Virginia Woolf at her very best – which includes “Mrs. Dallaway,” “To The Lighthouse,” “The Waves” and certain of her essays in her virginia woolf essays list Common Readers as well as the present volume – it is necessary to dust off and repolish that tarnished, dented, much abused word that has become a piece of kitchenware in criticism, “genius. It is necessary, I repeat, to say that genius, for better or for worse, means that the writer whose gifts have earned the once-coveted and shining title is the spirit of a particular time and place, a tutelar deity whose radiance sheds an unflickering, beneficent light within temple walls. It was that time and place through Mrs.
Woolf’s spirit moved and to which the spirit brought its singular endowments of sentimentality and grace. Woolf’s American publishers have thoughtfully issues Mr. Forster’s tributary lecture on Virginia Woolf to accompany the posthumous collection of her essays, “The Death of the Moth,” a volume, by the way, which might well have been published as a third series of confidence to her Common Reader. His remarks are of more penetrating eloquence than her notations on his novels in the present collection of her essays, but he has, we reflect, the advantage of the last word.
As she inquires, somewhat impatiently, of Mr. Giles of Durham, “had never stood at the washtub. Those of us who have read Mrs. Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” would find it difficult, I think, not to recognize the personality that Mr.
Forster breathes to life in an hour’s lecture, and that same personality resumes its character in an essay on “Middlebrow” which Mrs. Forster’s carefully, adroitly balanced peroration in which he says “she gave acute pleasure in new ways, she pushed the light of the English language a little farther against darkness. Forster says in his brief talk reflects the sensibility of an elder inhabitant of Virginia Woolf’s world as well as one who traveled beyond its sphere, so far we may be assured of his wisdom and his poise, and he has said more within the hour and some thirty-seven small, wide-margined pages than many other solemn-eyed essayist could say in a hundred large sheets of fine, closely printed type. Woolf’s novels and essays: Sir Walter Scott, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Shakespeare, Horace Walpole, Edward Gibbon – but the list would grow tedious and seem inexhaustible. One begins to wonder if, after all, after writing “A Room of One’s Own” and “To the Lighthouse,” she had made an escape from Sir Leslie’s house and the gentlemen who came for tea? She believed she did, and there is written evidence of an exit left behind her, but a door remains open, and still one wonders, if she did escape, how far? Far enough, one says at first, to discover a singular melody for her own prose, and Mr.
Leonard Woolf, in editing this latest of her posthumous volumes, remarks upon her care in rewriting and revising the merest reviews sent off to the London Times Literary Supplement and The New Statesman. That melody, one may trust, was her great concern, and it sounded as she rehearsed and played it with the noise and chiming of many little bells. Sometimes the bells rang sharply and clearly, striking their notes of nearly absolute finality in the newly published pieces on Horace Walpole, Sara Coleridge and “Street Haunting,” but on occasion – and it is usually an occasion when the subject of the piece happens to be a romantic poet, Coleridge, or Shelley, or a Shakespearean play – the little bells ring so persistently that they seem to cover something left unsaid. Are these the moments when the escape from Sir Leslie’s threshold was incomplete? When the open door behind her made it imperative that she remember Coleridge and Shelley?
And because she must remember, therefore the bells chimes insistently, over and over with not too much to say? Whether or not these questions can be answered with the directness that one might desire, it is plain enough that with a few exceptions Mrs. Woolf is at her happiest as she recaptures a moment of the eighteenth century viewed always in the light of her own day. Street Haunting: A London Adventure” her spirit resumes its character of genius. We are certain also that she in the generation between wars revived the so-called “familiar essay” which began its life in the formal prose of Addison, reappeared, or rather culminated one period of its existence in Charles Lamb’s “Elia” and then breathed fitfully until Max Beerbohm arrived in London.
It is that heritage which one rediscovers in “The Death of the Moth,” and it seems natural, even in a literary sense, for Mrs. Woolf to have selected the eighteenth century as one point of origin, a birthplace, perhaps, of her identity. The sensibility which she expressed to the admiration of her contemporaries had its likeness in the Age of Sensibility itself. In her essays she was a mistress of what often has been called an “outmoded” form, and if one admits that the familiar essay was among the vehicles of her genius, one need not concern one’s self too deeply over the question of her ability in literary criticism. She exerted an influence in literary matters because her artistry embraced the arts of persuasion and of charm.