who’s afraid of the late essays?


As an essayist she had cut her teeth on the outermost crusts of literary minority, reviewing the long-forgotten work of the pointlessly pseudonymous. In 1907 she was sent five dramas in verse to review: “my mind feels as though a torrent of weak tea has been poured over it”, she complained in a letter. Here we see her learning the ropes: forging an argument out of unprepossessing materials (“these stories were meant to be read swiftly on a train, and to preserve them in a book is to imprison them unkindly”); experimenting with the avuncular and the urbane and the knowingly fogeyish (Rose Macaulay’s characters “say a great many very clever things”); and mastering the delicate art of praise never quite so faint as to descend to a sneer: “It would seem inexcusably bad taste to pull such innocent work to pieces; it seems to confide in you”. The apprenticeship gave her a respect for “ingenuity and good workmanship”, however mistakenly applied. (In later life she wrote of her friend Roger Fry that, because he was a painter himself, his criticism was “full of respect and admiration for the artist who has used his gift honourably and honestly even though it is a small one”.) It also gave her a lifelong appreciation of the variegatedness of the experience of reading, and of the fact that sometimes, as she said of Frederick Marryat, “our critical faculties enjoy whetting themselves upon a book which is not among the classics”.

more from Trev Broughton at the TLS here.