Virginia Woolf: Essays on the Self

By Cuervo, Margarita Esther Sanchez | Journal of International Women's Studies, January 2017 | Go to article overview

Virginia Woolf: Essays on the Self


Cuervo, Margarita Esther Sanchez, Journal of International Women's Studies


Virginia Woolf: Essays on the Self, Joanna Kavenna, 2014. Notting Hill Editions: London. 187 pages. Woolf's picture and Biography, Index, Kavenna's Introduction, Notes included. [pounds sterling]14.99, hardcover.

Virginia Woolf: Essays on the Self, by Joanna Kavenna, is the last printed collection of Virginia Woolf's essays. On this occasion, the theme of the book is the self which, as her author states in the introduction, "is central, in some way, to every essay" that she has selected. Virginia Woolf's essays have been compiled both during her lifetime and more or less continuously after her death. She was witness to the publication of The Common Reader. First Series (1925), and The Common Reader. Second Series (1932) by the Hogarth Press. Several posthumous books of essays were compiled by Woolf's husband, Leonard Woolf, also by the Hogarth Press. They were The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942), The Moment and Other Essays (1947), The Captain's Death Bed and Other Essays (1950), and Granite and Rainbow (1958). Her husband is also responsible for the publication of Collected Essays, 4 Volumes (1966-67). Subsequent publications of Woolf's essays have been made, bearing in mind several topics for which she is more wellknown, like literature, feminism and women's writing. In this line, collections like On Women and Writing (1979), edited by Michelle Barrett; Selected Essays: Woman's Essays (1992), and Selected Essays: The Crowded Dance of Modern Life (1993), edited by Rachel Bowlby; and Killing the Angel in the House: Seven Essays (1995), edited by Penguin Books, reflect these concerns. In a different vein, the book The London Scene: Six Essays on London Life (2006), shows Woolf's love for London; and Selected Essays (Oxford's World Classics) (2009), edited by David Bradshaw, is just another sample of some of her most famous texts. In addition to all these titles, The Essays of Virginia Woolf. VI Volumes (1987-2011), comprises all the essays that Woolf wrote from 1904 until she died in 1941. This final edition by Andrew McNeillie, who is responsible for the first four volumes, and Stuart Clarke, the editor of volumes 5 and 6, includes texts that had never been in book form before.

In Essays on the Self, Kavenna opposes our current interest in the self with Woolf's and other Modernist writers' preoccupation with the subjective self. With this topic in mind, Kavenna chooses a more or less known group of essays. For example, one of Woolf's visions of the self is analysed in "Modern Fiction," the famous essay that reflects her ideas about modernist literature and the dichotomy that she introduces between spiritualist and materialist writers. Woolf blames the method that is used in the creative practice of her time and that impedes writers their inner wish to venture beyond "life" and into "the dark places of psychology." Kavenna then focuses on another equally well-known essay, "Character in Fiction." This text was first read to the Cambridge Heretics in 1924 and on 30 October 1924 it was published by the Hogarth Press as we know it today, "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown". Likewise, the author of the collection equals the subjective quality that is absent in materialist writers with the self that allows a novelist to create real characters. With this purpose, she considers that male and female novelists try to reflect convincing characters such as those devised by Arnold Bennett. In this author's opinion, only "real" characters may survive, but these characters do not represent, in Woolf's opinion, "the spirit we live by, life itself." Kavenna links the writer's attempt to show the self with the reader's subsequent effort to pursue it and "become him," that is, the writer himself, in "How Should One Read a Book." Likewise, in "A Letter to a Young Poet," Woolf states that bad poetry is "the result of forgetting oneself." However, poets must also write about other people when they have finished writing about self, or so she recommends to the young poet to whom she writes to in this essay. …

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