The Common Reader

by Virginia Woolf. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. 1925. 8mo. vi+321 pp. $3.50.
THE gifted author of Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway has here assembled some two dozen literary essays, certain of which had earlier been published in periodicals, and has prefaced them with a modest disclaimer of scholarship or critical expertness. They do not, of course, represent the reactions of the merely average reader; they reflect the taste and sensibility of an unusually talented writer. Yet they do not pretend to the consistency or conform to the methods of professional criticism. They are the work of a brilliant amateur who, with plentiful jumbling of the trivial and the significant, now delightedly rescues some bit of a freakish book or personality from oblivion, now rubs and polishes some dulling reputation into renewed, momentary brightness.
Frequently the actuality thus evoked is displayed in revelatory perspective. Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, appear not only as unique human figures but also as contributors, each in her own fashion, to the great tradition of English letters. At their best the essays not only arouse one to a tingling sense of reality in writers and books, but also illuminate shadowy corners, or reveal accepted values in a new light.
In a few of the essays, and these the least successful, Mrs. Woolf turns to present-day topics. To one reader, at least, her admiration for Joseph Conrad barely escapes idolatry, her praise of Mr. Beerbohm seems as excessive as her dispraise of his fellow essayists, her comments upon modern fiction throw more light upon the writer than upon the subject. To term Galsworthy materialistic and James Joyce spiritual, because one presents character through action, the other in mental states, is to manifest the extent to which preoccupation with novelties in technique can betray judgment.
It is to the essays that give immediacy to the past through re-creating its sensible attributes that one returns with unflagging zest. One sniffs the stuffy air of bedrooms where the Pastons slept, sees the butterflies alighting on Evelyn’s dahlias, listens to the vauntings of Hākluyt’s travelers, and samples the thin ale that Bentley sold to Trinity College. Occasionally, to be sure, it is difficult to fit the details into a recognizable pattern. The spell seems to falter, the air trembles into shapes that mysteriously appear and fade away without ever achieving completeness — bodiless smiles, groping hands, and no personality to which they may attach themselves. But again, and often, the enchantment succeeds, and other days and other folk are miraculously bodied forth—an old play, opulent with oaths and jewels, a garden with white moths flitting through moonlight, an old man with heavy-lidded eyes and subtle smile contemplating from his corner of France the endless follies and complexities and the precarious joys of the human soul.