Inspiring Older Readers
The Death of the Moth & Other Essays by Virginia Woolf
Quite recently, Lauren Elkin published a book called Flâneuse, which seeks to reclaim the honourable tradition of the flaneur – the urban walker and dandy – for women. I must admit I haven’t read it, but what I did read recently and was astonished by was Virginia Woolf’s essay on the subject, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’, published in the collection, The Death of the Moth.
I have been trying to read more of Woolf’s essays recently because I think they are amongst her finest work. In fact, I think her non-fiction generally – including her Diaries – is in many ways more immediately rewarding than the novels. While the essays do pose some challenges for the modern reader in that VW assumes we will be as well read as she is – the Elizabethans, eighteenth century essayists, seventeenth century memoirists, obscure clerical writers, antiquarians: there seems nothing that she was unable to tackle – they make up for this with their utterly distinctive voice and sensibility.
Her critical and literary essays can be superb, but what I enjoy most is the intimacy of her more autobiographical occasional essays. With their darting, irreverent, churning glitter, one seems to be reading a mind at work.
One of the longer essays in this collection offers precisely this breathtaking mixture of intimacy and speculation – ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’.
In this piece Woolf explains how wonderful it is to wander the streets – some time between tea and dinner on a winter’s evening, the light failing, the street lights burning, warmly lit windows twinkling through the bare branches of the trees. And why is she walking? In a sense, without purpose – that is the point – but on this occasion it is on the slender pretext of purchasing a pencil. As she crosses the city, one seems to be reading a stream of consciousness almost in real-time as impressions take her, spark her interest, fire her imagination, fade and are replaced by the next sensation.
Of course, Woolf doesn’t use the term flaneur, and I’m not entirely sure that the concept – or its current associations with literary modernism – would really have been in her lexicon. What Woolf’s essay is really about, it seems to me, is personal freedom, and especially women’s freedom and women’s leisure – to be free to set out wandering in the early evening, to unfetter the imagination and unlock sensation, to follow obscure trains of thought as much as she follows the unfolding streets. Because Woolf’s favoured time for wandering is not for those who still have an hour or two to do in the office or shop or factory, or must rush home to care for children, or have yet to prepare the family’s evening meal. It is a hymn – perhaps inadvertently so – to being free of such considerations.
It also has everything we have come to expect from Virginia Woolf: her inspired prose, her oblique glancing references, the unpredictable stream of sensations; and also her sometimes astonishing insensitivity towards those who might in passing fascinate her but whom she undoubtedly regarded as her social inferiors. In Street Haunting, for instance, she sees a “dwarf” enter an expensive shoe shop; she has the perfectly proportioned feet of “a well-grown woman” – arched, aristocratic – but wears “the peevish yet apologetic expression usual on the faces the deformed”. This conjunction of the exquisitely sensitive (her prose, her perceptions) with what will strike modern ears as appalling insensitivity is so central to Woolf and the Bloomsbury sensibility that it seems pointless to complain.
Read slowly and sparingly, these essays repay the effort. This morning I read a distinctly unpromising one about the long-forgotten memoirs of an eighteenth century cleric, the Rev. Dr Tate Wilkinson. I expected to read a couple of paragraphs to get the flavour and then skip the rest, but it turned out to be as improbable and as exciting as a Sherlock Holmes story, and its few pages were completely riveting.
If you’ve never read Woof’s essays, give some a try. You can smell winter in the air. It is always some time between tea and dinner; the light is failing and the gaslights bloom. Of course, there are no other demands on your time. The house is quiet and you can do whatever you wish. Should the mood take you, you can slip out into the chill, waiting city. Virginia Woolf’s essays, as she says in one about a Sussex car ride, are journeys “performed in the delicious society of my own body.”