While I was digging about for Virginia Woolf stories to read for 1920, it occurred to me that there might well be some essays from that year which I could read; which then caused a bit of rummaging through the books of Woolf essays I have! As well as a variety of collections (including both Common Readers), I also have the first three volumes of her collected essays; they’re chunky books, and I’m gradually collecting them when I come across a reasonably-priced copy as the completist in me *needs* to have them, but they’re not cheap and I’ve no idea when I’ll get round to reading them! However, luckily Volume 3 covers 1920, so I had a bit of an explore to see what it contained.

This is probably the first time I’ve had a good look at the books, and interestingly it appears that many of these ‘essays’ are actually reviews of books, exhibitions and the like. Which is not a problem, but perhaps made it a little harder to pick out what to read! The books are beautifully presented, though, with notes and sources for each entry, so quite a triumph of scholarship by editor Andrew McNeillie. Woolf was obviously busy in 1920, with 31 entries showing in the contents list for that year, and the subject range was wide – from Kipling to Chekhov, Woolf had an enquiring mind. In the end, I settled on two pieces: “Gorky on Tolstoy” and “Pictures and Portraits“.

I chose to read “Pictures and Portraits” for the simple reason that its opening paragraphs resonated so strongly with me. Woolf describes the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in London, relating in her usual beautiful sentences how easy it is to visit, gaining access to all manner of wonders inside. Both are places I love and visit on a regular basis whenever I’m in London, and it really hit me hard to realise how long it will be before I can go through those doors again… Her words evoked my visits to both Galleries and reminded me how lucky we are to have the arts in this country; it also made me worry about the arts going forward after this particular crisis. Anyway, the essay itself is a meditation on an exhibition of the works of Edmond X. Kapp, of whom I’d never heard, but I have to say that Woolf’s prose does convince me I should look him up!

National Portrait Gallery by Wei-Te Wong from Taipei City, Taiwan, Republic of China / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

As for “Gorky on Tolstoy”, I guess it’s no surprise that I should choose that one! This is a review of Gorky’s reminiscences of the great Russian author, and it reminds you of how taken the Bloomsberries were with the Russian authors, as well as instrumental in bringing them to an English audience. It’s a short but fascinating review, pulling out some intriguing pieces from Gorky’s book and musing on how well we know or see another person.

So Gorky shocks us at first by showing us that Tolstoy was no different from other men in being sometimes conceited, intolerant, insincere, and in allowing his private fortunes to make him vindictive in his judgements.

Woolf the journalist is a little different from Woolf the writer of fiction; a little more formal, a little more traditional perhaps; but still with those wonderful flights of fancy and unexpected turns of phrase we expect from her. I can see that the best way to read these essays might be to take a dipping approach, even if a chronological one, reading one or two at a time so as to savour them and get the most out of them. Now there’s an idea for a lockdown reading project if ever I heard one! 😀