The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 2: 1912-1918

It is a treat to descend into the cool, calming prose of Woolf’s reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, which she continued to churn out even during this tumultuous time of war and death and illness and marriage. I pulled this volume out as I was uncovering the work of Samuel Butler to read her July 1916 review of a newly released biography; she praised it mostly because it causes us to take down Butler’s work itself to reread. I find her essays to be a great place to start when I’ve just discovered a new-to-me writer; she praises or eviscerates, she rarely hides her barbs. Here is a limited selection of hits I enjoyed:

Hours in a Library

Her November 1916 “Hours in a Library” is both a nod to her father’s collection of essays by the same title and a declaration of love for reading.

For the first time, perhaps, all restrictions have been removed, we can read what we like; libraries are at our command, and, best of all, friends who find themselves in the same position. For days upon end we do nothing but read. It is a time of extraordinary excitement and exaltation. We seem to rush about recognizing heroes. There is a sort of wonderment in our minds that we ourselves are really doing this, and mixed with it an absurd arrogance and desire to show our familiarity with the greatest human beings who have ever lived in the world. The passion for knowledge is then at its keenest, or at least most confident, and we have, too, an intense singleness of mind which the great writers gratify by making it appear that they are at one with us in their estimate of what is good in life.

This gets at the heart of my dilettantish curiosity about most topics under the sun:

And then there are the books of facts and history, books about bees and wasps and industries and gold mines and Empresses and diplomatic intrigues, about rivers and savages, trade unions, and Acts of Parliament, which we always read and always, alas! forget.

To Read or Not to Read

This 1917 review of a book by someone who thought books were evil.

‘Books!’ What sin do you most abhor? Is it drunkenness or lying, cruelty or superstition? Well, they all come from reading books. What virtues do you most admire? Pluck them in handfuls, wherever you like, the answer is still the same; that is the result of not reading books. The trouble is that somehow or other the vicious race of readers has got the virtuous race of non-readers into its power.

Mr Conrad’s ‘Youth’

I note this 1917 essay on Joseph Conrad’s latest batch of stories as the first place I’ve seen her mention what ultimately will be her own method of suicide twenty-four years later:

… when old Captain Whalley, betrayed by nature and by man, fills his pockets with iron and drops into the sea we feel a rare sense of adequacy, of satisfaction, as if conqueror and conquered had been well matched and there is here ‘nothing to wail’.