As part of my very slow read-though of Virginia Woolf’s major works, I’m am now reading The Common Reader, her collection of literary essays. And oh my goodness, have I made it clear how much I love Virginia Woolf? Because these essays are wonderful. This is my second time through the book, and I’m loving it. I just read her essay on Montaigne, and I marveled at the way she moves back and forth between writing about him in the usual way one writes about someone else and actually embodying him, taking on his persona. She will write something like “It is life that emerges more and more clearly as these essays reach not their end, but their suspension in full career” that is clearly evaluating Montaigne from an exterior perspective, but then in the same paragraph she will start describing his ideas as though she were Montaigne herself:
In short, the soul is all laced about with nerves and sympathies which affect her every action, and yet, even now in 1580, no one has any clear knowledge — such cowards we are, such lovers of the smooth conventional ways — how she works or what she is except that of all things she is the most mysterious, and one’s self the greatest monster and miracle in the world …
By slipping into his voice, she creates a strong sense of who Montaigne was; she brings him to life, and her affection for him shines through.
But then her own voice is incredibly convincing. Woolf writes with such assurance and poise — without coming across as arrogant — that I’m ready to believe whatever she says. I love this passage from the essay “Notes on an Elizabethan Play,” which compares plays and novels:
The play is poetry, we say, and the novel prose. Let us attempt to obliterate detail, and place the two before us side by side, feeling, so far as we can, the angles and edges of each, recalling each, so far as we are able, as a whole. Then, at once, the prime differences emerge; the long leisurely accumulated novel; the little contracted play; the emotion all split up, dissipated and then woven together, slowly and gradually massed into a whole in the novel; the emotions concentrated, generalised, heightened in the play. What moments of intensity, what phrases of astonishing beauty the play shot at us!
She makes everything clear — of course that’s how plays and novels work!
She also can conjure up the feeling of a place and time beautifully. Consider this passage about medieval England from her essay “The Pastons and Chaucer”:
For let us imagine, in the most desolate part of England known to us at the present moment, a raw, new-built house without telephone, bathroom or drains, arms-chairs or newspapers, and one shelf perhaps of books, unwieldy to hold, expensive to come by. The windows look out upon a few cultivated fields and a dozen hovels, and beyond them there is the sea on one side, on the other a vast fen. A single road crosses the fen, but there is a hole in it, which, one of the farm hands reports, is big enough to swallow a carriage. And, the man adds, Tom Topcroft, the mad bricklayer, has broken loose again and ranges the country half-naked, threatening to kill any one who approaches him. That is what they talk about at dinner in the desolate house, while the chimney smokes horribly, and the draught lifts the carpets on the floor. Orders are given to lock all gates at sunset, and, when the long dismal evening has worn itself away, simply and solemnly, girt about with dangers as they are, these isolated men and women fall upon their knees in prayer.
The essay is about Chaucer and how his writing springs from his time and place, but she takes a while to get to him, lingering instead on the landscape and the people who lived in his time and read his work. I finished the essay feeling as though I had not just learned something about Chaucer but saw and heard and felt something about him too.