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Christine Reynier, Virginia Woolf’s Good Housekeeping Essays

New York: Routledge, 2019, i-viii + 164 pages
Christine Froula
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Christine Reynier, Virginia Woolf’s Good Housekeeping Essays, New York: Routledge, 2019, i-viii + 164 pages. ISBN: 978-1138321113

Texte intégral

1The sixth and last volume of The Essays of Virginia Woolf appeared in 2009, enabling readers to explore this prodigious body of work with ease. Meticulously edited and annotated by Andrew McNeillie and Stuart N. Clarke to chart each essay’s chronological position in Woolf’s oeuvre as well as its publication history, contexts, versions, and allusions, the complete Essays establishes Woolf’s claim to a prominent place among English essayists and invites the vigorous, many-faceted scholarly and critical attention that her fiction, diary, letters, memoirs, and book-length essays have long sustained.

2In Virginia Woolf’s Good Housekeeping Essays, Christine Reynier homes in on the six short essays that Woolf published in the British magazine Good Housekeeping from December 1931 to December 1932. The magazine was ‘born with modernism’ in 1922, as servants were escaping private houses into the public workforce (5). The commission earned Woolf £300 (some £18,000 today) less 15% for her agent—a modest sum compared to the £2000 for a life of Boswell that she had declined the year before. Reynier sketches the publication history of these “Six Articles on London Life” (Essays 5.280n1). Frank Hallman collected and published the first five in 1975 with the title The London Scene, the magazine’s headline for the second and third articles. Stuart N. Clarke rediscovered the sixth essay in 1980, and it is listed in the third edition of B. J. Kirkpatrick’s A Bibliography of Virginia Woolf (1980). Only in 2004 were all six essays reprinted together, still titled The London Scene; two later editions (2005, 2013) retain this title. Reynier’s book joins recent scholarship—Jeanette McVicker’s ‘“Six Articles on London Life”: A History of Dispersal’ I and II (2003–2004), Alice Wood’s 2010 ‘Made to Measure: Virginia Woolf in Good Housekeeping Magazine’, Leslie Kathleen Hankins’s 2015 ‘Illustrating the Uncanny: Picturing Virginia Woolf’s “This Is the House of Commons” in Good Housekeeping Magazine’—in calling attention to other features of the essays’ original wrappers.

3As a striking venture of a famous—and self-published—experimental modernist writer into wide-circulation ‘middlebrow’ print culture, Woolf’s Good Housekeeping essays have, singly and together, drawn critics’ attention as meditations on gender and class, economics and aesthetics, ‘Englishness: as symbolized in public buildings, statues, monuments and inscriptions’, 1930s political debates, and the social imaginary as reflected in the magazine’s covers, headlines, illustrations and captions. Christine Reynier’s study, the first monograph to consider the essays in depth as the commissioned series they are, makes a distinctive contribution by framing the six interconnected essays as a coherent address to the magazine’s middle-class readers, hailed by its editors as post-suffrage women of the world with an interest in public affairs—intellectually curious, possessed of ‘time to think, to read, to enjoy life’, and keen to be introduced to famous or fashionable contemporary writers. The magazine published pieces by Galsworthy, Maugham, Alec Waugh, Ethel Smyth, Walter de la Mare, Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, and Woolf, whose ‘brilliant pen,’ the editor noted, created ‘a gallery of scenes made vividly alive’ (6, 24). With her mandate and audience framed in this way, Woolf’s essays for Good Housekeeping—not just another magazine but ‘a way of life’ for modern middle-class British women (164n24)—appear fresh and timely in their own moment, and no more ephemeral than her ‘highbrow’ essays for the Times Literary Supplement or T. S. Eliot’s Criterion.

4Reynier makes a strong and fascinating case for the Good Housekeeping essays’ enduring value by tracing their ‘intermedial’ exploration of the arts of literary description, photography, and public and private architecture as a ‘dialogue’ that excavates vestiges of historical London beneath the city of the early 1930s. Woolf’s essayist-observer—sometimes described, after Baudelaire, as a flâneuse—here slips the confines of gender to wander a London that is democratically owned and shared, inhabiting the anonymous freedom voiced in her famous 1927 essay ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’. This genderlessness, with which any reader can identify, is, at the same time, an implicit feminist position: the essayist spirits readers outside domestic walls, takes for granted their participation in the collective ownership of urban space, and stimulates their imaginative powers of response by modelling ways of moving through, observing, and interpreting city scenes. By contrast with the anthropological gaze, ‘alien and critical’, of the excluded woman who probes the gender of the everyday public world in A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, the Good Housekeeping essayist observes the city ‘as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman’. An avid transparent eyeball, she offers insight without polemics and models the sheer pleasure of roaming the city for its own sake. Indeed, as Reynier shows, it is the essayist’s power to fix, define, cut, frame, and interpret everyday London scenes so as to reveal much more than meets the casual eye that imbues them with mystery and surprise and beckons readers to explore the public world for themselves.

5If the poetics of these essays sidesteps explicit political discourse to refract London scenes through the essayist’s sensibility, Reynier discovers that sensibility’s deep grounding in the tradition of the English essay by bringing to light Woolf’s ‘silent dialogue’ with precursors and contemporaries in the art of the essay. In framing her essays’ modern perspectives, Reynier shows, Woolf engages dialectically with essays by Hazlitt, Mayhew, Ruskin, and her father, Leslie Stephen. The city she sees and describes anew for her contemporaries is shadowed by the city once dwelt in and described by these nineteenth-century forebears. Thus—without naming them—Woolf debates democracy with Hazlitt, Mayhew, and Ruskin; draws on Henry Sidgwick and G. E. Moore to defend the value of illness against her father’s Victorian moral philosophy; and, musing on the monuments and statues that dot public spaces, takes active issue with ‘Great Men’ theories of history, turning from the celebrated dead entombed in abbeys and cathedrals to an urban cemetery-turned-public garden, where the anonymous sleep in peace, the living stop to read or chat or grieve or play, and a little-remarked stream of history carries and flows through ‘the lives of the obscure’—a photographic negative, Reynier proposes, of Great Men positivism.

6For Reynier, the photographic negative—like the trope hypotyposis, which conveys ‘what has been there but is no more’, and Barthes’s concept of ‘the having-been-there of things’—is a key figure for Woolf’s method: an ‘apparatus’ (Agamben) for revealing ‘the presence of absence’, as in her description of ‘the spectral architecture of the docks’ (46, 49). Deploying this trope from the first essay, Woolf assimilates photographic process to literary process such that ‘the space of description is both full and vacant’: a ‘double exposure’ in which the present is felt to be laid over the absent past; a method not of seeing and describing tout court but of ‘seeing-in’ or ‘seeing-as’ (48).

7Reynier’s brilliant, subtle insight into Woolf’s method of seeing through the surfaces of things makes her own study rich and suggestive in turn as she reveals glimmering depths beneath the essays’ surfaces. In ‘The Docks of London’, there are the invisible modes of trade, labor, and circulation that turn resources of the natural world into commercial goods for consumption in the imperial metropolis; in ‘Oxford Street Tide’, the play of advertising and desire transforms the goods unloaded on the docks into alluring things crying out to passers-by to be consumed. In ‘Great Men’s Houses’, the dismal weather that eternally hangs over the house of Thomas and Jane Carlyle memorializes the ceaseless battle against dirt and cold that consumed Jane and her one servant, by contrast with Keats’s bright, bare Hampstead home, furnished with light and shadow instead of things, where it is always springtime and a reader seems to have just risen from the chairs by the window and left the room. The contrast of ‘Abbeys and Cathedrals’ with London’s grassy graveyards-turned-children’s playgrounds where one may read Pamela in the midst of life brings questions of history, common sense, common wealth, and common value to the fore. ‘This Is the House of Commons’ projects a vision of democratic architecture against the human susceptibility to grandeur and pomp; and, in the last essay, ‘Portrait of a Londoner’, Mrs Crowe, echt Cockney—a counterpart, Reynier suggests, to Hazlitt’s male Cockney and named after Hazlitt’s crow, too—presides at her tea table behind her private door: the final test of whether one ‘knows London’ being whether one is privileged to cross the threshold into her drawing room, where, with her encyclopedic, genealogical command of Londoners past and present, she is written and read daily—a living, archived newspaper of record.

8In elucidating these essays, Reynier reaches far beyond their texts to relate them to literary antecedents, theoretical concepts and insights, and the arc of Woolf’s evolving thought toward a ‘democratic utopia.’ For example, as if trailing the absent reader Woolf divines in Keats’s house, Reynier finds in the ‘meandering’ essay ‘Reading’, with its ‘drifting method’, not a confused and puzzling mélange but a ‘triptych’ that at once performs and theorizes reading in a way that makes room for double exposure, interruption (as when Mrs Swithin and her hammer imposes themselves on Isa’s page in Between the Acts), and bewilderment; an allegory of reading as a challenge that calls out the reader’s ‘responsive inventiveness’ (130). Reynier illuminates Woolf’s vision of literary history as a ‘common pool’ of thought and imagination whence anyone might fish up sustenance and treasure; and, in company with Agamben’s Franciscan monk, as ‘usus’, a zone of poverty ‘where the law does not apply’ and where identity is suspended (101). Of these waters of life anyone is free to partake: not only Victorian ‘Great Men’ but their counterparts, the forgotten women who inspire Woolf’s call for a new, utopian history. Woolf’s new historicism avant la lettre, in which Reynier finds affinities with Benjamin’s Arcades Project, projects an (anti- or pre- or post-anthropocene?) historical imagination in which ‘the past would not crush the present, the dead would not “lecture” the living, and no great men would prevail’: a history freed of monuments, statues, even ‘slabs vaunting the virtues of anonymous men and women’; a history that would occupy no space, require no walls, leave no ‘“scars” and wounds’ over the land; an ‘inclusive and democratic’ history that would embrace the anonymous and the invisible within ‘les affaires commun’ (Rancière) (149).

9Reynier’s historically informed and theoretically acute attention to Woolf’s ‘humble art of description’ preserves the Good Housekeeping essays from mis-categorization as potboiler London guides and attunes us to the treasures their wide-cast nets of thought bring to light. A model of wide-ranging, fine-grained scholarly analysis, her indispensable study returns these essays to us enriched and transformed, so that they take their unique place in the arc of Woolf’s thought on class, democracy, gender, and the permeability of private and public spheres as it traverses A Room of One’s Own and The Waves through Flush to Three Guineas, The Years, and Between the Acts. Not least, Reynier enables us to hear in these essays, and appreciate, the voice of a woman in public free to forget that she’s a woman.

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Christine Froula, « Christine Reynier, Virginia Woolf’s Good Housekeeping Essays », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 56 | 2019, mis en ligne le 29 mars 2019, consulté le 13 novembre 2019. URL :

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Christine Froula

Northwestern University, USA

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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