The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf

It’s appropriate that my 100th GR review should be a book that attempts to shift literary criticism from the hallowed office into the sitting room as all of us here on Goodreads are “the common reader”, a voice that in Woolf’s day barely existed. In the final essay she has a dig at (her) contemporary professional critics. I’m presently reading a novel which according to The New York Times Book Review and The Boston Globe is the work of a rare genius; the truth though is, as any common reader endowed with a functioning critical faculty would no doubt agree, that it’s simply a very ordinary novel with no distinguishing virtue. So can we trust professional critics now any more than we can trust marketing departments to give us an honest assessment of the worth of a book? The answer, of course, is no. To a far greater extent we can trust our fellow readers here.

One of the overriding impressions here is that Woolf is much more generous and kind in her criticism than in her praise. My favourite essays were those on obscure writers of memoirs. None of these clearly had much literary merit and yet with what delight and affection she read them and how brilliantly she brought before our eyes the eccentricities of their authors. These were the ones that made me laugh out loud. That gave me a vivid sense of Virginia Woolf’s conversation at a dinner table. I’ve always imagined Woolf to be like a female Byron in conversation, witty, yes, a bit snotty but also expansive and ultimately self-effacing. Because of this it has always annoyed me that she is invariably portrayed on screen as some kind of mawkish, gibbering bag-woman as was the case in the recent BBC Bloomsbury drama and in Nicole Kidman’s interpretation of her in the film of The Hours.

On the other hand she tends to be a little mean and begrudging in her praise. She can write about Joyce: “Mr Joyce is spiritual; he is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be probability, or coherence, or any other of these signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when called upon to imagine what he can neither touch or see.” Only to later dismiss Ulysses as a “memorable catastrophe”. Lawrence gets similar treatment. And the chapter on Emily Bronte is probably the most uninspired. It was her belief that Emily Bronte’s poems would outlive her novel. Wuthering Heightshowever can be found on every list of the greatest novels ever written, something not true of Conrad’s early work which Woolf, unusually, praises without reservations. So even Woolf wasn’t foolproof in her assessments. There’s also a sense of how competitive she is with both contemporaries and other women – a major factor in her friendship with Katherine Mansfield. There’s her famous comment aboutMiddlemarch but then she will help us understand why it’s not as grown up as War and Peace where every relationship is so much more finely tuned and the imaginative reach of Tolstoy excels anything Eliot is capable of. She remarks that Eliot’s heroines talk too much and comments on “the fumbling which shook Eliot’s hand when she had to conceive a fit mate for her heroines.” And I remembered how Dorothea’s relationship with Ladislaw, written perhaps with all critical faculties in abeyance, borders on being the kind of young girl’s wish fulfilment liaison we expect from formulaic romantic fiction.

Above all else, reading this helped me understand the nature of the imperatives behind what Woolf wanted to achieve in her own work. virginia-woolf-las_2971827k


2 thoughts on “The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf

  1. Brilliant review thank you. I’m reading lots of VW this year for my #Woolfalong project – and have other books set aside for the non-fiction phase later in the year – but this certainly one I should consider too.

    Liked by 1 person

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