I am making my way through the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s essays that she composed between the years 1904 and 1912. In “The Decay of Essay Writing” (1904) she gives us some insight into her motivations behind writing her personal essays. She teaches us how to read her essays with a bit of a rant about the way in which writers in her day have approached the personal essay:
But though it seems thus easy enough to write of one’s self, it is, as we know, a feat but seldom accomplished. Of the multitude of autobiographies that are written, one or two alone are what they pretend to be. Confronted with the terrible spectre of themselves, the bravest are inclined to run away or shade their eyes. And thus, instead of the honest truth which we should all respect, we are given timid side-glances in the shape of essays, which, for the most part, fail in the cardinal virtue of sincerity.
I wonder what Woolf would think of the personal essays written in the 21st century? In the age of the Internet and social media, have we gone too far the other way with oversharing?
Much of the first volume is taken up with reviews of books that Woolf did for the Guardian and the TLS in order to earn some money. I am in awe of the wide range of books that she read. Just as a sample, for the year 1905 she read:
Fiction: The Golden Bowl by Henry James; Arrows of Fortune by Algernon Gissing; A Dark Lantern by Elizabeth Robins.
Non-fiction: The Women of America by Elizabeth McCracken; The Thackeray Country by Lewis Melville; The Dickens Country by F.G. Kitton.
Even when her reviews are not flattering, she still makes me want to read a book. I want to read what she read and replicate her literary experience. Her review of James, for example, is not positive but she still inspires me to take another look at his novels:
‘She rubbed with her palm the polished mahogany of the balustrade, which was mounted on fine iron-work, eighteenth-century English.’ These are trivial instance of detail which, perpetually insisted on, fatigues without adding to the picture. Genius would have dissolved them, and whole chapters of the same kind, into a single word. Genius, however, is precisely what we do not find; and it is for this reason that we do not count Mr. James’s characters among the creatures of our brains, no can we read his books easily and without conscious effort. But when we have made this reservation our praise must be unstinted. There is no living novelist whose standard is higher, or whose achievement is so consistently great.