These seven essays make for entertaining reading. It is pleasant to be in the company of a critical mind. They demonstrate Virginia Woolf at her most disputatious. This is because she was often responding to irritating examples of patriarchal attitudes. Nonetheless, she retained her delicate touch in some of these pieces.
The feminism of Woolf was complex. She had some sympathy for working class women, but her main focus was to encourage women to succeed in the bourgeois professions. Nor did she perceive all the values of the female aristocracy as outmoded. Her ideology was very much of its time.
Woolf was on solid ground when she defended the creativity of women against the sexist assertions of Arnold Bennett. She pointed out that women had made massive progress as soon as they had enjoyed access to education and indicated that in antiquity there was at least one great female poet. For once, her passion exceeded the quality of her prose. Nevertheless, she put her explanations for inequality across with some precision:
“The fact, as I think we shall agree, is that women from the earliest times to the present day have brought forth the entire population of the universe. This occupation has taken much time and strength.”
This diverse collection of writing is a joy to read. However, it was not published in this format during the life of the author. Patched together by editor S.P. Rosenbaum, it is impossible to say what Woolf would have made of it. Perhaps she would have sighed at the industry which has built up around her output, but she might have been pleased that even fragments of her genius are being attended to decades after her death.
The various pieces on offer include adept sketches of people she appreciated. Her affectionate generosity to Roger Fry, Lady Strachey, Ottoline Morrell and John Maynard Keynes is not a shock. However, her cold appraisal of Julian Bell is more surprising. There was a lack of political sympathy between the generations which a shared love of literature could not bridge.
Content aside, it is the experimental confidence of Woolf that moves the reader. Her ways of thinking lit up her way with words. The succinctness which her father appreciated in prose is in evidence:
“(The art of biography is in its infancy. It has not yet learnt to walk without leading strings.)”
Historical novels can be frustrating reads. A writer can easily take too many liberties with the historical context. Further, it is tempting for an author to produce an entertainment which lacks the psychological insight of something focused on contemporary concerns. In this text, John Williams largely avoided these common errors.
Williams, a novelist who worked in academia, was a disciplined artist. His ability to deal with complexity was evident in his famous ‘Stoner’ and his touch did not desert him when dealing with relationships at the summit of the Roman Empire. The text is composed of imaginary letters which are a pleasure to read. Parts of the novel form quite a subtle meditation on getting old.
Nonetheless, it is the style which appeals more than the content of the book. Several passages are composed of immaculate prose and an example may illustrate this:
“The sunlight catches the flecks of white foam that top the little waves, the waves slap gently and whisper against the sides of our ship, the blue-green depth of the sea seems almost playful; and I can persuade myself now that after all there has been some symmetry to my life, some point; and that my existence has been of more benefit than harm to this world that I am content to leave.”
This delightful book is ideal for a holiday read. At the same time, it is written so beautifully that it can be digested at any time of the year. Composed in the early 1920s, it has all kinds of qualities for those with the leisure to revel in them. However, the politics of the novel are also of some interest.
While the characters in the book have no genuine connection with the working class except through the distorting prism of the servant relationship, the author is ideologically aware enough to mention the fascist threat. However, the dominant attitude is conservative and seems equally troubled by opposition to fascism. The conservative nature of the text is evident in that the development of the narrative can be seen as a retreat from feminism. What begins as a tale of female courage and autonomy ends as a story of dull romantic harmony.
Ideology aside, the novel captures a moment when English people became more aware of the beauty of foreign parts. Familiarity with the cold made affluent people long for warmth. The social constraints of the time seemed much less relevant abroad. The author was able to cleverly hint at her own methodology in the text:
“It was quite easy to fasten some of the entertaining things he was constantly thinking on to other people and pretend they were theirs.”
This text has been promoted as a classic. It may entertain the reader, but it is interesting why it has been accorded classic status. Is it because of its own merits or is it because Conrad has been granted the status of a writer of classics? If Conrad has been given this recognition it is in part because several of his novels have similar styles and themes.
This novel is set in part at sea. It is interested in psychology. Hence it is typical Conrad. However, a more troubling part of the work hits the reader between the eyes. It contains racism which reflects the values that legitimised the British Empire. Indeed, there is an obsession with skin colour which affects a few of the descriptions. For example, Conrad wrote:
“swarthy as an African.”
The story is put together largely in the form of dialogue. As a consequence, there is less poetry in the book than one might have thought. Therefore the reader focuses on other things, such as the gradual creation of atmosphere by repetition.