THE LETTERS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF: Volume III: 1923 - 1928. Edited by Nigel Nicolson & Joanna Trautmann. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 600 pp. $14.95; paperback, $5.95
BOOKS AND PORTRAITS: Some further selections from the literary and biographical writings of Virginia Woolf. Edited and with a Preface by Mary Lyon. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 221 pp. $10
by Perry Meisel
The Virginia Woolf revival continues space, with the expected result that Woolf the novelist is beginning to occupy our attention less today than Woolf the essayist, correspondent, and diarist. One can complain, of course, and mount as an offensive either from the feminist point of view that now claims for Woolf a status outside writing altogether, or from the customary modernist position whose interest remains largely confined to the novels and to certain of her polemical essays. In either case, though, one risks neglecting the salutary effect the continuing publication of posthumous documents has had in demonstrating how miraculously unified and self-contained a sensibility Woolf possessed, no matter what form she chose to work in and no matter what particular thematic account was nearest to hand or heart.
It is as correspondence and essays that the two newest additions to the Woolf library take their places in the lengthening succession of her works, although both the third volume ofLetters and the latest collection of essays, Books and Portraits, present so striking a continuity in the figure they disclose in common that the only real distinction between them is to be found in whatever difference separates the art of personality from the surpassing personality of art itself. It is, of course, largely as a personality that Woolf's fame has come to be reconstituted in the last five years or so, and it is as a social and domestic creature that we have grown accustomed to meeting her in the first two volumes of her Letters.
Now, with Volume Three, we follow her into the central years of her achievement when, over a six-year span, she writes in virtually uninterrupted succession Mrs. Dalloway, The Common Reader, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One's Own, and essays like "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," "Street Haunting," and "Phases of Fiction." From the Letters themselves, however, one would hardly know that these masterpieces are brimming over in her imagination. "I've almost finished two books," she writes to the painter Jacques Raverat, now her confidential correspondent in matters aesthetic; but while the books in question here areMrs. Dalloway and The Common Reader, the news about their progress is merely inserted between paragraphs - what's more, within the hush of parentheses.
Such a graphic sign for the marginal place of literary topics in Woolf's correspondence is by no means unusual ("Aren't letters of literary criticism dull?" she asked in Volume One), and while we may grow somewhat irritated at the sheer accretion of what Woolf refers to unabashedly, in letter after letter, as "gossip," there is nonetheless much significance to be read in the suppression and replacement of the literary by the detailed accounts here of friends old and new (chief among them now Vita Sackville-West), and by the inbred milieu of social and bohemian London. To be sure, there are revelations of a minor sort to be had in some unexpectedly tender missives to her husband Leonard and in the weighty symbolism attached to the news that Woolf set the type for the first Hogarth Press edition of The Waste Land with her own hands. Moreover, when she is not exchanging sympathy, advice, and reminiscences with her sister Vanessa, we even find her arguing humorously with friends about the propriety of writing for Vogue (which she did); raising her rates on The Yale Review as her reputation slowly begins to grow; and cancelling a trip to America because the New York Herald Tribunedecides not to pay her hotel bills.
For the most part, however, the world of friends and relations acted as a kind of cocoon in which she could spin her prose in safety while outsiders like Joyce, Lawrence, and Proust took the novel perhaps even farther than she did. What the Letters finally shows us, after all, is an increasingly strong and confident Woolf only indirectly in touch with literary life outside the confines of Bloomsbury London proper. She is, for example, continually hesitant to write to Ezra Pound (whose work she hates, she confides to Lady Ottoline Morrell) for a contribution to the fund she wants to set up so that T.S. Eliot, one of her few literary intimates outside Bloomsbury, may leave his job at Lloyd's Bank. Above all, she is ever quick to begrudge Joyce his fearfully close and threatening achievement (she now finds Ulysses boring as well as vulgar), habitually blinding herself to his work without once exchanging a letter with him over the course of careers virtually parallel in time, development, and critical reception. This is more than the customary petulance one sometimes assigns to Virginia Woolf as a personality; it is evidence, surely, of her profound instinct for protection and self-defense as a writer, for shoring up her own achievement even to the extent of making her very sensibility as complete and self-contained a thing as the best poems or prose.
But if Woolf's writings find her anxious about her rivals among contemporary novelists, as an essayist she is very likely without peer in this century. Next to the Letters, even a group of essays as brief and occasional as those collected in Books and Portraits returns us to the heart of the literary achievement that alone justifies the exhumation of her private papers and correspondences. These are the last but 50 of Woolf's journalistic efforts to be collected (many of them had originally appeared anonymously in the Times Literary Supplement, and while they may be the final ones chosen, they are for the most part only fitfully inferior to her best nonfiction in premises and verbal strategy. Most of the pieces are of identical length, too, recalling to us how much of a professional and routine worker she was despite - or perhaps because of - the seriousness with which she pursued her vocation. Indeed, this much alone is enough to disabuse us of our lingering notion of Woolf as the frail and sickly artiste, and to place her instead among hard-boiled professionals of letters like Dickens, Defoe, or George Eliot.
The bibliographical interest is, moreover, considerable. Not only has editor Mary Lyon selected some of Woolf's earliest published work, including her very first article to appear in print, a sketch, fittingly enough, of the Brontes' home at Haworth published in 1904; there is also Woolf's single piece of music criticism ("Impressions at Bayreuth"); a review of Sarah Bernhardt's memoirs; a surprising "salute full of homage and affection" to the Victorians in the form of an appreciative memorial on the death of Lytton's mother, Lady Strachey; and some additional examples of her imaginary and historical portraiture. Even more, for the first time we get to see Woolf giving bad reviews to poor or misguided books, whether a biography of Dostoevsky by a daughter steeped in Gobineau or the "hissing inanities" of a moralizing study of Jane Austen's domestic situation.
Most of all, however, Books and Portraits confirms afresh the astonishingly uniform and personal character of all Woolf's nonfiction prose. Virtually every one of her essays puts into practice her stylistic ideal of "luminous transparency," with the result that her writing is at once pellucid and yet subject to a vast and complicated array of semantic vibrations that sets off unexpected contests for different meanings and emotions beneath the surface of a prose manifestly harmonious and serene. Moreover, like all her essays, those in Books and Portraits say less about their ostensible subjects (even the spectacular series of articles on Dostoevsky) than they do about the elastic nature of Virginia Woolf's own expressiveness. At its root, her covert program as an essayist is always to celebrate the achieved perfection towards which every piece is directed as a self-contained and self-fulfilling instance of literary architecture, even in works of a political nature like A Room of One's Own, "Women and Fictions," or the late Three Guineas. If the Letters show us a Woolf secured from the threat of strong contemporaries by means of a self-delighting temperament and the protection of family and friends, her formal writings show us the same temperament forging whole and complete in themselves essays so impeccably wrought that they fulfill entirely her desire in "Women and Fiction" to find a style "that takes the natural shape of her thought without crushing or distorting it." Very often in the criticism proper this is carried out under the pretense of discerning what is perfect in another writer, and while her judgments are often wonderfully acute, even when a writer is questioned or condemned her own sureness of vision brings us in the end to marvel at the execution of "a structure," as she puts it in A Room of One's Own, "leaving a shape on the mind's eye, built now in squares, now pagoda shaped, now throwing out wings and arches, now solidly compact and domed like the Cathedral of Saint Sofia at Constantinople." It is an achievement that earns her the description she reserves for Ruskin inBooks and Portraits: "He is opulent in his eloquence," she writes, "and at the same time meticulous in his accuracy." It even earns her the surpassing praise with which she approaches the achievement of Shakespeare himself: "His poetry flows from him free and unimpeded. If ever a human being got his work expressed completely, it was Shakespeare."
Originally published in The Washington Post Book World, April 23, 1978