Virginia Woolf's battle with her tea table training

 

ESSAYS: EVE PATTENreviews The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 6: 1933 to 1941Edited by StuartN Clarke Chatto and Windus/The Hogarth Press, 736pp. £35

A GOOD ESSAY, Virginia Woolf wrote in 1922, “should draw its curtain around us”, which is a lovely description of the form. Theorising on what makes a good essay doesn’t always translate, unfortunately, into the practice of writing one. Throughout her life Woolf herself wrestled with the style of her critical writing, hindered by an instinctive politeness – her “tea-table training”, she called it – that held back her pen. She rarely matched the best of her contemporaries: George Orwell, with his seamless connections carrying the reader cheerfully along all kinds of unexpected routes, or Rebecca West, with her journalist’s eye for a winning phrase. More conscientious than either of these, Woolf too often simply overwrote, lumbering herself with verbiage she didn’t really need.

This is not to say she didn’t produce some major essays – she did, of course – but to acknowledge her limitations as an essayist. Her readers almost always go to her reviews and articles to learn more about Woolf the novelist, not to benefit from her authority on Turgenev, or Coleridge, or Congreve, which underlines the secondary quality of her criticism. The exception is her writing on the visual arts: in this volume her re-evaluation of her friend Roger Fry and the “racket and din” of post-impressionism shows her at her best, but her worst is here too in the occasional whiff of the school debating society ( Why Art Today Follows Politics), or in the flannel of some of the magazine commissions ( America, which I Have Never Seen . ..).

This is the sixth and final annotated volume of Woolf’s complete essays, edited (as was volume 5) by Stuart Clarke. It covers the 1930s, a decade in which Woolf wrote fewer essays while worrying more about howto write them. Could she invent a “new critical method”? Should she experiment with a “diary” mode? “The old problem, how to keep the flight of the mind, yet be exact,” she mused in 1940. As in her later novels, from The Yearsto Between the Acts, she seemed troubled by self-consciousness about her technique, unable, stylistically, to settle down.

Why then, might this volume be more important than its predecessors? The answer lies in the historical context of the work. For all their unevenness, these essays gain significance from Woolf’s disquiet as she responded to the increasing cultural and political pressures of the late 1930s. While there was still room for workaday literary journalism, represented here in her discussions of the art of biography, for example, or whether book reviewing should be abolished (just for the record, she thought it probably should), the belletrist of the Common Readerera was slipping away and a much more conflicted writer emerging in the midst of a volatile social landscape.

The change is evident in pieces that highlight new fractures in Woolf’s “democratic highbrow” position, particularly The Leaning Tower,published in the autumn of 1940. Based on an address to the Workers’ Educational Association, this essay should have been her swansong, with its utopian vision of cultural egalitarianism in a brave new postwar world and of England’s literary aristocracy shedding at last its “sidelong, self-centred, squinting” habits of style. After the war, Woolf enthused, hedges would vanish, class hierarchies disappear and everyone stand together on a “common ground” of literature.

The rhetoric may sound passionate, but as an essay does it convince? And why does it go on and on, even to the point of windbaggery? Look at the notes drawn from the author’s letters or diary entries (and set conveniently beside the main text, thanks to a practical editor) to see Woolf’s utter dejection as she struggled to put this lecture together in the first place: “Can’t think why I bother . . . Surely its excessive to go on making up, when its only 20 old ladies in black bonnets I shall make up for.” Her private complaints raise further doubts about her sincerity. Desperately insecure about her audience, Woolf wrote herself into an excess borne of that insecurity, wanting to connect to an ordinary world but in the end overshooting it.

More troubled still are her late writings on politics, conceived as Britain began its march towards war. This volume reprints for the first time Women Must Weep, an abridged version of Woolf’s landmark Three Guineasessay from 1938, in which she parallels a rampant European fascism with a crippling domestic patriarchy. Here the excess that mars The Leaning Towerbecomes a virtue: Woolf tries too hard to maintain the cool-headedness of A Room of One’s Ownin the face of rising panic; tries too hard to argue her case (sometimes ignoring logic in the process); writes too much; fails on clarity and relevance; but wins eventually, and brilliantly, on the sheer anguish of her prose.

By the time she composed Thoughts of Peace in an Air Raid, first published in the US in October 1940, she was driven by real fear of the future, her anxiety surfacing in the violent imagery of this angry, convoluted attack on the twin evils of oppression and militarism. “Let us try to drag up into consciousness the subconscious Hitlerism that holds us down,” she writes. “We can see shop windows blazing; and women gazing; painted women; dressed-up women; women with crimson lips and crimson finger-nails. They are slaves who are trying to enslave. If we could free ourselves from slavery we should free men from tyranny.”

No “tea-table training” on show here, and the essay form she struggled with for so long gains new life as a distress call. Within six months – 70 years ago this week – Virginia Woolf had killed herself. It was her husband, Leonard, who began the difficult task of editing her final works for posthumous publication, and both Stuart Clarke and Andrew McNeillie (who edited the first four volumes of the complete essays) should be thanked for following so carefully in his footsteps.


Eve Patten lectures in the school of English at Trinity College Dublin