious thought expressed in a faintly disturbing fashion: "We deliberately transplant a little bit of simple wild life, and make it grow up beside ours, which is neither simple nor wild." An early review of "The Golden Bowl" projects her a long way ahead of herself. She compares James to a painter who painstakingly sets down every muscle and bone. He would be greater "if he were content to say less and suggest more."
In 1905, we find a hint of literary portraits to come. Of Jane Welsh Carlyle, she writes that though her letters were scrupulously factual, "They were facts which did more to illuminate herself than most people's feelings." A 1906 piece about Frederic the Great's sister, married into the tiny Bayreuth court, is an intimation of what Woolf will do later with other such exiled women's lives.
Her teeth were sharpening. Of an overblown poetic drama about an underseas kingdom, she writes that the author "makes the mistake of adding a tail to the ordinary mortal and thinking that she has created a mermaid."
And by 1907, about 50 selections into the book, Woolf has all but dropped the Guardian, and is doing longer pieces for the Times, and is coming into her prime. Her essay on Thomas Hood declares her belief that literary portraiture can find its richest subjects in secondary figures: "Keats lived in a street and had a neighbor and his neighbor had a family."
The rewards multiply. Reviewing two travel books, she argues that it takes a stranger to write properly about a place. Natives are too close.
If as much conscientious attention had been given to the Challenger project as has gone, these past dozen years, into the lives, works and foibles of the Bloomsbury Circle, we would today be able to review the first-person accounts of the space-launch crew. In whatever time could be spared, that is, from the newest batch of books about Bloomsbury.
Twenty years ago, Leonard Woolf brought out a four-volume collection of essays by his wife, Virginia, the greatest and most enduring talent among a group of writers that included Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Gerald Brenan and others. The collection consisted of those essays that Virginia had herself chosen for publication, and others that Leonard believed would have met her publication standards.
Now we are to get the rest. Andrew McNeillie has edited all of Virginia Woolf's nonfiction newspaper and magazine pieces that he was able to trace, in a collection that will come to six volumes. They will include about 500 essays and reviews, roughly twice the number selected by Leonard Woolf. In the first volume, McNeillie's diligence is particularly evident: Eighty-three of the 109 selections have never appeared in book form.
The reason, of course, is that the material is drawn from Woolf's first eight years as a free-lancer. A good deal of it is trivia and, except in the sense that I shall get to later, of little interest other than the kind that delights in contemplating Napoleon's waistcoat buttons.