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.



13 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 2: pt 2

  1. Love the Common Reader, and you are well-suited to write about this topic, Simon. But yes, she was not perfect. She was quite a snob! But oh, so brilliant.

    I really loved this phrase:

    “…velvety Augustan formal stateliness.”

  2. I think of Woolf as urban too, simply because when The Spouse and I stayed in a hotel in Bloomsbury for the first time, we took a Literary Walk, using Roger Tagholm’s Walking Literary London. At Virginia Woolf’s house, we met a man photographing it because his wife was presenting a lecture to the VW Society. I have a photo of the house, it’s no 29 Fitzroy Square, which is interesting because (too lazy at first to get the book to check) I Googled for the name of the street, and found her address to be 52 Tavistock Square. But my photo* quite clearly shows number 29, and also the blue plaque. So I dug out the Tagholm book and it reminds me that she lived at no 29 with her brother Stephen before she was married. They had Thursday Evenings there, hosting ‘numerous artistic and literary figures’ there and where “Woolf’s dog Hans ‘delighted in extinguishing visitors’ matches with its paws.” (This reminds me of VW’s ‘Flush’, which I listened to, and loved, on audiobook. She obviously loved her dogs.)

    I look forward to hearing more about these essays!


    • The young VW lived at 46 Gordon Sq for a while – Strachey had lived there before her. I went to a lit conference there a few years ago hosted by Birkbeck, Univ. of London, who now occupy the site. Her Tavistock Sq house is the more famous one. I tried loading a photo of a hummingbird moth, taken this summer on my hotel balcony in Switzerland, but it didn’t show the moth clearly enough – they dart about so much it’s hard to catch them in flight. This is a fascinating collection – not sure I’ll get time to post on the essays on women with the holiday visitors about to arrive and preparations to do. Have a wonderful Christmas, Lisa

  3. What she writes about Desperate Remedies is so true, but I think the same could be said about his novels, The Return of the Native in particular.

  4. Yes, she clearly identifies Hardy as a true artist, with ‘deep compassion for the sufferings of men and women’, with ‘a powerful imagination, a profound and poetic genius, a gentle and humane soul’. But then there’s this about his fiction in general: ‘it becomes obvious that his violence and his melodrama, when they are not due to a curious peasant-like love of the monstrous for its own sake, are part of that wild spirit of poetry…’ etc. [so she does go on to his unique vision of life’s grimness] – but still, ‘peasant-like’ is a bit patronising, isn’t it? I wonder how many peasants the Stephens family had met, or VW in later life. Still, it’s a very small element in an otherwise excellent discussion of TH. And there is a lot of validity in her criticism of his melodramatic and fate-driven plots and characters.

    • I agree, Karen; she can be a snob and still a brilliant artist. And yes, Hardy isn’t perfect – it’s just a bit reductive to see his humble origins as a major cause of his defects as a novelist (not such a problem with his poetry). And as I said in a reply to an earlier comment, she still praises him highly as a genius.

  5. MY NEW YEAR’S WEEKEND TASK: Review the definition of “reductive” and figure out how to use the word in an essay. What a great tool to add to the rhetorical carpenter’s box. I have a feeling it would help poke a hole in the bloviations of Jordan Peterson, my self-appointed Nemesis!

    Liked this:

    “And yes, Hardy isn’t perfect – it’s just a bit reductive to see his humble origins as a major cause of his defects as a novelist….”

  6. No, I think that was the correct use…!

    Yes, very nice Christmas, a dinner for two (my roommate and I) splitting a very portly Cornish (by coincidence) game hen, more than enough for two people! Are Cornish game hens CALLED “Cornish game hens” in Cornwall?

    I cooked his poor little giblets, but it was hardly worth it, threw them into the stuffing with some chopped up apricots to add more bulk!

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