How did Virginia Woolf, the young critic, become the famous novelist? This book gives an answer
Virginia Woolf, 23 years old, recently orphaned and still 10 years away from her debut novel, was commissioned to write reviews for the TLS in 1905 for the first time. As Francesca Wade points out in her preface to this collection she started to look at anything that the editors sent her.
Books of guides, books of cooking, fiction, novels of debut. She was often filing a piece a week, reading the book on Sunday, writing up to 1,500 words on Monday, to be printed on Friday, in the anonymous, authoritative TLS first-person plural “we.” Her independence was granted by the reviews, and they made her a writer.
Through these pieces she “learned a lot of my craft,” she once recalled; “how to compress; how to inspire”; how to “read seriously with a pen & notebook.”
She couldn’t have managed it, of course, without a childhood reading (“the great season for reading is the season between the ages of 18 and 24,” as she puts it in “Hours in a Library” somewhat archively).
Also important was the cultural capital which she took for granted as the daughter of Leslie Stephen, the leading man of letters (and which she acknowledges as the foundation of the work of Fanny Burney: “all the stimulus that comes from running in and out of the rooms where people speak about books and music”).
She possessed the talent of the journalist and then the novelist for detail (for example, the 107 dinner parties that Henry James attended in one season, without any of them being appreciably impressed), and the modesty, at least at first, to realize that she had to win the attention of “morning busy people catching trains” and “tired people coming home in the evening”.
She also worked out what it meant to be a critic. A great critic’–a ‘ Coleridge above all ‘ ‘ is the rarest of beings ‘ she believed; however, she wrote about drama and poetry. She wrote, that the criticism of fiction “is in its infancy.”
It was an opportunity, but also a challenge – for where did she fit in as a young woman and a self-taught? The gender-ambiguous “we” sometimes feels like a cloak swept about her with too much bravado.
In their physical self, their sense of reader and writer – their age, their disease or health, their social and geographical context their individual memory and experience, and particularly their emotional development – yield useful dividends.
This is never more true than when she looks at the gender effect. So there’s George Eliot, “the grave lady in her low chair,” punished for not being charming by overwhelmingly male critics – “a quality … held to be supremely desirable in women”.
Eliot’s failing, for Woolf, lay in her heroines, who contained more of the intellectual life force of their creator than she believed their provincial settings could allow.
Or Charlotte Brontë, whose novels are a “superb gesture of defiance.” Or Aurora Leigh, crippled by its feminine creator’s limitations. Calling the poem “a masterpiece in the embryo” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is not an idle choice of words.
Then there’s her explanation of Eliot reaching out for “all that life could offer the free and enquiring mind,” for that was, of course, what Woolf was doing herself. The reviews are full of such interfaces and echoes but also between her language and her subjects.
Thus the rhythm of her description of the best of Joseph Conrad’s books echoes its content – a sentence that still feels poised on a Conradian night time platform, describing achievements “very chaste and very beautiful” that “rose in memory as, in these hot summer nights, in their slow and stately way, first one star comes out and then the other.”
And her bravura and funny trashing of nearly all Elizabethan plays Shakespeare’s bar, in language that reflects their hectic incident piles.
What ends up doing for the plays is not their grievous characterisation and risible plots, but their utter lack of solitude and silence, the novelist’s unmistakable cri of Coeur, which she had become firmly by that point (1925, the year that Mrs Dalloway appeared). 


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