restricted access Virginia Woolf's Essays (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 510-513

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Book Review

Virginia Woolf's Essays

Elena Gualtieri. Virginia Woolf's Essays. New York: St. Martin's, 2000. ix+176 pp.

Gualtieri's book, developed from her dissertation, is a factually rich look at Virginia Woolf's essays. The title of the introductory chapter, "Virginia Woolf, European Essayist," is exciting in its hints at a topical context, namely, the locatedness of European culture as "European." The book's framework is unique in addressing the confluence of class-consciousness [End Page 510] and feminism that has been infrequently addressed in Woolf studies, especially in connection to the essay as a genre and its questioning of history as epistemological mode and "modernity as a historiographic concept."

The author fittingly takes some time to establish a much-needed contextualization of the continental European heritage and Woolf's connections to Victorian essayism. After beginning briefly with a mention of Woolf's debate with attitudes towards the essay as a polemical form, Gualtieri describes the streams of Lukacs's and Adorno's Marxist notions. But here, we begin to lose sight of Woolf's intervention in this conversation. The summaries of the works of Michele Barrett, Toril Moi, and Rachel Bowlby, while necessary, deflect from the full display of the author's own interpretation of Woolf's writing.

The chapters themselves remain close to Woolf's biography and texts, supported well by an expansive base of research dating from the 1960s to 1999. Chapter 1, while it does not pick up the connections to continental European essayism highlighted in the introduction, profiles Woolf's early writings as an essayist and reviewer, and emphasizes her contestation of both generic boundaries and the public/private divide. Positing the idea that Woolf perceives gaps in the linear streamlining of history (in projects such as her own father's Dictionary of National Biography), Gualtieri connects this chapter to the next by focusing on Woolf's marginal figures, the "obscure" and "Anon" as emblems of a new history of the essay, and by emphasizing that their presence must necessitate a rethinking of the form of the essay itself. Chapter 2 returns to the general European landscape (glancing briefly at Montaigne, Browne, de Quincey, Stevenson, and Beerbohm) and focuses on this reconstruction, looking closely at Woolf's ambivalence about the essay: on the one hand, it is a modernist form which encourages a feminist revision of a nonlinear autobiography, building on an individual's moments of being; on the other, the essay is a participant in modernity's drive to commodify forms of production for the masses.

Chapter 3 follows logically in foregrounding Woolf's attempts to connect women writers (symbols of modernism) with working women (symbols of modernity) as expressed in her essays and speeches. However, it reads like a text that can stand on its own, being a detailed and engaging discussion of "Reviewing," A Room of One's Own, "Professions [End Page 511] for Women," and Three Guineas. The link to the idea of the essay as genre begins to attenuate slightly, or at least is not explicitly stated, even as the discussion moves into chapter 4. In this chapter, the analysis of "A Sketch of the Past" is explained well in that the personal "sketch" ties the genre of the essay to that of the memoir. The inclusion of Orlando is made on the basis that the text questions historiography in being a "fictional (auto)biography" which problematizes the public/private divide, and subsumes lesbianism into androgyny. While Gualtieri explores the tenuous borderline between the essay and fiction, her close reading of the text, paradoxically, prevents a strong link to ideas that previously predominated. The European culture of the essay as a genre that displays the "discontinuous character of the historical experience," or even of modernism and modernity, begin to fade, as the chapter maps Woolf's personal genealogy onto a revisionary history of English literature. Moreover, the promise held out by the introduction that Gualtieri's exploration was positioned at the intersection of Marxist and feminist interpretations of the essay appears...