The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3: 1919-1924

This volume was a bit of a disappointment. It seems that many of the good essays were hoovered up into The Common Reader, so 13 of the articles which should have been in this volume end up in Volume IV, in addition to The Common Reader. Of course, this being Woolf, there is plenty of gold left to mine from this ore.

A short column in 1924 rails against motor-cars. “The cheapening of motor-cars is another step towards the ruin of the country road. It is already almost impossible to take one’s pleasure walking, and only inevitable necessity impels the owners of children or dogs to venture their limbs upon what is now little better than an unfenced railway track. On the line itself there are at least rails and signals to ensure some kind of safety. But on the high road the procession of vehicles is irregular and chaotic, and the pedestrian has to depend upon the consideration and humanity of the motorist, who is in a position to dispense with both if it suits him. That it does suit him those who have lived on the verge of military operations this summer can testify—the approach of a military car being the signal among walkers and cyclists either to dismount and stand still or risk some perfectly wanton onslaught on the part of the military upon the common amenities of the King’s highway. The English road, moreover, is rapidly losing its old character—its colour, here tawny-red, here pearl-white; its flowery and untidy hedges; its quiet; its ancient and irregular charm. It is becoming, instead, black as cinders, smooth as oilcloth, shaven of wild flowers, straightened of corners, a mere racing-track for the convenience of a population seemingly in perpetual and frantic haste not to be late for dinner.”

A 1920 review plucks at the delicate balance between reader and writer: “But who shall trace how it is that coldness yields to curiosity, and curiosity to warmth, or satisfactorily define what constitutes that relationship between book and reader? For the essence of it is instinctive rather than rational. It is personal, complex, as much composed of the reader’s temperament perhaps as of the writer’s. To make a clean breast of it, hour and season and mood, the day’s brightness or the moment’s despondency, all weigh down the scales. With such impressionable instruments are we provided; of such unstable elements are our judgements compounded. No wonder that a second reading often reverses the verdict of a first.”

A 1923 review of a book about George Gissing contains this gem: “Be yourself with vigour and honesty and uncompromisingly, and it is surprising how you tell upon the landscape. It is arguable that you live almost as long in the manner of Dr Johnson and Samuel Butler as in the other way, which is Shakespeare’s way and Jane Austen’s.”

The lecture she gave to a group at Cambridge is captured in Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (published as Character in Fiction in T.S.Eliot’s Criterion ), taking up the fight against Arnold Bennett’s claim that the current writers (VW included) fail because their characters aren’t alive. As she tries to explain what they are up to, she mentions “on or about December 1910 human character changed.” This sentence is the starting gun for reams of papers about modernism. Essentially she draws a line and says, this is the shift. Edward VII died in May 1910, the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition opened in November 1910 (the show included works by Cezanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso, and led to radical developments like Cubism and the Fauves), Freud’s works were becoming better known (in an earlier draft: “If you read Freud you know in ten minutes some facts—or at least some possibilities—which our parents could not possibly have guessed for themselves), servants were becoming more chummy with their employers, the old world was breaking up. Said from the perch of 1924, post-Great War, you can see that society was cracking back in 1910.

You can tell that she’s enjoying having shaken off the shackles of drudgery reviews for the TLS and she really spreads her wings for The Nation & Athenaeum (for which Leonard was literary editor). She reviews the British Empire Exhibition in a June 1924 article where the excitement is driven by the approach of a storm:

But even as we watch and admire what we would fain credit to the forethought of Lieutenant-General Sir Travers Clarke, a rushing sound is heard. Is it the wind, or is it the British Empire Exhibition? It is both. The wind is rising and shuffling along the avenues; the Massed Bands of Empire are assembling and marching to the Stadium. Men like pin-cushions, men like pouter pigeons, men like pillar-boxes, pass in procession. Dust swirls after them. Admirably impassive, the bands of Empire march on. Soon they will have entered the fortress; soon the gates will have clanged. But let them hasten! For either the sky has misread her directions, or some appalling catastrophe is impending. The sky is livid, lurid, sulphurine. It is in violent commotion. It is whirling water-spouts of cloud into the air; of dust in the Exhibition. Dust swirls down the avenues, hisses and hurries like erected cobras round the corners. Pagodas are dissolving in dust. Ferro-concrete is fallible. Colonies are perishing and dispersing in spray of inconceivable beauty and terror which some malignant power illuminates. Ash and violet are the colours of its decay. From every quarter human beings come flying—clergymen, school children, invalids in bath-chairs. They fly with outstretched arms, and a vast sound of wailing rolls before them, but there is neither confusion nor dismay. Humanity is rushing to destruction, but humanity is accepting its doom. Canada opens a frail tent of shelter. Clergymen and school children gain its portals. Out in the open under a cloud of electric silver the bands of Empire strike up. The bagpipes neigh. Clergy, school children, and invalids group themselves round the Prince of Wales in butter. Cracks like the white roots of trees spread themselves across the firmament. The Empire is perishing; the bands are playing; the Exhibition is in ruins. For that is what comes of letting in the sky.