Perceptive and Prophetic

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Hesperus Press collected four long-neglected critical essays for their new collection, Virginia Woolf’s On Fiction. Her criticism, like her fiction, is an utter delight.

George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer” begins with a setting, “a cold but stuffy-bed sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea.” A man in “a moth-eaten dressing-gown” sits at a makeshift desk surrounded by papers. We are told he is a:

a man of thirty-five but looks fifty. He is bald, has varicose veins and wears spectacles, or would wear them if his only pair were not chronically lost. If things are normal with him he will be suffering from malnutrition, but if he has recently had a lucky streak he will be suffering from a hangover.

A page later our man’s vocation is revealed: “Needless to say this person is a writer.” Almost reluctantly does Orwell decide to be more specific and call him a book reviewer; it is of no real consequence to him what kind of writer he is because “all literary people are alike.”

So much for the average writer. Virginia Woolf sketches the average reader in an essay from 1916 entitled “Hours in a Library”. This person, again male, is “a man of intense curiosity; of ideas; open-minded and communicative.” On the negative side he is:

a pale, attenuated figure in a dressing-gown, lost in speculation, unable to lift a kettle from the hob, or address a lady without blushing, ignorant of the daily news, though versed in the catalogues of the second-hand booksellers, in whose dark premises he spends the hours of sunlight.

Orwell’s writer is unkempt and disorganized. Woolf’s reader is hungry to learn but socially gauche. Both wear dressing-gowns, perfect attire for people who prefer to be indoors.

The Orwell essay is famous, the Woolf less so. Hesperus Press has raided Woolf’s volumes of critical writing and rescued four lesser-known literary essays, grouping them under the title On Fiction. Each essay brims with insight and interpretation that is conveyed stylishly and authoritatively. Here is a writer expounding on the secrets of her craft. In one essay, “Women and Fiction”, she classifies criticism as one of the few “sophisticated arts”, something seldom practised by women, at least in 1929. She foresees more women tackling and mastering it, albeit in a “golden” future when they will no longer have to protest to be heard, being enfranchised, financially and socially independent and with “a room to themselves” – a reference to her most celebrated critical work, “A Room of One’s Own”, published one year earlier. The essays are bound by ideas that are perceptive and prophetic. She scrutinizes the worth of literature past and present but goes the extra mile to consider if it, and its practitioners, can improve and increase in value in the future.

That first essay, “Hours in a Library”, focuses more on the reader. After her generalized image of him she adds, somewhat surprisingly, that “the true reader is essentially young.” Woolf was prone to bold pronouncements but she was always able to convincingly corroborate them. “The great season for reading,” we learn, “is between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four.” This is a sobering fact certain to make some of us feel we have passed our prime; but it also conjures up an image of the young self-taught Virginia Stephen, losing herself in her father’s vast library. Later in the essay she asserts the power the classics have on contemporary literature – that a schooling in the past is vital for appreciation of the present – but by the same token the more modern books we read, the greater our realization that some classics are not as imperishable as we previously imagined.

Classic writers throughout the ages are revisited and scrutinized in the longest essay here, “Phases of Fiction”, originally serialised in three parts in The Bookman in 1929. Woolf praises and takes down canonical authors in equal measure. It is refreshing to read of the shortcomings of the exalted: Proust mires the reader by surrounding his characters with clutter, an “accumulation of objects”; Walter Scott’s plots are too often “scamped, botched, hastily flung together”; Dickens, while hugely inventive, created “substantial, lumbering worlds”. This last point is typical of Woolf’s appraisals in that a writer’s strengths are examined alongside his faults in the same sentence. “Substantial” is apt for summing up those Victorian doorstop novels, but “lumbering” can equally fit the bill. George Eliot’s mind, she tells us, is both “clumsy and powerful”. Only Jane Austen escapes complete censure. We pause when we finish Pride and Prejudice and turn our mind back to what we have just read, “rather than forward to something fresh.”

In “The Narrow Bridge of Art” (1927) Woolf writes on fiction’s limitations. Compared to poetry, and the “glories” of the Elizabethan dramatists, prose is relatively hamstrung when dealing with “the common and the complex”. For all that fiction writers can experiment (Woolf herself a good example) they cannot fashion their prose to “chant the elegy, or hymn the love, or shriek in terror.” In short, prose, for all its elasticity, cannot “say the simple things which are so tremendous.” This is Woolf at her most opinionated and certainly her most contentious, and we could argue that fiction has more than adequately managed to say simple and tremendous things in the last eighty years. But she is unquestionably spot-on when, in a better bid at prescience, she talks of the fertility of the novel, how it is a “cannibal” form that will devour other forms to create new ones so that “in ten of fifteen years time prose will be used for purposes for which prose has never been used before.’

“Cannibal” is a wonderful description, one of many in these essays. It succeeds on two levels. Firstly it opens up Woolf’s line of argument in an original and eye-catching way; secondly it reads beautifully. The main problem with these essays is not that we wrestle with any opaqueness of thought (each is remarkably lucid) but that there is a temptation to underline every second sentence, such is her dexterity with words. This, of course, is the great advantage of reading a critic who is primarily a writer. She writes of “the foam and flood of language”. Poetry “has remained aloof in the possession of her priests.” Henry James helps us explore “endless filaments of feeling” whereas Dostoevsky leads us down “miles and miles into the deep and yeasty surges of the soul.”

This fine collection reminds us of Woolf’s binary genius as fiction writer and fiction critic. In these essays her judgement illuminates and her descriptions sparkle. James Wood has noted that her essays are “written in the language of art, which is the language of metaphor.” It took her a while to be entirely satisfied with this language in her novels – it was only her last novel, Between the Acts, that she considered “more quintessential than the others” – but in the essays the language, like the thinking, consistently impresses.

Malcolm Forbes' reviews and essays have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, The National, The Australian, The Daily Beast, the Quarterly Conversation and many other journals. Born in Edinburgh, he currently lives in Berlin. More from this author →