Contrary to the portrayal of her melancholic disposition in contemporary culture, it is Virginia Woolf’s humour that emerges most forcibly in the essays that make up the first volume of The Common Reader.
Gossiping about seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn Woolf writes:
Ignorant, yet justly confident that with his own hands he might advance not merely his private knowledge but the knowledge of mankind, Evelyn dabbled in all the arts and sciences, ran about the continent for ten years, gazed with unflagging gusto upon hairy women and rational dogs, and drew inferences and framed speculations which are now only to be matched by listening to the talk of old women round the village pump.
Or when describing the habits of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle:
No fears impede her. She has the irresponsibility of a child and the arrogance of a Duchess. The wildest fancies come to her, and she canters away on their backs. We seem to hear her, as the thoughts boil and bubble, calling to John, who sat with a pen in his hand next door, to come quick, ‘John, John, I conceive!’
The drollery, evident in these essays, was commented on recently by Woolf’s nephew Cecil who said:
Despite her rather sombre appearance, Virginia could be extremely funny.The image she has in some people’s minds of a sad and deeply depressed woman is false. (Nicole Kidman in The Hours springs to mind.) Quite the contrary. Leonard remembered that during the First World War when they sheltered in the basement of their London lodgings from enemy bombing, Virginia made the servants laugh so much that he complained he was unable to sleep. My recollection of her is of a fun-loving, witty and, at times, slightly malicious person.
Acerbic wit aside, there is insight aplenty in Woolf’s essays. Particularly fine is the analysis of Jane Austen, and Woolf’s encouragement to read all her books:
The second-rate works of a great writer are worth reading because they offer the best criticism of his masterpieces.
Woolf not only considers the work of long-dead authors but also discusses her contemporaries. In a perceptive essay on modern novels she comments:
Any one who has read The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man or, what promises to be a far more interesting work, Ulysses, [(Woolf had read the magazine, The Little Review, which published the first thirteen, and part of the fourteenth, episodes of Ulysses)] now appearing in the Little Review, will have hazarded some theory of this nature as to Mr Joyce’s intention. On our part, with such a fragment before us, it is hazarded rather than affirmed; but whatever the intention of the whole, there is no question but that it is of the utmost sincerity and that the result, difficult or unpleasant as we may judge it, it is undeniably important.
Woolf’s reaction to Ulysses was ultimately unfavourable. In her diary she wrote, “I finished Ulysses and think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has, I think; but of inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense.” In the final essay in The Common Reader, written four years after her essay on modern novels, she comments briefly, “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster.”
Written for the Common Reader these essays are engaging and accessible. The extraordinary quality of the writing lead me gently and enjoyably through all the essays, whether about modern literature, mad duchesses or the literary poverty of not knowing Greek. One final excerpt which adequately summarises the writer behind these essays:
But literature is stern; it is no use being charming, virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, unless, she seems to reiterate, you fulfil her first condition – to know how to write.