The New York Times - May 31, 1925
Virginia Woolf in Praise of the Common Reader
He is Neither Scholar Nor Critic, But She Is Both
The Common Reader.
by Virginia Woolf
Anything that Virginia Woolf may have to say about letters is of more than ordinary interest, for her peculiar intelligence and informed attitude set her somewhat apart. She possess the happy faculty simultaneously of enjoying and accepting the work of Daniel De Foe and James Joyce, of Joseph Addison and T.S. Eliot, of Jane Austen and Marcel Proust. And this fact reveals the further fact that she is entirely concerned with a fastidious plane of excellence which may be the common meeting place of the most diverse personages. Because of the scheme of "The Common Reader," one must guess at times as to her precise position, for this volume of collected essays and reviews is not primarily a critical work. It does not put the author in the attitude of a defender or an expositor of certain trends in literature. Instead of this it shows an unwearying creativeness on the part of the writer. She recreates constantly from the bulk of literature that she has been studying. Many of these essays are excellent examples of that type of writing which reveals the reactions, nuances, twisting and adventuring threads of thought and surmise which spring from the perusal and spiritual acquisition of other work. Mrs. Woolf, like a mirror, reflects back the colors of the minds which betray themselves in the pages of the books which she takes under consideration. She reads the Paston letters, for instance, and her essay becomes almost a fictionalization, a representation of the life of the Pastons and the influence of Chaucer upon one of them. In the three-part essay (really three complete works in itself) she browses through forgotten library shelves and takes great pains in setting forth the forgotten writers of memoirs, those shadowy figures who pass steadily and almost unseen through the great and winding halls of English letters. There is the abnormal inventor-father of Maria Edgeworth, for instance, or that Laetitia Pilkington, who knew Dean Swift and was fed plover's eggs by him and who degenerated into a sort of Moll Flanders tinged with a Lady Ritchie Victorianism.
Even in the essays which are more formal in cut and confined more closely to a semi-critical exposition, this itch for creativeness exposes itself. A venture through the pages concerning Montaigne or De Foe or George Eliot or John Evelyn will show to be the case. Paralleling the self- revelations of Montaigne, to select a representative case, the essayist recreates a figure in toto that is much less the result of a critical analysis than a fine gusto in rebuilding from scattered bricks. There is both charm and a subtle propagandism in this sort of treatment. Mrs. Woolf inveigles the reader into her conception of Montaigne so cleverly that when the essay is finished it has served the purpose of critical argument and adducement. This creative-commentative method of attack is quite in accordance with the scheme of workmanship implicit in the title of her book. The "common reader" is neither a critic nor a scholar, as Dr. Johnson implied. He reads for please and (to quote Mrs. Woolf) "He is guided by an instinct to create for himself out of whatever odds or ends he can come by, some kind of whole--a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing." It is this common reader, according to Dr. Johnson, who "after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning," finally decides all claim to poetical honors. And Mrs. Woolf, taking the statement of the great lexicographer and pachyderm of the tea cup as a sort of motto for her book, declares "It may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute so mighty a result."
It is decidedly worth while, for "The Common Reader" has been shaped into a work that is compact with charm, a strenuous sinew of underlying thought and unity, and a frequent turn of paragraph that will remind the reader of Lytton Strachey. After all, Mrs. Woolf is no common reader, try as she may to be one. Her powers of coordination and logical inference are altogether too strong and capable. No common reader would kick the over-praised "Robinson Crusoe" overboard to float in seas of adolescent adoration for "Moll Flanders," as she does. It would take an uncommon common reader to discourse as pithily on Elizabethan drama or the furiously literary Duchess of Newcastle. No idle peruser of the printed page would meditate so beautifully on Greek letters. And when we come to those essays, "Modern Fiction" and "How It Strikes a Contemporary," a note that is altogether professional and the result of intensive study and theorizing is to be discerned.
It is possible that readers will seize upon "Modern Fiction" as one of the most important inclusions in "The Common Reader," for Mrs. Woolf is a novelist first of all, as "Jacob's Room" and the recently published "Mrs. Dalloway" testify. In this essay it is made manifest exactly where Mrs. Woolf stands. She considers and dismisses Messrs. Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy because "they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring." And having made this assertion the writer is necessarily compelled to go on and intimate what to her "the true and the enduring" are. After nothing that type of fiction that is represented by the aforementioned Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy she asks, "Is life like this? Must novels be like this?" The answer to this is concentrated in a paragraph that certainly sums up in itself that new attitude toward the novel that is also the attitude of James Joyce, of Dorothy Richardson, of Mrs. Woolf herself.
Look within and live, it seems (writes Mrs. Woolf), is very far from being: "like this." Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions--trivial, fantastic, evanescent or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from the old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on, as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged, but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it.
It is here that the great split between the old and the new orders begin. Leaping like a springboard from Henry James, aided and abetted by certain trends of development akin to psychoanalysis, the experimenters have shattered the old form of the novel through which a number of puppets prance through a contrived plot that may be said to begin in a subterfuge of suspense and end in a Jehovah- like disposal of eternal prizes. Even time has been shortened, for time is not necessarily an element of development. "Ulysses" and, for that matter, Mrs. Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" have their actions circumscribed by a single day. It is too bad that Mrs. Woolf did not go more thoroughly into her conceptions of the modern novel, for she undoubtedly has much to say that is pertinent to the occasion. Her femininity is never in doubt and we have yet to hear a modernist in fiction, a woman, express herself explicitly in regard to this great and unending argument. The problem of the novelist of today, Mrs. Woolf asserts, is to contrive means of being free to set down what he chooses. In the past this was true only of the pioneers who formulated those rules by which accepted fiction is measured today. There should be no such thing as that intimated by "accepted fiction." Mrs. Woolf herself intimates that in the concluding paragraph of this essay where she states:
"The proper stuff of fiction" does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought: every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon: no perception comes amiss. And if we can imagine the art of fiction come alive and standing in our midst, she would undoubtedly bid us break her and bully her, as well as honor and love her, for so her youth is renewed and her sovereignty assured.
Equally engrossing matter is to be found in the concluding essay, "The Common Reader," an essay concerned with "How It Strikes Contemporary." Mrs. Woolf is here attempting to unravel that vexatious question of why two distinguished critics can agree on a masterpiece written 200 years ago and prove its quality by certain rules and yet cannot agree on a contemporary work. Is the fault with the contemporary work or with the criticism of it? It seems to be both. There are certainly no great critics living, although there are many who understand exactly what they are looking for and how to find it. And the work itself is different. The old writers, even as late as Wordsworth and Jane Austen, had their judgment of conduct. "They knew the relations of human beings toward each other and toward the universe." Our contemporaries "have ceased to believe."
The most sincere of them will only tell us what it is that happens to himself. They cannot make a world, because they are not free of other human beings. They cannot tell stories because they do not believe the stories are true. They cannot generalize. They depend on their senses and emotions, whose testimony is trustworthy, rather than on their intellects, whose message is obscure. And they have perforce to deny themselves the use of some of the most powerful and some of the most exquisite of the weapons of their craft. With the whole wealth of the English language at the back of them, they timidly pass about from hand to hand and book to book only the meanest copper coins. Set down at a fresh angle of the eternal prospect, they can only whip out their notebooks and record with agonized intensity the flying gleams, which light on--what?--and the transitory splendors, which may, perhaps, compose nothing whatever.
The critics, therefore, have no great and central urge of abidingness to test. The unceasing placidity and grave undercurrents of Wordsworth, which threw a lasting light on even his lesser exploits, are not to be found in those perplexed and passionate modern who are standing on a world that has ceased to be the world that was the haven of the older writers. It would be pleasant to go on with this line of thought--not all of which is Mrs. Woolf's--but space shortens. Those readers who concerns themselves with "The Common Reader" will hardly be thankful for too precise an exploitation of its contents, however. Mrs. Woolf's style is too charming a first introduction to the matter wrapped up in it.