who’s afraid?


Virginia Woolf began her publishing career the year her father, Leslie Stephen, died. She could never have been a writer, she said later, had he lived; his influence and example would have been too inhibiting. Yet she gravitated naturally towards the form he had specialized in, the literary essay, and spent a lifetime perfecting her own version of it. Though her earliest pieces were written mostly as practice and potboilers and to get a foot in the door, Woolf knew she had “some gift that way”. How extensive and idiosyncratic a gift was obvious from the first collection of Woolf’s non-fiction, The Common Reader, published in 1925, and its sequel, The Common Reader: Second series (1932), both reprinted by Leonard Woolf, with a great deal else, in a four-volume Collected Essays in the 1960s. In 1986, the definitive Hogarth Press edition set out to do scholarly justice to Woolf’s achievement as “arguably the last of the great English essayists”, but it slowed to a stop after four volumes in 1994. Fifteen years later, and with Stuart N. Clarke taking over from Andrew McNeillie as editor, the appearance of Volume Five of the projected six is a welcome sign of the project’s resuscitation. For Woolf is undoubtedly both a great essayist and supreme stylist, whose “authentic critical masterpieces”, as Rebecca West called them, emerge with conversational ease from the bookish subjects closest to her heart: the writers of the eighteenth century, the Elizabethans, the Victorians, the great novelists.

more from Claire Harman at the TLS here.