Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf

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Reviewed by Simon

Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf

I should hang my colours to the mast from the outset: for my money, Virginia Woolf is the greatest writer of the twentieth century. For both fiction and non-fiction, I consider her unparalleled, and so I was hardly likely to find much fault with Notting Hill Editions beautiful little selection of her essays, Essays on the Self.

The essays in this collection span 1919 to 1940 – and the ages 37 to 58, for Woolf. This time period also witnessed Woolf’s progression from a couple of early, fairly ordinary novels, through her experimental peaks, and almost to the end of her novelistic career. For those familiar with Mrs Dalloway or To The Lighthouse, it is fascinating to see how her thoughts developed during that time (although, it should be noted, the collection is not arranged chronologically).

Even those who have had little success with Woolf’s fiction often prize her non-fiction. Her essay writing is always logical, well argued, and – which surprises people the most – amusing. Edward Albee famously asked who was afraid of Virginia Woolf, but there is very little reason to be. Her writing is extremely beautiful and balanced in these essays, but it is not the dizzying experimentalism or stream of consciousness of the novels (which I adore and admire, but others may not); as I say, it is funny, in a wry and subtle manner. In one of her most famous essays, ‘Character in Fiction’, she invents the character Mrs Brown – or, rather, claims to have seen her on a train. In her crie de coeur against the bastions of Edwardian literature, she imagines Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells, and John Galsworthy depicting her. Indeed, an earlier version of the essay is called ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’:

Mr Bennett, alone of the Edwardians, would keep his eyes in the carriage. He, indeed, would observe every detail with immense care. He would notice the advertisements; the pictures of Swanage and Portsmouth; the way in which the cushion bulged between the buttons; how Mrs Brown wore a brooch which had cost three-and-ten-three at Whitworth’s bazaar; and had mended both gloves – indeed the thumb of the left-hand glove had been replaced. And he would observe, at length, how this was the non-stop train from Windsor which calls at Richmond for the convenience of middle-class residents, who can afford to go to the theatre, but have not reached the social rank which can afford motor cars, though it is true, there are occasions (he would tell us what), when they hire them from a company (he would tell us which).

Whether or not her assessment is fair (and it probably isn’t), it’s fascinating to see one of Modernism’s most renowned talents looking back on her predecessors. She looks further back still in essays on Hazlitt and Coleridge. She looks to her contemporaries in ‘Modern Fiction’, which famously outlines her thoughts on how fiction should represent the reality of human experience (‘Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.’) She looks to them, again, in a delightfully opinionated, tongue-in-cheek essay about why poetry is inferior to prose (‘A Letter to a Young Poet’):

The lack of a sound university training has always made it impossible for me to distinguish between an iambic and a dactyl, and if this were not enough to condemn one for ever, the practice of prose has bred in me, as in most prose writers, a foolish jealousy, a righteous indignation – anyhow, an emotion which the critic should be without. For how, we despised prose writers ask when we get together, could one say what one meant and observe the rules of poetry? Conceive dragging in ‘blade’ because one had mentioned ‘maid’; and pairing ‘sorrow’ with ‘borrow’? Rhyme is not only childish, but dishonest, we prose writers say.

Any selection of essays will, inevitably, invite a discussion about what has been included and what has been left out. ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’ is wonderfully fitting for the WW1 centenary. Leaving out ‘Modern Fiction’ or ‘Character in Fiction’ would have been sacrilegious, but I wonder if ‘Sara Coleridge’ or the poetic ‘The Sun and the Fish’ were essentials?

Notting Hill Editions say that the essays have been chosen as a means of showing Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on the self (and Joanna Kavenna’s lengthy introduction elaborates this claim). Perhaps they are right, but it seems to me much closer to a selection of essays about being a reader – not least in ‘How Should One Read a Book?’, of course, but also recurring through the other essays. Woolf’s mind is analytical and ever-curious; her way of expressing herself is thorough and engaging. She discusses reading and writing with extraordinary insight, and will go down in essay-writing history as a prominent voice on the topic. The same is true of her thoughts on selfhood and interiority, but – what topic is not, ultimately, about the self? Which essay, by any hand, could not be grouped under the banner? I think Notting Hill Editions rather painted themselves into a corner with ‘Self’ as their selection criteria; it is so vast a topic that it does not narrow down the possibilities from within Woolf’s oeuvre at all. It is too nebulous an entity to exclude anything she’s written. It perhaps means that the selection is not quite so cohesive as it could have been, had another topic been chosen.

But this is a minor point; it is by-the-by. The actual essays – however they were chosen – are sublime moments in intellectual history, while also being entertaining and accessible. And justice is done to them by the exceptional quality and luxury of the edition in which they are here printed.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Virginia Woolf, Essays on the Self (Notting Hill Editions, Devon, 2014), ISBN 978-1907903922, 152 pp., hardback.

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