Saturday, December 01, 2012

“Let us trespass at once. Literature is no one’s private ground.”

Something rather different from CR’s usual fare. But I was inspired today, by the review I refer to below. Hope people find it interesting.


I’ve been reading the latest issue of The Atlantic, which is probably my favorite magazine: the mix of politics, history and arts features is excellent, and the quality of the articles usually of the highest quality. I came across an article about Virginia Woolf that stood out for me. “The Education of Virginia Woolf”, by Benjamin Schwartz, is a review of The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 6: 1933-1941, the final collection (edited by Stuart N. Clarke) of the author’s writing leading up to her suicide in 1941. Strangely, I can’t seem to find any evidence of the collection being published – recently or in the near future – in the United States, but it is available in the UK, published by Random House.

I have never read anything by Woolf (much to my detriment, it seems). I do, however, seem to be surrounded these days by Virginia Woolf scholars and aficionados (Alyssa is both, for example), and frequently coming into contact with articles about or that reference the author. Schwartz’s review is well-written – if a bit thin, but I suppose there’s not a whole lot one can do with a volume of collected papers, unless it’s ground-breaking or scandalous). The piece does, however, contain a couple of nuggets of information about Woolf’s thoughts on reading, as well as the story behind a couple of the articles in Essays...Vol.6.

VirginiaWoolf-Essays-Vol.6Let’s start with a great comment about what it means to be a reader:

“A reader must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill … the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading. The true reader is a man of intense curiosity; of ideas; open-minded and communicative, to whom reading is more of the nature of brisk exercise in the open air than of sheltered study.” [“Hours in a Library”]

The dedication she had for her relatively-poorly-paid reviewing career was incredible, sometimes taking almost an entire year to work on a single piece. For example, an essay she composed on Oliver Goldsmith (1730-74), the Anglo-Irish writer best known for The Vicar of Wakefield. Clarke shows in the collected essays, that she began working on the piece in April 1933 by reading four entire volumes of Goldsmith’s work. That was how she began. She would finally deliver the piece in March 1934.

Schwartz also picks out the “staggering” effort Woolf devoted to an essay on Edward Gibbon, the historian who wrote the six-volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published 1776-1788):

“by cross-referencing her letters and diaries, Stuart N. Clarke… reveals that in November 1936, Woolf began work on her lapidary, psychologically astute, tender essay on Edward Gibbon. That project demanded that she read his journals, letters, and the six drafts of his autobiography – and reread the six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the work that naturally forms the cynosure of her piece. She labored at this review through the winter and spring of 1937 (‘I’ve spent all the morning, every morning, writing; every evening reading. I had to dash through Gibbon’), until its publication that May.”

Virginia Woolf once claimed that a goal of hers was to “make not merely thousands of people interested in literature; but millions”. I have far more modest goals, and while it would certainly be nice if millions of people were to read Civilian Reader, and by extension give the works I enjoy the attention I believe they deserve. Failing that, I hope to keep bringing these novels, authors and so forth to as many people’s attention as I am able.

Even the cursory research I did for this piece made me realize that my English Literature education has been found seriously wanting. I always seem to have been caught in the years when teachers were bored of a typical syllabus, and decided that a little bit of “experimentation” was warranted. It most often was not, and as a result there are a great number of classics I have missed: F. Scott Fitzgerald? Nope. Graham Greene? Nope. Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, or Henry James? Nope, nope, nope, and nope.

Some of the greats were still represented – George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Iain Banks (not his SF, just the extremely weird The Wasp Factory…), and John Steinbeck. For the latter, it was only Of Mice & Men, but that at least helped me understand the following Friends reference:

Woolf was a prolific essayist, and it’s not too difficult to find essays and letters she wrote about writing, reading, and writers. This, actually, is the part of her work that I think will be of most interest to me. That being said, I do also intend to raid Alyssa’s book shelves at some point for a selection of Woolf’s fiction – probably Mrs. Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own and To the Lighthouse.

Daphne Merkin, who reviewed Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf in 1997, described her subject as “one of the most professional, perfectionist, energetic, courageous and committed writers”, and offered up this observation of Woolf’s affection for the simple act and pleasure of reading:

[Woolf] clearly found solace – a way out from her overwhelming sense of futility, “the old treadmill feeling of going on and on and on, for no reason” – in the ordering properties of reading and writing. Reading became for her, as Ms. Lee describes it, a means “of transcending the self.” (She wrote to Ethel Smyth, “Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.”)

I can empathise with that sentiment…


This is the Gothic Library at Hearst Castle in California.
I imagine this is what some of Heaven could look like…

I shall leave you, now, with a couple of other choice Woolf-isms:

“Second hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.” [“Street Haunting, A London Adventure”, 1927]

“Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” [A Room of One’s Own]

[Interestingly, I didn’t have to go to Wikipedia once to get any of this information. I consider this a big win.]


  1. 'To the Lighthouse' is consummate Woolf, and I also enjoyed Mrs Dalloway (I assume you know that Cunnigham's 'The Hours" is a riff on Mrs D.?) but I also suggest trying Jacob's Room: it's early Woolf and not so accomplished, imho, but I find the way she explores repetition in the book quite fascinating.

  2. Also, if you're looking for something a bit more in the SFF vein, Orlando is amazing, and quite trippy.

    1. Didn't you say she wrote something from the perspective of a dog, too...?

    2. Yes, Flush: a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cocker spaniel.