The Death of the Moth and Other Essays

This collection of posthumously gathered essays showcases the growth of VW’s skill from 1917 onward. One favorite from the batch is Street Haunting, an account of an afternoon stroll across London in quest of a lead pencil, eyes floating but not focused too deeply on what is around, dipping into secondhand bookshops where “in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.” She sees a dwarf getting fitted for shoes, a necklace of pearls that transport her to 2AM and just home from a party, and a cat creeping along a garden wall. When she arrives at the stationer’s shop, she senses tension between the husband and wife owners, which dissipates as she lingers over her particular choice of pencil.
Also lovely is Twelfth Night at the Old Vic, deconstructing what is great about spoken vs. read Shakespeare.

Certainly there is a good deal to be said for reading Twelfth Night if the book can be read in a garden, with no sound but the thud of an apple falling to the earth, or of the wind ruffling the branches of the trees…. There is time.. to make a note in the margin; time to wonder at queer jingles like “that live in her; when liver, brain, and heart”… “and of a foolish knight that you brought in one night”… For Shakespeare is writing not with the whole of his mind mobilized and under control but with feelers left flying that sport and play with words so that the trail of a chance word is caught and followed recklessly. From the echo of one word is born another word, for which reason, perhaps, the play seems as we read it to tremble perpetually on the brink of music.

Versus spoken aloud:

Perhaps the most impressive effect in the play is achieved by the long pause which Sebastian and Viola make as they stand looking at each other in a silent ecstasy of recognition. The reader’s eye may have slipped over that moment entirely. Here we are made to pause and think about it; and are reminded that Shakespeare wrote for the body and mind simultaneously.

Another favorite is the essay on Craftmanship, which dances with words and shows the futility of making them mean anything. “They hang together, in sentences, in paragraphs, sometimes for whole pages at a time. They hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is their nature to change.”
Several of her essays touch on the art of letter writing, diving into the correspondence of Madame de Sevigne, Horace Walpole, Reverend Cole. “Was it the growth of writing as a paid profession, and the change which that change of focus brought with it that led, in the nineteenth century, to the decline of this humane art?” If Horace Walpole was the greatest letter writer, “above all he was blessed in his little public- a circle that surrounded him with that warm climate in which he could live the life of incessant changes which is the breath of a letter writer’s existence.” In A Letter to a Young Poet, she exhorts him “for heaven’s sake, publish nothing before you are thirty.”

Thus the fourteen volumes of her (M. de Sevigne’s) letters enclose a vast open space… thus we live in her presence, and often fall, as with living people, into unconsciousness. She goes on talking, we half listen. And then something she says rouses us. We add it to her character, so that the character grows and changes, and she seems like a living person, inexhaustible.
This of course is one of the qualities that all letter writers possess, and she, because of her unconscious naturalness, her flow and abundance, possesses it far more than the brilliant Walpole, for example, or the reserved and self-conscious Gray. Perhaps in the long run we know her more instinctively, more profoundly, than we know them.

News and gossip, the sticks and straws out of which the old letter writer made his nest, have been snatched away. The wireless and the telephone have intervened. The letter writer has nothing now to build with except what is most private; and how monotonous after a page or two the intensity of the very private becomes!

There is room for a bit of feminism in the collection, with the essays Professions for Women, Why? and Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid. “Even when the path is nominally open- when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant- there are many phantoms and obstacles, as I believe, looming in her way. To discuss and define them is I think of great value and importance; for thus only can the labour be shared, the difficulties be solved.” “Are we not stressing our disability because our ability exposes us perhaps to abuse, perhaps to contempt? ‘I will not cease from mental fight,’ Blake wrote. Mental fight means thinking against the current, not with it.”
Space is devoted to analyzing the friendships of Walpole/Cole (unlikely pals who bonded over antiquities) and Gibbons/Sheffield (the historian and the Peer). A few essays touch on Shelley, Henry James, George Moore, E.M. Forster. Woolf also pulls apart the Coleridge myth, likening him to Mr. Micawber, and saying “anything may tumble out of that great maw; the subtlest criticism, the wildest jest, the exact condition of his intestines.”

But there is a difference. For this Micawber (Coleridge) knows that he is Micawber. He holds a looking-glass in his hand. He is a man of exaggerated self-consciousness, endowed with an astonishing power of self-analysis. Dickens would need to be doubled with Henry James, to be trebled with Proust, in order to convey the complexity and the conflict of a Pecksniff who despises his own hypocrisy, of a Micawber who is humiliated by his own humiliation. He is so made that he can hear the crepitation of a leaf, and yet remains obtuse to the claims of wife and child.

Her letter to the editor of New Statesman chided the reviewer of her book for not using the word “highbrow” to describe her (or to specify her location as “Bloomsbury”). She pleads for highbrows and lowbrows to come together to fight middlebrows. Invited to tea at a middlebrow’s house, she’s not sure what to wear:

We highbrows may be smart, or we may be shabby; but we never have the right thing to wear. I proceed to ask next: What is the right thing to say? Which is the right knife to use? What is the right book to praise? All these are things I do not know for myself. We highbrows read what we like and do what we like and praise what we like. We also know what we dislike… bound volumes of the classics behind plate glass… people who call both Shakespeare and Wordsworth equally “Bill”… And in the matter of clothes, I like people either to dress very well; or to dress very badly; I dislike the correct thing in clothes.

We highbrows, I agree, have to earn our livings; but when we have earned enough to live on, we live. When the middlebrows, on the contrary, have earned enough to live on, they go on earning enough to buy- what are the things that middlebrows always buy? Queen Anne furniture (faked, but none the less expensive); first editions of dead writers- always the worst; pictures, or reproductions from pictures, by dead painters;… but never anything new, never a picture by a living painter, or a chair by a living carpenter, or books by living writers, for to buy living art requires living taste.

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A receipt tucked inside informs me that I purchased this book at the Borders on Peachtree Road in Atlanta in 1998, and have carried this book with me, unread, for one cross-country move and five intra-city moves. Also scrawled on the receipt is a 919 phone number for Susan, an pal I took a Woolf class with in school. Yes kids, we once wrote phone numbers down on scraps of paper.