Considered one of the best of the Modernist writers, Virginia Woolf's personal life is almost as intriguing as her fiction. Troubled by mental instability for most of her life, Virginia composed her great works in bursts of manic energy and with the support of her brilliant friends and family. However, upon completion of a book, Virginia fell into a dangerously dark depression in anticipation of the world's reaction to her work. Despite her personal difficulties, Virginia Woolf's fiction represented a shift in both structure and style. The world was changing; literature needed to change too, if it was to properly and honestly convey the new realities.
Virginia Woolf was born into an intellectually gifted family. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, is the author of the massive Dictionary of National Biography, a sixty-two volume compilation of the lives of important British citizens. Virginia's sister Vanessa was a gifted painter, and her two brothers Thoby and Adrian were intelligent, dynamic University men. Despite this heady environment-and having the key to her father's library-Virginia was not afforded the opportunity to attend school like her brothers. This wasn't unusual for the time, but it was something Virginia never quite seemed able to forget. Despite becoming perhaps one of the most intelligent writers of the Twentieth Century, Virginia Woolf always thought of herself as ill educated.
After her parents' deaths, Virginia and her siblings moved out of their family home in Kensington and into a rather shabby London neighborhood called Bloomsbury, where they enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of socialists, artists and students. Thoby, who had made a number of extremely interesting friends while at Cambridge, instituted Thursday night get togethers with his old college buddies and other great London minds: Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, Desmond MacCarthy and John Maynard Keyes. Virginia and Vanessa sat in on these conversations, which ranged from Art to philosophy to politics, and soon became a part of the Bloomsbury Group themselves.
As she came into her own, and comfortable in her new environment, Virginia began to write. She first produced short articles and reviews for various London weeklies. She then embarked on her first novel, The Voyage Out, which would consume nearly five years of her life and go through seven drafts. When that book came out to good reviews, she continued producing novels, each one a more daring experiment in language and structure, it seemed, than the last one. After a botched marriage proposal from Lytton Strachey, and after turning down two other proposals in the meantime, Virginia accepted Leonard Woolf's proposal of marriage, after recovering from a mental breakdown in a country nursing home.
Although she had affairs of the heart with other women like Vita Sackville-West and Violet Dickinson, Virginia remained very much in love with Leonard for her entire life. He was her greatest supporter, half-nursemaid, half-cheerleader. He was also a good novelist in his own right, and a publishing entrepreneur, having founded Hogarth Press with Virginia. Together, they scouted great unknown talents like T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and E.M. Forster. Hogarth also began publishing Virginia's novels.
When Virginia published To the Lighthouse and The Waves in 1927 and 1931 respectively, she had turned a corner and could now be considered more than simply avant-garde; she was now, by most critic's accounts, a literary genius. However, until the end, she remained insecure and fearful of the public's reaction to her work.
Virginia didn't only publish fiction; she was also an insightful and, at times, incisive literary and social critic. She was at her best when she took society to task for limiting the opportunities of gifted female writers. A Room of One's Own was a compilation of lectures Virginia gave at Cambridge on the topic of women and fiction, and in this slender volume she argues that talented female writers face the two impediments to fully realizing their potentials: social inferiority and lack of economic independence. Virginia proposed five hundred pounds a year and a private room for female writers with talent. She also published criticism, including two volumes of The Common Reader.
Despite her success, Virginia battled her own internal demons, and although she could quiet them through rest, sometimes she found it impossible to escape the voices in her head. She likely suffered from manic-depression, though doctors knew little about that disorder at the time. Leonard tried to monitor his wife's activities, going so far as to limit the number of visitors she had and to prescribe different kinds of food for her to eat. His efforts likely enabled Virginia to achieve as much as she did. However, he couldn't ultimately save her from herself. On March twenty-eight, 1941, Virginia wrote her husband two notes, both of which told him that if anyone could have saved her, it would have been him. However, she didn't feel she'd be able to come back from this latest episode of what was then called "madness" so she thought it best to end it all. She then picked up her walking stick and headed to the River Ouse. Once on the banks, she filled her pockets with stones, waded into the water, and drowned herself. She was fifty-nine years old.
The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present is an extensive collection of essays compiled by Phillip Lopate, an English professor at Hofstra University in New York City and himself the author of two essay collections. Here, Lopate has selected some seventy-five essays written by fifty authors—including himself—spanning the last two thousand years and representing cultures from all over the globe.
Lopate’s thirty-two-page introduction provides a detailed analysis of the personal essay as a literary form. According to Lopate, the personal essay is noted for “its friendly, conversational tone, its drive toward candor and confession, and its often quirky first-person voice.” The reader becomes privy to the essayist’s most private thoughts, written in a conversational manner, avoiding big words and complicated ideas. Honest, heartfelt, and confessional in tone, the personal essay points up the universality of human experience. According to Michel de Montaigne, the patron saint of the personal essay, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Yet at the same time, the personal essay serves as a constant reminder of the sheer solitude involved in the very act of writing.
The anthology is divided into five sections. Section 1, “Forerunners,” is dedicated to five early writers whose work is akin to the personal essay: the classical Seneca and Plutarch (Montaigne’s favorites), Japanese Sei Shonagon and Kenko, and Chinese Ou-yang Hsiu. Section 2, “Fountainhead,” consists entirely of three essays by Montaigne.
Section 3, “The Rise of the English Essay,” focusing on the essay’s golden age, is deservedly one of the longest sections of the book. Beginning in the seventeenth century with Abraham Cowley’s “Of Greatness,” this section moves through the centuries with selections by such celebrated authors as William Hazlitt, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Virginia Woolf, ending with George Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys. . . .” Section 4, “Other Cultures, Other Continents,” features such nineteenth and twentieth century greats as Russian Ivan Turgenev, Chinese Lu Hsun, Japanese Junichiro Tanizaki, Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges, French Roland Barthes, and Nigerian Wole Soyinka.
The fifth and final section, “The American Scene,” which is by far the largest section in the collection, begins in the nineteenth century with Henry David Thoreau and features examples of such fine essayists as James Thurber, E. B. White, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion, and Lopate himself. Although this section is overly large, part of it is devoted to essays by such relative newcomers as Scott Russell Sanders, Gayle Pemberton, and Richard Rodriguez.
Besides the standard table of contents, the essays are listed by theme and by form. The themes are as varied as the talent pool, tending toward the familiar and the domestic, with such subjects as friendship, solitude, city versus country life, walking, leisure, writing, food, and death. The essays also take many forms—from humor to meditations to diaries to letters to newspaper columns to mere lists.
Acknowledging the fact that many writers have written personal essays, Lopate states that he tended to choose those who were specifically dedicated to the form. Furthermore, as he does not believe in using excerpts, Lopate had to pass on some excellent examples, such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1930) and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), simply because of their length. Lopate further acknowledges the dearth of women writers in the collection, attributing this to the fact that few wrote in this...
(The entire section is 1505 words.)