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Genius and ink

Francesca Wade introduces Virginia Woolf’s writing for the TLS

By FRANCESCA WADE, in, November 12, 2019

This essay forms the introduction to Genius and Ink, a collection of Woolf’s writing for the TLS, published by TLS Books this week

When, in May 1938, Bruce Richmond retired as Editor of the Times Literary SupplementVirginia Woolf noted in her diary her sadness at ending her “30 year connection” with him and the “Lit Supp”. Richmond had sent her hundreds of books for review, each time receiving back a dazzling critique which might cast a familiar writer in entirely fresh light or offer a provocative manifesto for what fiction or biography could become. His early support of her writing offered Woolf her first experience of financial independence, while the ideas she developed in these pieces – on the possibilities of language, character and style; on the importance of life-writing and the limitations of gender – seeped directly into her greatest fiction and essays. Although they had never established much of a personal friendship, she reflected now that Richmond had been one of the most influential figures in her life. “How pleased I used to be”, she recalled, “when L. called me ‘You’re wanted by the Major Journal!’ & I ran down to the telephone to take my almost weekly orders at Hogarth House! I learnt a lot of my craft writing for him: how to compress; how to enliven; & also was made to read with a pen & notebook, seriously.”

Woolf met Richmond in February 1905, following a turbulent year in her life. On February 22, 1904, her father Leslie Stephen – whose regular rages, borne of grief at his wife’s premature death, had instilled dread into his daughters – had died. In the following months she experienced a traumatic breakdown, and moved with her siblings from their Kensington family home to 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, seeking a “new beginning”. There, Virginia was no longer forced to perform the drawing-room pageantry of serving tea to her father’s eminent friends, but had her own private sitting room in which to read and write, while downstairs mixed groups of friends lounged into the early hours, casually discussing philosophy, art and sex over whisky or cocoa. And this shift in domestic arrangement heralded a significant development in her public life. In December 1904, following the encouragement of a family friend, her first short article was published in a clerical women’s weekly, confusingly called The Guardian. Two months later, at a party, she was introduced to Bruce Richmond (“a restless vivacious little man, jumping onto a chair to see the traffic over the blind, & chivvying a piece of paper round the room with his feet”). Richmond had been appointed Editor of the Times Literary Supplement shortly after its foundation in 1902 as an eight-page cultural appendage to The Times. Under his aegis, its weekly circulation had already reached 20,000, and it was widely acknowledged (in the words of T. S. Eliot, a regular contributor) as “the most respected and most respectable” literary periodical of its day. Richmond invited Woolf to submit 1,500 words on a couple of “trashy” guidebooks to Thackeray’s and Dickens’s England. The books, she disdainfully insisted, seemed “the productions of a pair of scissors”; nonetheless, she worked “like the little Printers devil I am” to complete the piece and dispatch it to Richmond within days. Her review was published on March 10, and soon Woolf gloated that she had received “another book from the Times! – a fat novel, I’m sorry to say. They pelt me now”. Aged twenty-three, Woolf was now a writer, earning money by her pen as her father had before her. Her wage slip arrived with her breakfast plate. “Now we are free women”, she declared triumphantly.

In her 1931 essay “Professions for Women”, Woolf recalled that thrill of transforming from “a girl in a bedroom with a pen in her hand” to “a professional woman”, her opinions solicited and rewarded by wages she could spend, once rent and bills were covered, on “an extravagant little table” or a “long coveted & resisted coal scuttle” (money, she wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for”). But the sense of independence afforded by this work was not purely, or even primarily, financial. When she first sat down to write a damning review of a book by a respected gentleman, Woolf was haunted by a phantom voice urging her not to criticize but to charm and flatter, to speak in the language traditionally deemed womanly. She named this spectre the “Angel in the House”, after Coventry Patmore’s poem about the cloying, self-sacrificing ideal of Victorian womanhood; her imagined admonishment – “Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own” – nearly “plucked the heart out of my writing”. Conquering the urge to submit to that voice, Woolf concluded, was a prerequisite not only for writing, but for freedom in all aspects of life. The TLS’s affirmation helped Woolf to unmake assumptions of how women should think and behave, and find a new language in which to express herself, ignoring the insistent reminder that there were things “which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say”. Soon after her first reviews were published, seeking respite from dull commissions (“a nondescript book like this which really suggests nothing good or bad, is damned hard work”), she began on the novel that would become her debut, The Voyage Out. Virginia Woolf was launched.

All reviews that appeared in the TLS were published anonymously (a practice that continued until 1974). This meant that Woolf didn’t have to fear public disapproval for her forthright views, but rather was invited to speak as part of a collective authority, assuming an expertise conferred by dint of the periodical’s prestige. Though she enjoyed experimenting subversively with the power afforded by that universal “we”, Woolf believed essays should always be firmly rooted in their authors’ “personal peculiarities”, and aimed from the very beginning to find and develop her own distinctive voice: to “say what I thought, & say it in my own way”. She never set out to provide an impersonal, authoritative assessment of a work or author, but something ostensibly humble, yet in fact radical and generous: to “offer merely our little hoard of observations, which other readers may like to set, for a moment, beside their own”. She had no interest in respectable hagiography or regurgitation of received opinion: for Woolf, a book’s interest lay in the feelings it stirred in its reader, which would inevitably – crucially – be entirely personal and subjective. Her role, as she saw it, was to share her own enthusiasms with her audience, to acknowledge and celebrate the influence of her own “cranks”, tastes and interests as she guided them “to enter into the mind of the writer; to see each work of art by itself, and to judge how far each artist has succeeded in his aim”. Her loyalty always remained with her audience, whom she imagined as “busy people catching trains in the morning or … tired people coming home in the evening”; when she came to collect her reviews and essays into a book, in 1925, she called it The Common Reader (borrowing a phrase from Samuel Johnson).

She was not averse to the occasional hatchet job (“my real delight in reviewing is to say nasty things”, she once wrote), but she insisted that “praise ought to have the last word and the weightiest”. This was not to be saccharine – she despaired that most reviews were “too short and too positive” – but enthusiasm, she wrote, is “the life-blood of criticism”. Her own reviewing, she mused in her diary, was an act of “testifying before I die to the great fun & pleasure my habit of reading has given me”. Her evident joy courses irresistibly through these pieces. Woolf’s writing imparts a remarkable sense of how it feels to read: her exhilaration on closing Jane Eyre and feeling “that we have parted from a most singular and eloquent woman, met by chance upon a Yorkshire hillside, who has gone with us for a time and told us the whole of her life history”; her conviction, on reading John Evelyn’s diary, that his staid remarks were a flawed attempt to conceal a far richer, more acerbic and deeply insecure psyche. As an essayist, Woolf’s erudite, conversational style can be traced back through Montaigne, Charles Lamb, Max Beerbohm and Walter Pater, yet every piece is an utterly original distillation of her personality, wit and intellect.

“You cast a beam across the dingy landscape of the Times Literary Supplement”, wrote Vita Sackville-West to Woolf, in the course of enumerating her lover’s most seductive qualities. No other writer would compare the experience of reading Joseph Conrad to that of Helen of Troy gazing into a mirror, sensing instantly that she was in the presence of greatness; who else would think to tell the life of naval officer-turned-novelist Captain Marryat through a series of open questions at least as engaging as any answers might be, thus revealing “one of the most active, odd and adventurous lives that any English novelist has ever lived”. Woolf’s work for the TLS provided a stage for her lifelong engagement with the problems and potentials of biography: she had welcomed the rise of the “new biography” amid the social freedoms of the new century, which swapped lifeless panegyric for shorter, more self-aware studies, and these pieces form some of her most compelling miniature experiments in the form.

She was never interested in mining works for straightforward biographical details, but sought to draw out hints at her subjects’ inner lives, through deeply sympathetic attention to the nuances of texture and atmosphere. Her character studies are imbued with the insatiable curiosity of a gossip, the insight of a novelist and the steely intellect of a great critic, whether she is imagining the young Fanny Burney and her stepsister confiding at night their secret passions, pondering whether our views on love and pain have changed since John Evelyn’s time, or lamenting the stereotype of the “bookish man”: “a pale, attenuated figure in a dressing gown, lost in speculation, unable to lift a kettle from the hob, or address a lady without blushing, ignorant of the daily news, though versed in the catalogues of the secondhand booksellers, in whose dark premises he spends the hours of sunlight”.

Bruce Richmond quickly came to consider Woolf his jewel in a cohort of reviewers that included T. S. Eliot, Henry James, Edith Wharton, George Gissing and Andrew Lang. In November 1905, Woolf breezily told a friend that the TLS “sends me one novel every week; which has to be read on Sunday, written on Monday, and printed on Friday. In America, as you know, they make sausages like that”. She loved the rhythm and routine of these assignments: the feeling of alchemy as an essay “expands under my hands”, the satisfaction of hearing that a respected editor was “delighted to accept my charming article”, the excitement, on occasion, of visiting Richmond himself at the TLS office in Printing House Square, breezing past carts waiting to transport fresh bales of papers to the newsagents (“carrying my manuscript to the Times I felt like a hack much in keeping”). At other times, when she was up against her deadline, it was an even greater frisson to find that the TLS would come to her:

I write & write; I am rung up & told to stop writing; review must be had on Friday; I typewrite till the messenger from the Times appears; I correct the pages in my bedroom with him sitting over the fire here.
‘A Christmas number not at all to Mr Richmond’s taste,’ he said. ‘Very unlike the supplement style.’
‘Gift books, I suppose?’ I suggested.
‘O no, Mrs Woolf, it’s for the advertisers.’

At first, she reviewed anything Richmond tossed her, covering cookery books and travel guides, poetry and swathes of debut novels. But in 1920, exhausted by the commitment, she decided to dictate her own terms – “only leading articles, or those I suggest myself” – and felt a triumphant release “like a drunkard who has successfully resisted three invitations to drink”. Even when she was writing only on subjects she had chosen, she sometimes resented having to compromise with an editor: when Richmond reprimanded her for calling Henry James “lewd” (“Now poor dear old Henry James – at any rate, think it over, & ring me up in 20 minutes”), she resolved furiously to work with no one who “rewrites my sentences to suit the mealy mouths of Belgravia”. She wondered anxiously whether the best form of criticism was that spoken “over wine glasses and coffee cups late at night”. But Woolf never stopped writing for the TLS, even after she became established as a novelist and publisher and began to complain in her diary at the drudgery of “1,500 words by Wednesday” which eroded the time she had for other writing. The TLS was far too integral a part of her life as a writer for her to abandon its pages. Across these decades, it provided a crucial testing ground for radical new ideas; the books she wrote on, the authors she examined, became Woolf’s personal canon.

Each of these pieces is a gem in its own right, and deserves to be read purely for itself. Yet it is also fascinating to read these essays in conjunction with Woolf’s other work, to trace the way she grappled across projects with knotty existential questions and put her principles into practice. While she was stuck on her 1919 novel Night and Day, feeling frustrated at her inability to eschew the confines of realism, she was busy analysing the state of postwar fiction and calling for “new forms for our new sensations”. By the time she published “How It Strikes a Contemporary”, her great assessment of the stakes for literature in “an age of fragments”, she had completed Jacob’s Room, her formal breakthrough, and was looking ahead to Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, in which she would address the present upheaval through her experiments with structure and language. In January 1919, she began “reading through the whole of George Eliot, in order to sum her up, once and for all, upon her anniversary”; that same year she opened a fresh notebook to gather her thoughts on her father’s friend Thomas Hardy, in response to a request from Richmond to “be ready with an article on Hardy’s novels whenever the evil day comes”. She worked sporadically on the piece (“Thomas Hardy’s Novels”) for the next ten years. “I pray he sits safe & sound by his fireside at this moment”, she wrote guiltily in December 1921, having failed to finish a new draft; it was eventually published on his death in 1928. Her ongoing attempt “to discover the broad outlines of his genius” was the backdrop to all her work in this formative decade.

But of all Woolf’s books, it is perhaps A Room of One’s Own (1929) that bears the closest relationship with her TLS reviews. Her sparkling essays on Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are rich case studies in that book’s major theme: the way women’s lives have been, throughout history, narrowed and curtailed by pernicious social expectations. Barrett Browning’s early life shared certain features with Woolf’s own: the early deaths of a mother and beloved brother, periods of illness, a tyrannical father, and an ability to take comfort in reading “profusely and privately”, using books as “a substitute for living”. Woolf’s sympathy is palpable when she describes Barrett Browning locked in her bedroom engrossed in stories of “immortal improprieties”, starved of conversation or intellectual impetus. The essay “Aurora Leigh” is a powerful denunciation of what it means for anyone to be forced to live inside their own mind, rather than out in the world:

She raced through folios because she was forbidden to scamper on the grass. She wrestled with Aeschylus and Plato because it was out of the question that she should argue about politics with live men and women … It cannot be doubted that the long years of seclusion had done her irreparable damage as an artist. She had lived shut off, guessing at what was outside, and inevitably magnifying what was within.

Barrett Browning’s poem Aurora Leigh, Woolf concludes, is “a masterpiece in embryo”: “a work whose genius floats diffused and fluctuating in some pre-natal stage waiting the final stroke of creative power to bring it into being”.

A Room of One’s Own was published thirteen years after Woolf’s TLS piece on Charlotte Brontë, a decade after that on George Eliot, but its citation of both writers as powerful examples of astonishing female creativity nonetheless circumscribed by social norms is testament to Woolf’s long, ongoing engagement with their work, sparked decisively in these early reviews. She planned to return to this theme in her final project, begun in autumn 1940 as bomber planes soared over her Sussex home. This was to be an idiosyncratic history of English popular culture, in which Woolf intended to examine not only “the germ of creation” in writers but also the social forces that stymied imagination. Her insistence that a work cannot be understood without knowledge of the circumstances of its creation was the defining feature of her scheme, extending the principles she had developed in her biographical essays to the story of literature, and of England, in its entirety. The project was the triumphant culmination of decades of research, languishing within her “innumerable TLS notes”: in the surviving synopsis lie the vestiges of the year she spent devouring Elizabethan playwrights, her insatiable fascination with “obscure lives”, her belief in the importance of an intimate relationship between artist and audience. That work – sure to have been artful, esoteric and radical – was never finished, but these essays reveal the contours of all that might have been.

Books, Woolf insisted, come alive on encountering a reader, and change with them. Our impressions of the same book across a lifetime, she wrote, could form our own autobiography: art can only survive if new generations discover it afresh and find new pleasure in it. Woolf’s reviews richly deserve to be celebrated as works of literature worth reading and re-reading in themselves. But once this book is finished, she sends us back to the shelves, eager to see what she saw, and to discover what we feel for ourselves.

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