Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 1 – obscure lives

Yesterday I introduced this compilation of 21 literary reviews and specially written essays by Virginia Woolf brought out by the Hogarth Press in 1925 shortly before Mrs Dalloway was published.

Woolf Common Reader contents

The table of contents of vol. 1. The paper isn’t great quality: the ink has bled and blotted slightly

The range of subjects is broad. She covers authors and texts from the Pastons and Chaucer in the 14C to her contemporaries. The majority consider English prose fiction writers from Defoe, Austen, the Brontes and George Eliot to Conrad and Joyce, but she also analyses the Russian greats, especially Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. There’s an excursion into Greek drama, too; fellow blogger Melissa posted about it recently here.

Woolf also reflects on the essay genre itself, with pieces on Montaigne, one of its inventors, and the main English practitioners.

Other prose genres are discussed, from the diaries of Evelyn to the memoirs and other writings of the likes of the Duchess of Newcastle, with her desire for fame. A unifying feature that threads through most of the essays is the nature of reading and writing in different historical periods, and the reflexive, creative relationship between readers and authors. I hope to return to this aspect of the collection after my holidays.

I wanted rapidly to post here about one essay that stood out for me, and brought to my attention an aspect of Woolf that I hadn’t noticed before in the novels: she can be very funny. She makes a point of turning her analytical attention to marginal, largely overlooked and forgotten figures in the past – perhaps, as I noted yesterday, out of a sense of fellow-feeling as a woman in the early 20C. In her introductory paragraph to ‘Lives of the Obscure’ (presumably an ironic take on hagiographical ‘Lives of the Saints’) she playfully pictures herself as a sad antiquarian, taking out a ‘life subscription’ to a ‘faded, out-of-date obsolete library’, perhaps in her holiday haunt of St Ives, for she imagines it by the sea, ‘with the shouts of men crying pilchards for sale’ outside. It’s a library largely stocked unpromisingly ‘from the shelves of clergymen’s widows, and country gentlemen inheriting more books than their wives care to dust.’

The only other people there are clearly as lost a cause as this fictitious, unflattering version of herself: ‘The elderly, the marooned, the bored’ – they don’t seem to want to read these texts, just shelter from the world’s bustle:

No one has spoken aloud here since the room was opened in 1854.

Then she weirdly depicts the books themselves as just as lost – perhaps dead, certainly not expecting to be disturbed, so long have they been neglected:

The obscure sleep on the walls, slouching against each other as if they were too drowsy to stand upright. Their backs are flaking off; their titles often vanished. Why disturb their sleep? Why reopen those peaceful graves, the librarian seems to ask, peering over his spectacles, and resenting the duty, which has indeed become laborious, of retrieving from among those nameless tombstones Nos. 1763, 1080, and 606.

The first of three sections in this essay opens by absurdly stretching this conceit to great comic effect:

For one likes romantically to feel oneself a deliverer advancing with lights across the waste of years to the rescue of some stranded ghost – a Mrs Pilkington, a Rev Henry Elman, a Mrs Ann Gilbert – waiting, appealing, forgotten, in the growing gloom. Possibly they hear one coming. They shuffle, they preen, they bridle. Old secrets well up to their lips. The divine relief of communication will soon again be theirs.

There’s a seriousness underneath this surreal playfulness: it’s that recurring theme of the almost symbiotic relationship between texts, writers and readers. By opening these dusty, unread, largely tedious volumes the modern reader in a sense restores to life these long defunct minor figures.

She goes on with an amazing and scintillatingly impressionistic portrait of several groups of people from around 1800 onwards, principally the Taylor and the Edgeworth families, but including such vivid miniatures as the sad story of one Fanny Hill (no relation, I presume, to the eponym of Cleland’s racy novel) who ill-advisedly married a dashing but treacherous Captain M. who predictably treated her abominably. She returns years later, ‘worn and sunk’, when formerly she was ‘so sprightly’:

She was living in a lone house not far from the Taylors, forced to drudge for her husband’s mistress, for Captain M. had wasted all her fortune, ruined all her life.

And so the ‘words toil persistently through these obscure volumes’:

For in the vast world to which the memoir writers admit us there is a solemn sense of something inescapable, of a wave gathering beneath the frail flotilla and carrying it.

The portentous imagery perhaps parodies that of these old memoirs, but does so affectionately, without patronising or condescending (well, not too much). And Woolf is genuine in perceiving this ‘flotilla’ borne along to her over a century later, making a connection with her and taking on new life, despite its ancient strangeness, and she acknowledges its jaded, once-sprightly significance:

It is one of the attractions of the unknown, their multitude, their vastness; for, instead of keeping their identity separate, as remarkable people do, they seem to merge into one another, their very boards and title-pages and frontispieces dissolving, and their innumerable pages melting into continuous years so that we can lie back and look up into the fine mist-like substance of countless lives, and pass unhindered from century to century, from life to life.

Despite the ironic tone she’s not entirely joking any more. The figures she goes on to delineate, those faded portraits she dusts off, include all kinds of strange figures, like a Mr Elman talking in Brighton to Miss Biffen, who has no arms or legs: ‘a footman carries her in and out. She teaches miniature painting to his sister.’ One wonders how. Years later in his rectory he’ll think of her and other ‘great men’ he thinks he’s known, ‘and making – it is his great consolation – string bags, for missionaries.’

Wonderful. There I’d better stop. I hadn’t intended lingering so long on this essay, but it beguiled me. I’d like to show the other outlandish characters and extraordinary vignettes in it brought lovingly back into the light – maybe another time.