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The case of Virginia Woolf supports the axiom that every formidable author is a formidable reader. Plentiful evidence survives of the importance of reading in Woolf’s life and of her unique talent as a reader: Biographical accounts present the image of the young girl exploiting access to her father’s library and literary friends; volumes of letters, diaries, and reading notebooks document her lifelong reading; her fiction betrays the pervasive influence of this reading, in part by dramatizing major characters as readers; and, most importantly, we have the wealth of essays and reviews, including A Room of One’s Own and the two Common Reader volumes. These essays can be deceptively light in tone, dry and whimsical, exhibiting a self-deprecation that initially masks their nerve and iconoclasm. Her confidence and skepticism as a reader grew in conjunction with one another, the skepticism reflecting—often with a sense of relief—her sense of the modernists’ distance from earlier ages. Yet she also stands apart from her fellow modernists, in part because her experience as a woman and her feminism colored her reading.
Woolf criticism has provided us with a variety of studies of Woolf the reader, ranging from analyses of her relation to individual writers to catalogues of her sources and assessments of the significance of her reading—work as varied as, to name only a few examples, Alice Fox on her relation to the Renaissance, Elizabeth Steele on the literary allusions in her essays, and Melba Cuddy-Keane on her engagement in public intellectual life. But the subject of Woolf’s reading remains rich [End Page 906] ground for additional study. She was, as Anne Fernald observes in a new book on the subject, “a born reader, happily insisting on reading widely, eccentrically, and without regard to fashion” (130). As the subtitle indicates, Fernald’s Virginia Woolf: Feminism and the Reader examines the relationship between Woolf’s reading and her feminism. Given this topic, A Room of One’s Own, Woolf’s most sustained and influential commentary on the intermingling of reading, writing, and sexuality, inevitably casts its shadow over Fernald’s book. Thus, one might expect the book to offer an extended reading of Woolf’s essay and to focus on her nineteenth-century predecessors. Refreshingly, Fernald chooses a less familiar approach, acknowledging the paramount importance of Woolf’s essay and then forgoing any sustained analysis of it. This strategy reflects the nature of the questions Fernald wishes to address. Her primary frame of reference is Woolf’s “development as a writer,” and within this frame she balances the desire to resist “determinism” by narrating the evolution of “Woolf’s writing life four times, with different emphases and outcomes each time,” and “the need to read Woolf’s career holistically” (9). Each of Fernald’s four chapters focuses on Woolf’s evolving, career-long relation to a specific predecessor: Sappho, Hakluyt, Addison, and Byron. Accordingly, we end up with four parallel case studies of the ways that Woolf’s reading, writing, and feminism intermingle.
The selection of figures is idiosyncratic, a fact Fernald embraces to good effect, increasing our appreciation of Woolf’s eclectic tastes. Fernald’s narrative accounts of Woolf’s relation to each figure are detailed, multilayered, and enlightening. By drawing freely on the full range of Woolf’s writings—essays, fiction, diaries, reading notebooks, and letters—and by “letting these four figures stand synecdochally for her reading of the literary past” (12), the study avoids being overly schematic. And by returning repeatedly to the figure of Woolf as an evolving reader and feminist, it manages to range widely without seeming random or fractured. The first chapter argues that the fragmentary condition of Sappho’s poetry helps temper Woolf’s nationalism and feminism, while contributing to her aesthetic values. The next chapter explores another aspect of her aesthetics by showing that she valued Hakluyt’s Elizabethan exploration narratives for enriching the English language and imagination. Addison and Byron serve as the foils in the third and fourth chapters for discussions of her involvement...