Monday, March 21, 2016

Currently Reading 3.21.16

One of the more fascinating aspects of literature, in my opinion, is the concept of the "conversation" within the canon. The idea that writers across time, across continents can connect with each other's ideas and almost "talk" to each other is endlessly interesting.

In this sense (and in many others) Virginia Woolf's The Common Reader is a really great read. Essentially, it's a book of critical essays by Virginia Woolf, each discussing a novel, author, or time period. Woolf discusses everything from the Greeks to Chaucer to "The Russian Point of View," and every essay is marked with her unique insight and intellect.

My favorite pieces in the collection are those on the Brontes and George Eliot. Woolf's focus on the Brontes is limited mostly to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and while I do not agree on many of Woolf's critiques of the works, her point of view is certainly food for thought. Her take on both novels is very positive, and she commends both women's story telling abilities. In Jane Eyre, Woolf focuses predominately on Charlotte Bronte's choice of the first person and lists both the benefits and the drawbacks, respectively that total reader absorption and a limited scope: "She does not attempt to solve the problems of human life; she is even unaware that such problems exist; all her force, and it is most tremendous for being constricted, goes into the assertion, 'I love,' 'I hate,' 'I suffer.'" While I disagree that Bronte ignored the greater problems of humanity--there's quite a bit of proto-feminism in Jane Eyre--Woolf points out things about the first person in Jane Eyre that I had not previously thought much about.

"...One cannot escape the conviction that the long, heavy face with its expression of serious and sullen and almost equine power has stamped itself depressingly upon the minds of people who remember George Eliot, so that it looks out upon them from her pages." (For those of you who don't know, that's Eliot on the right side of the banner atop this post, and she's pretty much as Woolf describes her.) Woolf spends much of her piece on Eliot singing her praises. "The flood of memory and humor which she pours so spontaneously into one figure, one scene after another, until the whole fabric of ancient rural England is revived, has so much in common with natural process that it leaves us with little consciousness that there is anything to criticise."

Both the Brontes and Eliot wrote in the Victorian era, a lifetime before Woolf would begin publishing in 1915. Despite this divide, Woolf's admiration for her predecessors is clear, as is their influence upon her. Woolf's writing is the epitome of modernism, and far less traditional than either the Brontes or Eliot, but there is similarity in subject matter. All of the women are in some way rebelling against the idea that women must exist as "angels of the house," pure and decorative and secondary to their husbands. From Bronte, Woolf adapted learned that narrow focus could be "tremendous." We can see this influence in Mrs. Dalloway, in which a woman's entire life is depicted in a single day. From Eliot, Woolf found portraiture and characterization. One can only guess how many writers have taken Woolf's adaptations and adapted them further.

Virginia Woolf is my absolute favorite author, so I might be a little biased, but I encourage everyone to take a look at The Common Reader. You can pick and choose which pieces you read, and some are only a few pages, so it's a nice book to have around for times of boredom or procrastination. (And if you have a bit more time, I wholeheartedly recommend Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Eliot's Middlemarch. They're all dazzlingly good.)


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