- Virginia Woolf’s Essayism
Tellingly, the title of Randi Saloman’s book is Virginia Woolf’s Essayism, not Virginia Woolf’s Essays. This is fine. We need a book about Woolf’s essayism and this is a good one. Saloman does an excellent job of showing how seriously Woolf took the essay and how that seriousness informed all her writing.
My only quarrel is that, despite its considerable accomplishments, I don’t think Saloman’s book does quite what it claims it will do. In her introduction, she offers that her work will be a corrective to several books of the last two decades, books which, while breaking from the previous [End Page 818] neglect of Woolf’s essays, end up seeing “those essays primarily as clues to reading Woolf’s novels, or as evidence for her feminist or other ideological positions.” As a consequence, says Salomon, “these approaches have proven inadequate in explaining the full scope of Woolf’s essayistic writing” (6). Saloman promises instead to take “a different approach to understanding Woolf’s project in the essay, considering the essay as a format that Woolf used to solve artistic problems, and as a place where her deepest questions about herself as a writer, and about the writing process, should be examined” (8). I think Saloman is most successful when, during the first half of the book, she sticks to her professed goal and focuses on Woolf’s essays.
Her opening chapter offers the best close reading I have seen of Woolf’s exquisite essay “Street Haunting.” She reads Woolf’s walk across London in search a pencil as a kind of essay on the essay; pencils, doorways, streets, bookshops, and windows all work metaphorically to reveal the essay as a liminal form and the essayist as flâneur, or more precisely, flâneuse. At one point Woolf watches a female dwarf tentatively trying on shoes in a boot shop. Her foot, observes Woolf, is “shapely, perfectly proportioned,” even “aristocratic.” When the woman begins to appreciate the normalcy and beauty of her foot, she begins to pirouette “before a glass which reflected her foot only.” When the dwarf leaves the store, Woolf feels the whole mood of the street change as well. Saloman, apparently feeling essayistic herself, observes the following:
The essay is just as vulnerable to mood shifts as the dwarf is, and is equally susceptible to developing its world view through the subjective lens of a momentary impression. . . . The essay is as changeable as its author, and this fluctuation in the speaking persona, rather than a weakness (as it surely would be in a novel), is the mark of the essay’s authority.(30–31)
Saloman’s personification of the essay here might seem reductive—the essay as the simple tracing of moods—but she builds on this insight elsewhere and demonstrates how Woolf’s choices in diction, style and sentence structure are the means of creating a shifting, digressive, multifarious persona.
In her second chapter, Saloman brings the same kind of attentiveness and knowledge of the essay to bear on the only essay collections Woolf compiled during her life: The Common Reader (1925) and The Second Common Reader (1932). Again, the results are impressive. Recognizing that these essays are essentially about reading—Woolf’s “own reading, other writers’ reading and the nature of reading itself”(48)—Saloman focuses on the relationship between the essayist and her reader. Reading an essay, she argues, is a different experience than reading a novel: “The categorization of a text as a novel or as an essay causes the reader to adopt a particular stance—passive or receptive, or dialogically engaged—in relation to the text” (36). The essay is the most intimate and conversational of genres, and reading an essay is more active and dialogical than the giving up of oneself to the novelist’s world. As Saloman puts it, “The reader’s engagement is not merely a complement to the essay, but a part of the essay.” This process makes the essay an improvised and indeterminate...