The Common Reader

As part of my very slow read-though of Virginia Woolf’s major works, I’m am now reading The Common Reader, her collection of literary essays. And oh my goodness, have I made it clear how much I love Virginia Woolf? Because these essays are wonderful. This is my second time through the book, and I’m loving it. I just read her essay on Montaigne, and I marveled at the way she moves back and forth between writing about him in the usual way one writes about someone else and actually embodying him, taking on his persona. She will write something like “It is life that emerges more and more clearly as these essays reach not their end, but their suspension in full career” that is clearly evaluating Montaigne from an exterior perspective, but then in the same paragraph she will start describing his ideas as though she were Montaigne herself:

In short, the soul is all laced about with nerves and sympathies which affect her every action, and yet, even now in 1580, no one has any clear knowledge — such cowards we are, such lovers of the smooth conventional ways — how she works or what she is except that of all things she is the most mysterious, and one’s self the greatest monster and miracle in the world …

By slipping into his voice, she creates a strong sense of who Montaigne was; she brings him to life, and her affection for him shines through.

But then her own voice is incredibly convincing. Woolf writes with such assurance and poise — without coming across as arrogant — that I’m ready to believe whatever she says. I love this passage from the essay “Notes on an Elizabethan Play,” which compares plays and novels:

The play is poetry, we say, and the novel prose. Let us attempt to obliterate detail, and place the two before us side by side, feeling, so far as we can, the angles and edges of each, recalling each, so far as we are able, as a whole. Then, at once, the prime differences emerge; the long leisurely accumulated novel; the little contracted play; the emotion all split up, dissipated and then woven together, slowly and gradually massed into a whole in the novel; the emotions concentrated, generalised, heightened in the play. What moments of intensity, what phrases of astonishing beauty the play shot at us!

She makes everything clear — of course that’s how plays and novels work!

She also can conjure up the feeling of a place and time beautifully. Consider this passage about medieval England from her essay “The Pastons and Chaucer”:

For let us imagine, in the most desolate part of England known to us at the present moment, a raw, new-built house without telephone, bathroom or drains, arms-chairs or newspapers, and one shelf perhaps of books, unwieldy to hold, expensive to come by. The windows look out upon a few cultivated fields and a dozen hovels, and beyond them there is the sea on one side, on the other a vast fen. A single road crosses the fen, but there is a hole in it, which, one of the farm hands reports, is big enough to swallow a carriage. And, the man adds, Tom Topcroft, the mad bricklayer, has broken loose again and ranges the country half-naked, threatening to kill any one who approaches him. That is what they talk about at dinner in the desolate house, while the chimney smokes horribly, and the draught lifts the carpets on the floor. Orders are given to lock all gates at sunset, and, when the long dismal evening has worn itself away, simply and solemnly, girt about with dangers as they are, these isolated men and women fall upon their knees in prayer.

The essay is about Chaucer and how his writing springs from his time and place, but she takes a while to get to him, lingering instead on the landscape and the people who lived in his time and read his work. I finished the essay feeling as though I had  not just learned something about Chaucer but saw and heard and felt something about him too.


Filed under Books, Essays

11 responses to “The Common Reader

  1. I haven’t read this, but I can see I must. She was so, so talented, wasn’t she? Pure genius!


  2. verbivore

    Oh, hooray, this looks so good. I’ll get there at some point as I go through her work this year, but you’ve given me a great taste of these essays. I can see however that reading Woolf is going to have me racing off to read all the writers she mentions in the event I haven’t read them yet. But that just makes the whole project more exciting…I think 🙂


  3. I have read some of her essays from The Crowded Dance of Modern Life, but don’t have this one. But Woolfie is always wonderful, I think.


  4. I love reading authors on other authors. Thanks!


  5. I read Common Reader long ago and loved it and have been thinking I should read it again sometime. Now you’ve gone and made me really want to read it!


  6. Oh, how I love Woolf! You’ve picked some great and representative passages here – I love that permeability you mention between observing and inhabiting her subject; she’s such a genius at that. This makes me want to revisit The Common Reader!


  7. If writing can be called delicious, that is it.
    Hope your thyroid is behaving itself now.


  8. I think the essays in this book are actually available online to read–does it contain “How Should One Read a Book” which I love (or are there two volumes of this–I can’t remember)? In any case that is one of my favorite essays and I should really try more of her shorter work!


  9. Emily B. — pure genius indeed. I hope you do read it — I think you will like it very much!

    Verbivore — oh, yes, she makes you want to read the people she writes about. Even when the people she writes about wrote works that are long and dull, the way she analyzes them makes you want to read them anyway! I’m looking forward to hearing about your experience with the essays.

    Litlove — I haven’t heard of that collection. But I’m hoping eventually to get all the volumes of her complete essays, and then I can read them that way. The Crowded Dance of Modern Life is a collection of essays by various people, or just Woolf?

    Jenclair — yes, I love that genre too 🙂

    Stefanie — it’s definitely worth rereading. I remember the essays vaguely from my last time through, but I’m enjoying them now all over again.

    Emily — her essayistic voice is so beguiling, isn’t it? I like the word permeability you used — she moves so easily from one point of view to another, one consciousness to another. And she makes it look so easy.

    Debby — I’m doing a bit better. I don’t think I’m quite back to normal, but I definitely have fewer spells of shakiness and fatigue. Thanks for asking!

    Danielle — this collection doesn’t contain the essay you mention, although I think I’ve come across it elsewhere. There is a second volume of The Common Reader, which I don’t think I’ve read yet. I’ll definitely get to it eventually! I highly recommend her essays — obviously! — if you want more of her shorter work.


  10. Edna

    Last summer I purchased the journals of Joyce Carol Oates at a used book store. Not only did she write about her daily life with her husband, teaching and writing, she wrote about authors she loved. Virginia Woolf was one of her favorites. As soon as I finished Oates I started reading the first volume of Woolf’s journals. I have not been disappointed. They are wonderful. Now I will have to read The Common Reader.


  11. Wow that last quote is amazing. She does seem to make everything so clear and immediately you have lightbulb moments of ‘of course’ after she explains, like a fog has lifted and it’s near impossible to go back to seeing the world in the same way.


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