Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 2: pt 2

Virginia Woolf isn’t just a brilliant stylist, she can be very witty. She has an excellent eye for offbeat humour and mordant observation in the writers she discusses in these essays (all but four of which started out as book reviews, and were subsequently ‘refurbished’ by her for this collection). In ‘Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son’ there’s this on the ‘training’ that helped the aristocrat compose his salutary correspondence (far too sophisticated for its schoolboy recipient!) that was also an outlet for his creativity:

The little papers have the precision and formality of some old-fashioned minuet…’Some succeeded, and others burst’ he says of George the First’s mistresses: the king liked them fat. Again, ‘He was fixed in the house of lords, that hospital of incurables.’ He smiles: he does not laugh.

What an excellent image to convey the poised, restrained style of her subject – and its velvety Augustan formal stateliness; that final dig at the lords is perfect. And Woolf has already established Chesterfield’s personal constraint: he considered laughter to be vulgar.

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader vol. 2: cover

Woolf is capable of fine imagery herself. In ‘Four Figures’ pt 1: ‘Cowper and Lady Austen’ she sums up the poet’s literary qualities with typical clarity and precision; after describing his pride in his ‘gentle birth’ and the ‘standards of gentility’ he strove for at Olney, from the elegant snuff-box to the silver shoe buckles and fashionable hat, she goes on:

His letters preserve this serenity, this good sense, this sidelong, arch humour embalmed in page after page of beautiful clear prose.

So much is conveyed by that use of ‘embalmed’. And then she shows how his new friend Ann Austen began to feel ‘something stronger than friendship rise within her’:

That strain of intense and perhaps inhuman passion which rested with tremulous ecstasy like that of a hawk-moth over a flower…

I tend to think of VW as a particularly urban woman; I’ve attended a conference in her former home in Gordon Square. But of course the bohemian, urban Bloomsbury set were keen gardeners and countryside-dwellers. Her family had the famous summer house down the road from me at St Ives, opposite the more-famous Godrevy lighthouse. She and Leonard initially rented in rural Sussex, where her sister Vanessa also lived with her complicated domestic set-up, and then moved there to a house of their own. Her novels are as likely to be set in the country as in London. Hence that striking hawk-moth image – though I wonder if she really means the humming-bird moth, which emulates the grace of the bird it resembles when hovering over verbena, sipping at nectar.

I mentioned in my previous post that VW is particularly good on Hardy. Here’s a sample of why I say that. Here she’s writing about his first novel, Desperate Remedies, published in 1871 when he was 31, before he became ‘an assured craftsman’:

The imagination of the writer is powerful and sardonic; he is book-learned in a home-made way; he can create characters but he cannot control them; he is obviously hampered by the difficulties of his technique, and, what is more singular, he is driven by some sense that human beings are the sport of forces outside themselves, to make an extreme and even melodramatic use of coincidence.

There’s the literary acumen here of a fellow professional writer, the literary-critical perception of a careful reader. This is an example, also, of her tendency to slip into a rather pompous, mannered writing style – all those semi-colons, the clumping anaphora.

But is there also perhaps a hint of snobbery? What exactly does she mean by ‘home-made’? Not Cambridge educated, as her brothers were? (She of course was one of the first women to be permitted to study at King’s College, London, denied the expensive education of young men at the time, as she so ruefully pointed out in A Room of One’s Own.)

She goes on more generously, less prissily, to show Hardy’s brilliance in conveying in his writing the ‘larger sense of Nature as a force.’ His characters are no mere puppets:

In short, nobody can deny Hardy’s power – the true novelist’s power – to make us believe that his characters are fellow-beings driven by their own passions and idiosyncracies, while they have – and this is the poet’s gift – something symbolical about them which is common to us all.

There’s still a bit of the mannered Victorian/Edwardian in the style there – those parentheses – but it reads as more heartfelt and natural, less crabbed and cerebral than the earlier quotation.

I intended writing about what are perhaps the most interesting essays in the collection: the ones about women. Maybe next time.