Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Virginia Woolf was a lot funnier than I realized
Gleanings from the recent TLS review by Trev Broughton of Virginia Woolf's late essays; my comments in italics, followed by copious quotations
VW wittily addressed the problem of "too many books" (similar, in some respects, to the issue of there being "too many poets."):
In a broadcast debate with her husband Leonard in 1927 she had countered his curmudgeonly bad-cop approach to the question “Are too many books written and published?” with the mischievous suggestion, “Why not print the first edition on some perishable material which would crumble to a little heap of perfectly clean dust in about six months’ time? If a second edition were needed, this could be printed on good paper and well bound . . . . No space would be wasted and no dirt would be collected”. Books should be cheap enough to throw away, and this would discourage “reading seldom and . . . reading solemnly”; professional authors should be taxed for overproduction; prizes should be awarded to encourage “tramps and duchesses; plumbers and Prime Ministers” to venture a book, preferably an autobiography.
VW deftly navigated the question of "negative reviewing" - and (see passage I've put in bold below) articulates a sense of proportion with regard to critical judgment.
As an essayist she had cut her teeth on the outermost crusts of literary minority, reviewing the long-forgotten work of the pointlessly pseudonymous. In 1907 she was sent five dramas in verse to review: “my mind feels as though a torrent of weak tea has been poured over it”, she complained in a letter. Here we see her learning the ropes: forging an argument out of unprepossessing materials (“these stories were meant to be read swiftly on a train, and to preserve them in a book is to imprison them unkindly”); experimenting with the avuncular and the urbane and the knowingly fogeyish (Rose Macaulay’s characters “say a great many very clever things”); and mastering the delicate art of praise never quite so faint as to descend to a sneer: “It would seem inexcusably bad taste to pull such innocent work to pieces; it seems to confide in you”. The apprenticeship gave her a respect for “ingenuity and good workmanship”, however mistakenly applied. (In later life she wrote of her friend Roger Fry that, because he was a painter himself, his criticism was “full of respect and admiration for the artist who has used his gift honourably and honestly even though it is a small one”.) It also gave her a lifelong appreciation of the variegatedness of the experience of reading, and of the fact that sometimes, as she said of Frederick Marryat, “our critical faculties enjoy whetting themselves upon a book which is not among the classics”.
VW wonderfully expresses the perspective from which we can read editions of correspondence.
A work she particularly relished in her last years was the Oxford and Yale edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence with the Rev. William Cole, which she bought in two huge, expensive volumes in 1937, and which she wrote about a number of times. As usual with eighteenth-century figures, it was the sharp contrasts, the clashes and unexpected “sparks” she enjoyed: “Cole’s niece was the daughter of a cheesemonger; Horace’s niece married a Prince of the Blood Royal”. She also had – as this collection reminds us again and again – a keen appreciation of letters, and was a thoughtful analyst of the form (“The only way to read letters is to read them . . . stereoscopically. Horace is partly Cole; Cole is partly Horace”).
VW had a, well, pragmatic view of how literary scholarship ought to be published.
But her fascination extended beyond the correspondence to the editorial apparatus itself. The two volumes represented the “minute and monumental learning”, the “industry, the devotion and the skill”, which together fostered a “new method of editing” dense with factual footnotes. The “perpetual solicitations” of the detailed explanatory notes at first overwhelmed her (“books after all exist to be read”) but by degrees it won her over. If Horace and Cole are interconnected, then “Horace Walpole is partly Cole’s cook's sister. Horace . . . is made up of innumerable facts and reflections of facts”. The convert became the suppliant, craving “more and more and more”. She has only one caveat: “Ought not the presses to have issued in a supplementary pocket a supplementary pair of eyes? Then, with the usual pair fixed upon the text, the additional pair could range the notes . . .”.
Pictured: Virginia Woolf (figure on the far left); no really!!