Do not think, because this collection of essays is titled Volume 2, that there is anything lesser or additional to it. Here is Virginia Woolf at her most entertaining and informative, relishing the portraits and insights she presents as she surveys a varied collection of individuals in English society and English literature. The subjects range from the Elizabethans to Thomas Hardy, and then concludes, unexpectedly, with ‘How Should One Read A Book?’ Here is one delight after another: twenty-six occasional pieces (journalistic diversions) which demonstrate that her eye for history, for an individual’s place in history and in books, is just as acute and vivid as any character in her better-known novels. Many are familiar names. John Donne, Robinson Crusoe, De Quincey, Lord Chesterfield. There is Dr Burney’s Evening Party and George Gissing, names which indicate there is no overall scheme whatsoever! Woolf champions certain figures, such as Mary Wollstonecraft (admiring her personal stance and strength) and yet has time to cast a softer, kindly eye on Dorothy Wordsworth. The detail contained in these portraits will last long in the memory – Beau Brummell descending from being the unimpeachable dandy to a sad decline; the curious eccentric personality of the poet and hymn writer William Cowper and his affection for Lady Austen. Time and again, the skill and the wit of the great writer that is Virginia Woolf simply stops one in one’s tracks, as in her opening lines on Laurence Sterne. The essay is on A Sentimental Journey but she starts with tipping the hat to Tristram Shandy, which appeared when the author was 45. Woolf comments on Sterne: ‘No young writer could have dared to take such liberties with grammar and syntax and sense and propriety and the longstanding tradition of how a novel should be written. It needed a strong dose of the assurance of middle age and its indifference to censure to run such risks of shocking the lettered by the unconventionality of one’s style, and the respectable by the irregularity of one’s morals. But the risk was run and the success was prodigious.’ What a final sentence! Has the 21st century little time for the elegant essay, the joy of focused wit, of kindness, of acute observation, where the very brevity of format provides a space in which to think and reflect? In The Common Reader Volume 2, (published in 1932), the essay lives on and even more so in this sensitive and engaging reading by Georgina Sutton.
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