In Praise of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf and Her Works

by Jean Guiguet
Harcourt, Brace & World, 487 pp., $8.50

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf; drawing by David Levine

It is difficult to guess, more than thirty-five years after The Waves was published (1931), how slight or how strong the hold of Virginia Woolf upon contemporary readers may still be. 1931 was a year of catastrophe; Between the Acts appeared in 1941 in an even greater blackness. Reading these novels as they appeared, one did not doubt that one was watching an extension of English literature, an addition to the resources of the language, which might have no consequences, but which would never be forgotten. For me, as probably for many Englishmen, these two novels, and To the Lighthouse as well, are not easily separated from the setting in which they first appeared. Together with the poetry and prose of the later Eliot, of Auden, Isherwood, and Spender, they belong to that brilliant pre-war phase of English experimental writing; they recall the disappointed enthusiasms of the Popular Front and intellectuals protesting against Fascism. Virginia Woolf was a contributor, on at least one occasion, to the Daily Worker; there was a splender in this incongruity, even if the episode marked principally the desperation of that time.

Now there is surely time to think again about her achievement, away from the local prejudices which, at least in England, have absurdly concealed some of the true qualities of her genius. Some of the dominant academic critics in England have for many years parroted phrases about the Bloomsbury Group, and smothered her work with nervous polemics. Her elaborate play with language in her lighter works, and as a critic and journalist, seems to have aroused a sense of social grievance among critics, because her tone and style were taken to be a return to a genteel tradition of belles lettres, which should have been discredited. A remoteness, a bookishness, a conscious poise and cultivation of literary manner in the widely read The Common Reader established a public character which obscured, at least for a time, her deeper purposes as a novelist.

JEAN GUIGUET is far away from these vagaries of English opinion. He has put together a large study, at once biographical and critical, using all the available sources, and relying particularly on the posthumously published A Writer’s Diary. He is well aware that A Writer’s Diary, as edited by Leonard Woolf, can only tell a very small part of the story, and that most of the biographical sources, particularly letters, are missing. He often has to guess, and it must be admitted that his speculations are sometimes repetitive and unconvincing. So great is his enthusiasm and respect that he sometimes attributes to Virginia Woolf virtuous intentions which it is very unlikely she would have had. She was uncompromisingly aristocratic in her attitudes: she despised many things, and worthy academic criticism was one of them. She admired wit, recklessness, and the crushing intellectual arrogance with which she had been familiar all her life. As…

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