08 March 2017

Selecting Woolf's Essays


It is time for a capacious, authoritative one-volume selection of Virginia Woolf's essays and journalism. (Perhaps one is in preparation. I don't know.) The sixth and final volume of her collected essays was released in 2011. It is wondrous, as are all of the volumes in the series, but though it's a goldmine for scholars, the series isn't really aimed at the everyday reader; each volume is relatively expensive (though not to the extent of an academic volume, e.g. the Cambridge Editions), and plenty of the material is ephemeral, repetitive, or esoteric.

A one-volume Selected Essays does exist, edited by David Bradshaw and published by Oxford World's Classics. It's better than nothing, but it's small and missing many of Woolf's best essays — including perhaps her single most-frequently-reprinted essay, "The Death of the Moth". Bradshaw also slights Woolf's literary essays, perhaps because the two Common Reader volumes remain in print. Also in print is Michèle Barnett's Women and Writing, and it's a pretty good selection, but as the title suggests, the focus is specific. (And in any case the selection was made in 1979, and Woolf scholarship has developed a lot since then. The authoritative Essays volumes didn't even start appearing until 1986.)

In 1993, Penguin published a two-volume selection of the essays edited by Rachel Bowlby. For what I assume were reasons of copyright, it was only released in the UK. It's a very good selection of 55 essays total (25 more than Bradshaw), though each volume was a little under 200 pages in length, so it could easily have been a single book.

I've been thinking about what it would be useful to have in a new Selected Essays, one built from the now complete Essays volumes. It deserves to be bigger than any of the selections so far, though not so gigantic that it's unwieldy. After all, it's drawing from thousands of pages of material. I would lean toward a length of 400-500 pages, say 150,000 words or so.

Any imagined table of contents I create must be highly provisional at best, subject to the vagaries of memory and personal taste, but as I think about it, I realize I do have some thought about what would be useful for students and, perhaps most importantly, for ordinary readers to have as a collection of Woolf's essays.


Of course, the first priority of such a collection would be to include examples of Woolf's best writing. But beyond that, there's a need to see the development of her thinking and the development of her aesthetic, so we would want the earliest pieces from 1904 ("'The Son of Royal Langbrith'" and "Haworth, November 1904"), as well as thoughtful selections from 1905, the first year with a substantial body of work to choose from. I would err toward inclusion in the early essays, especially since they're mostly quite short. The two essay drafts left unfinished at Woolf's death, "Anon" and "The Reader", would end the book well, particularly since the last sentence of "The Reader" is "We are in a world where nothing is concluded." Additionally, it would be helpful to have a few sets of essays on topics and writers she explored throughout her life. (Bradshaw does a good job of this with his "Women and Fiction" section.) There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of ways to do this, and everyone will have their individual preferences. My own desire would be to make sure there are — in addition to obvious topics such as contemporary writers, English literary classics, women writers, etc. — substantial selections of Woolf's writings on biography, memoir, and autobiography (which she wrote about throughout her career, and which is a topic central to her feminism); on art's relation to politics (a topic that becomes more and more important to her); and on Russian writers (given that she read some of the earliest translations of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, etc., that she learned some Russian to be able to collaborate on translations, and that the influence of the 19th century Russian novelists on her aesthetic was significant).

The editor would need to give considerable thought to how the book would be organized. My preference would be to arrange the essays chronologically by date of writing (as can best be determined; for instance, though no date has been discovered for "The Death of the Moth", September 1927 is a reasonable educated guess), and then to include a supplementary table of contents grouping the essays by related topics. The opposite would also be a valid choice: arrange the essays in the book by topic/theme and provide a supplementary chronological table of contents.

There would also be the question for some essays of which version to print. In general, most editors would favor the latest, fullest versions (especially for the Common Reader essays that Woolf herself saw through book production), but with a few key essays, it might be worthwhile to include both early and later versions (e.g. "Mrs. Bennett and Mr. Brown" along with "Character in Fiction"; "Professions for Women" along with "Speech to the London & National Society for Women's Service").

The real fun and vexation would be in selecting. Were I the editor, I would consult with as many teachers and scholars as I could, but since I am not the editor, and all of this is entirely imaginary anyway (yes, I'm procrastinating real work!), let's have some fun making a preliminary, roughly chronological, utterly baggy list from which to choose...

1904
"The Son of Royal Langbrith"
Haworth, November 1904
On a Faithful Friend [published 1905]

1905
"The Feminine Note in Fiction"
Mr. Henry James's Latest Novel
The Decay of Essay-writing
Street Music
Literary Geography
The American Woman
The Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle
The Value of Laughter
"The House of Mirth"
A Walk By Night

1906
The Poetic Drama
Poets' Letters
"Coniston"
Portraits of Places
Impressions of Sir Leslie Stephen

1907
"The Longest Journey"

1908
The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt
"A Room with a View"

1909
Caroline Emelia Stephen
Sterne
Impressions at Bayreuth
A Cookery Book

1910
"Modes and Manners of the Nineteenth Century"
"Mrs Gaskell"

1912
"Frances Willard"
"Jane Austen"

1916
Hours in a Library

1917
Tolstoy's "The Cossacks"
More Dostoevsky
"Before Midnight"
A Cambridge V.A.D.
"Creative Criticism"
"Books and Persons"
Thoreau
Mr Galsworthy's Novel
Mr Conrad's "Youth"
A Minor Dostoevsky

1918
Tchehov's Questions
Rupert Brooke
The "Movie" Novel
Women Novelists
Mr Howells on Form
Bad Writers
The Russian View

1919
The War from the Street
"The Tunnel"
Modern Novels [perhaps prefer original to revised CR version]
The Novels of DeFoe [revised CR version]
The Anatomy of Fiction
The Russian Background
Dostoevsky in Cranford
George Eliot [revised CR version]

1920
Body and Brain
The Plumage Bill
"The Cherry Orchard"
Jane Austen and the Geese

1921
"Vision and Design"
Gothic Romance
Henry James's Ghost Stories

1922
On Re-Reading Novels [later, undated version published in The Moment]
Modern Essays [revised CR version]

1923
How It Strikes a Contemporary [revised CR version]
Mr Conrad: A Conversation
The Compromise
Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown
Jane Austen at 60 [revised CR version]

1924
Montaigne [revised CR version]
Aesthetically speaking, the new aquarium...
Thunder at Wembley
Character in Fiction
"What Is a Good Novel?"
Joseph Conrad [revised CR version]
The cheapening of motor cars
Indiscretions

1925
Olive Schreiner
On Not Knowing Greek
Notes on an Elizabethan Play
"Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights"
Pictures
"The Tale of Genji"
American Fiction
"David Copperfield"
Swift's Journal to Stella [revised CR2 version]
Saint Samuel of Fleet Street

1926
On Being Ill
The Cinema
"Impassioned Prose"
How Should One Read a Book?

1927
Poetry, Fiction, and the Future
An Essay in Criticism
The New Biography
Street Haunting
The Novels of E.M. Forster
The Death of the Moth

1928
The Novels of Thomas Hardy [revised CR2 version]
The Sun and The Fish
Waxworks at the Abbey
Dorothy Osborne's "Letters" [revised CR2 version]

1929
Women and Fiction
The "Censorship" of Books
Phases of Fiction

1930
Foreword to Recent Painting by Vanessa Bell
Evening Over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car
Modern Letters

1931
Speech to the London and National Society for Women's Service
[alongside shorter, undated revision: Professions for Women]
Introductory Letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies
"Aurora Leigh" [revised CR2 version]
Notes on D.H. Lawrence
The Docks of London

1932
A Letter to a Young Poet
"This Is the House of Commons"
Leslie Stephen, the Philosopher at Home
Middlebrow

1933
The Novels of Turgenev

1934
Oliver Goldsmith
Why?
Walter Sickert: A Conversation

1935
The Captain's Death Bed

1936
Why Art To-Day Follows Politics
Am I a Snob?

1937
Craftsmanship

1938
Women Must Weep
The Moment: Summer's Night

1939
The Art of Biography
Reviewing
Moments of Being

1940
The Dream
Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid
The Leaning Tower

1941
Mrs Thrale
Anon
The Reader


I've left out plenty of good essays, and yet this is still much too much muchness for even a big, binding-busting behemoth of a book.

But to cut the list down further would require settling on some editorial guidelines, rereading essays that I've not remembered well, and arguing with other readers. I have procrastinated real work enough for one day, and so I will leave further conversation to others...