Essay Mondays: Woolf


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

I know, I know: just when we all thought we were done with her after Woolf in Winter, here I am with one more entry about my old friend Virginia. I could blame the timing on Lopate and his oddly relevant pacing in The Art of the Personal Essay, but the truth is that I'm glad to have an opportunity to discuss Woolf, the essayist. Frances, Claire, Sarah and I originally intended to include some essays in our wintertime Woolf-a-thon, but the suggestions began coming too thick and fast (diary selections, letters, and Leonard Woolf's The Wise Virgins were also considered), and we realized that we needed to rein it in if we wanted to avoid burn-out. Which I think was the right decision, but. There's always a but.

Woolf's essays - the best ones, anyway - are among my favorite parts of her work. Next to Mrs. Dalloway, which has become for me something less like a "favorite novel" and more like a "sacred text," they may just take the prize spot. Still incorporating her delicious, fluid voice, they tend also to possess a clarity and directness of speech which is sometimes missing from the novels. So too, those who experienced Woolf's third-person fiction narrator as cold and removed might like the glimpse of Woolf-the-person the essays provide. Take "Street Haunting," the essay I'll be writing about today. In it, Woolf constructs a tribute to her love of meandering across London on an evening in Winter, pursuing in a leisurely manner some perfunctory goal—in this case, buying a lead pencil. Making use of the first-person plural, she invites the reader along on her ramble, beginning in "one's own room" before plunging into the city streets:

As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one's own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience. That bowl on the mantelpiece, for instance, was bought at Mantua on a windy day. We were leaving the shop when the sinister old woman plucked at our skirts and said she would find herself starving one of these days, but, "Take it!" she cried, and thrust the blue and white china bowl into our hands as if she never wanted to be reminded of her quixotic generosity. So, guiltily, but suspecting nevertheless how badly we had been fleeced, we carried it back to the little hotel where, in the middle of the night, the innkeeper quarreled so violently with his wife that we all leant out into the courtyard to look, and saw the vines laced about among the pillars and the stars white in the sky. The moment was stabilized, stamped like a coin indelibly among a million that slipped by imperceptibly. There, too, was the melancholy Englishman, who rose among the coffee cups and the little iron tables and revealed the secrets of his soul—as travellers do. All this—Italy, the windy morning, the vines laced about the pillars, the Englishman and the secrets of his soul—rise up in a cloud from the china bowl on the mantelpiece.

I'm realizing it will be difficult to avoid the horrendously long block-quotes while discussing this essay, because Woolf's style twists and turns so delightfully. This paragraph is a beautiful example: she begins with emerging from the door into the street, and then moves backwards to establish what it is she's leaving behind—her room, her possessions—which somehow hold within themselves the impressions of other times, other places, transporting us to the shops and hotels of Italy before we return to the room we were leaving as the paragraph began. What a master she was, that Virginia Woolf.

Lopate points out that "Street Haunting" belongs to a long tradition of flaneur and proto-flaneur rambling-the-city-streets essays; I wrote about an earlier piece in this vein by Richard Steele. Woolf's version, though, as a reader of Mrs. Dalloway might expect, melds the external events and sights of the streets with the walker's internal reality in a delicate and gorgeous way. The thing that most struck me on this read-through of the essay, so close to our discussions of Orlando, is Woolf's focus on how an object—familiar, unfamiliar—can spark a whole different self into being in the observer's imagination, and how the amalgam we call "Virginia" or "Emily" is really a composite containing all of these different past and imagined selves, as Orlando calls to her different incarnations toward the end of that novel. In one passage, the speaker happens upon an antique jewelry stall and picks up a strand of pearls. Instantly, it becomes for her "between two and three in the morning" in June, on a deserted street in Mayfair, where the gatherings of peers and ladies are winding down and "love-making is going on sibiliantly, seductively in the darker places of the room behind thick green curtains." And yet, she thinks,

[W]hat could be more absurd? It is, in fact, on the stroke of six; it is a winter's evening; we are walking to the Strand to buy a pencil. How, then, are we also on a balcony, wearing pearls in June? What could be more absurd? Yet it is nature's folly, not ours. When she set about her chief masterpiece, the making of man, she should have thought of one thing only. Instead, turning her head, looking over her shoulder, into each one of us she let creep instincts and desires which are utterly at variance with his main being, so that we are streaked, variegated, all of a mixture; the colours have run. Is the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? Circumstances compel unity; for convenience' sake a man must be a whole. The good citizen when he opens his door in the evening must be banker, golfer, husband, father; not a nomad wandering the desert, a mystic staring at the sky, a debauchee in the streets of San Francisco, a soldier heading a revolution, a pariah howling with skepticism and solitude. When he opens his door, he must run his fingers through his hair and put his umbrella in the stand like the rest.

This Woofian, Proustian idea of multiple selves, evoked suddenly and mysteriously by a thought or a sensation, is extremely compelling to me, and "Street Haunting" presents it in one of its most beautiful and direct forms. It's not alone, though, in being an excellent essay offering from Woolf: other favorites of mine include the famous "A Room of One's Own," "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," "Evening over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car," and much of her literary criticism.

Essay Mondays is taking next week off, because David and I will be hosting fifty of our closest friends and family this weekend at our Partnership Celebration! (I do have one more non-essay-related post I hope to write this week, but we'll see if that ends up happening.) The week after that, I'll be back with one piece by Ivan Turgenev, two by Lu Hsun, and one by Junichero Tanizaki.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:


  • Very much enjoyed the horrendously long block-quotes! I agree, I have always thought Woolf and the essay to be great companions.

    It's also pleasing to know that debauchery and San Francisco have been synonymous for longer than I thought!

    Have a wonderful, memorable weekend.

  • I really enjoyed this weeks essay Monday and the idea that you can be thrown into a remembrance by chance encounters with random things. Why have I been so afraid of Woolf for so long, when she's such an accessible, intuitive writer?

    Hope your celebrations go wonderfully well.

  • I this Woolf essay. I love how the ordinary act of going out to buy a pencil is suddenly transformed into something extraordinary and utterly beautiful.

    Enjoy your Celebration! I am looking forward to hearing about it and seeing the completed dress :)

  • Although I do admit to feeling a little burnt out after four Woolf novels, I'm looking forward into picking up more of her essays soon, as I really enjoyed "On Being Ill" and what you've shown here is equally delightful. She's just so good. I'm especially eager to read some of her criticism and writing about reading.

    Enjoy your celebration and congratulations!

  • Marieke: I got a kick out of that San Francisco reference, as well! Especially since I don't remember reading that Woolf ever I wonder what exotic visions she was conjuring about California. Thank you so much for the weekend well-wishes, also. :-)

    Jodie: Isn't that a beautiful observation? I love it too. And thanks for the positive thoughts!

  • Stefanie: Yes! The transformation of the mundane into the beautiful (or appreciating how the mundane is inherently beautiful) is one of my very, very favorite things about Woolf. And we will post photos so very soon - can't believe it's this weekend!

    Nicole: I think a book every two weeks was a bit much even for hardcore Woolf fans like me! (In fact I skipped re-reading Orlando for just this reason.) But when you're back in the mood, the essays are fantastic. And thank you so much for the congratulations! :-)

  • It's a little too soon for me to get all worked up over Woolf again, Emily, but your enthusiasm for her is contagious. Knowing what do you of my tastes now, is there any essay of hers (or piece of literary criticism for that matter) that you would particularly recommend that I check out? And congratulations in advance on your partnership celebration, of course!

  • Trying my own hand at describing the brilliance found in an artist's prose, I too often find myself in that predicament of wanting and having to quote a beautiful line but not knowing where or how to end it—it's like taking a piece of out a perfectly orchestrated symphony. It feels like a crime sometimes.

    I have this feeling, by the way, that I'll love Woolf's essays and personal letters even more than I love her fiction :)

  • I have loved reading your post Emily. The Woolf in Winter Read Along was my first taste of Woolf's writing (and Mrs Dalloway was a clear favourite for me out of the four we read) but I can't wait to read more.

  • I'm trying to do something similar with The Malcontents, another collection of essays.

    On a Woolf note, I just read A Room of One's Own and adored it. The review should be up tomorrow or the next day.

  • Never too soon for a little more Woolf. Especially this peripatetic wonder. Really attached myself to your ideas of multiple selves here, and of course, that connection to Orlando. And then of course, my mind wanders back to The Waves, and instantly I am re-hashing the impossibility of language successfully capturing those selves. And now I am off to the shelves to re-read this essay. You know, Emily, I really do not have time to be friends with you. You could try and be a little less compelling in your posts. Just as a courtesy to me.

    Hope the upcoming festivities are absolutely perfect!

  • Richard: First of all, as proof that I DO know your tastes, you'll be excited to learn that I just snagged a cheap used copy of The Savage Detectives yesterday! Excited to dive into it in future. Re: Woolf essays, I'd be interested in your reaction to her criticism - it is, unsurprisingly, dominated by English lit, but she has a very lively & human reviewing style. Might be an "in" to some writers you otherwise find boring? "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" is one of my all-time favorites by her, and it's sort of halfway between lit crit & a personal essay - focusing on the craft of writing fiction.

    Mark David: I know - where do you stop a passage, and sometimes even more difficult, where do you BEGIN? Especially tough with a writer whose passages build cumulatively, as Woolf's tend to. I'd love to know your thoughts when/if you get around to the essays. :-)

  • Karen: Yay, glad people who were introduced to her during Woolf in Winter are planning on seeking out more, even if not immediately. :-)

    Trisha: Oh, "A Room of One's Own" is so masterful, isn't it? So glad you discovered it; I'll keep an eye out for your review!

  • Frances: Aw, well - I'll do my best in future. :-) Interesting tie-in with The Waves - another example of why I prefer the mid-career stuff, which seems to believe a little more in the possibility of representation...but is that a cop-out? I don't know. Anyway, glad you enjoyed the post & thanks for the well wishes! :-D

  • First of all, congratulations on the upcoming celebration! That's wonderful. I completely adore this Woolf essay, and I've had the chance to teach it a couple times, which has been fun. I like the way you characterize her essay voice -- it's a lighter, more personable voice, but just as insightful and smart.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography