|Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1917).|
The Decay of Essay-writing is an early Virginia Woolf essay, first published in Academy and Literature on 25th February 1905 when she was Virginia Stephen. It begins,
The spread of education and the necessity which haunts us to impart what we have acquired have led, and will lead still further, to some startling results. We read of the over-burdened British Museum - how even its appetite for printed matter flags, and the monster pleads that it can swallow no more. This public crisis has long been familiar in private houses. One member of the household is almost officially deputed to stand at the hall door with flaming sword and do battle with the invading armies. Tracts, pamphlets, advertisements, gratuitous copies of magazines, and the literary productions of friends come by post, by van, by messenger - come at all hours of the day and fall into the night, so that the morning breakfast-table is fairly snowed up with them.
Woolf goes on to elaborate on this idea of a saturated market, saying "This age has painted itself more faithfully than any other in a myriad of clever and conscientious though not supremely great works of fiction", yet somehow the appetite or market is still very much there, and to cater to it one must come up with new ideas to feed the "monster".
So we confine ourselves to no one literary medium; we try to be new by being old; we review mystery plays and affect archaic accent; we deck ourselves in the fine raiment of an embroidered style; we cast of all our clothing and disport ourselves nakedly. In short, there is no end to our devices, and at this very moment probably some ingenious youth is concocting a fresh one which, be it ever so new, will grow stale in its turn.
One such invention, she suggests, is the essay. She does, it must be noted, mention Montaigne, author of Essais (1580) and pioneer of the essay, "but we may count him the first of the moderns". Furthermore,
[The essay] has been used with considerable frequency since his day, but its popularity with us is so immense and so peculiar that we are justified in looking upon it as something of our own - typical, characteristic, a sign of the times which will strike the eye of our great-great-grandchildren.
Despite this, "no one has approached the essays of Elia [Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb, 1823-33]". Essays, she continues, in the Victorian and Edwardian Age have a tendency to be almost "egotistical" in that they are thoughts peculiar to the writer (opinion pieces, in short):
The essay, then, owes its popularity to the fact that under the decent veil of print one can indulge one's egoism to the full. You need know nothing of music, art, or literature to have a certain interest in their productions, and the greatest burden of modern criticism is simply the expression of such individual likes, and dislikes - the amiable garrulity of the tea-table - cast into the form of essays. If men and women must write, let them leave the great mysteries of art and literature unassailed; if they told us frankly not of the books that we can read and the pictures which hang for us all to see, but of that single book to which they alone have the key and of that solitary picture whose face is shrouded to all but one gaze - if they would write about themselves - such writing would have its own permanent value.
This is easier said than done: "Confronted with the terrible spectre of themselves, the bravest are inclined to run away or shade their eyes". For this so many essays fail for they lack both bravery and sincerity. Those who are brave and sincere, however, lack humility and write on things that they simply have no experience in, yet are arrogant enough to proffer their opinion.
This was a rather odd essay to read. Woolf herself noted that Academy and Literature had edited it so much it was only half its size and this may account for it feeling slightly disjointed. On that note it's no surprise her best essays were those she published herself. Nevertheless it's very interesting, and not only because it's early Woolf (she would have been 23 when she wrote this). I do like the essays she describes, the 'opinion pieces', the personal, the autobiographical; they're more a pleasure to read than the polemics we see in the newspapers (though they have their place, I'm not saying I could do without them!). This essay is not Woolf's finest by any stretch, and if you haven't read a Woolf essay yet I'd really leave this one alone for now. But for the Woolf fan, it's a great read and I think reading it and seeing the slightly unpolished Woolf makes me appreciate her talent all the more.
And that was my 13th essay for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell.