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1Perhaps because Montaigne, its creator in modern times, did not formalize it, the essay partakes of a stylistic and thematic heterogeneity which has long caused both its success with prose writers and its relative discredit within the academy (Karshan 2020). Arguably for the same reason, the essay incessantly tries to provide its own justification, asserting itself as the most reflexive of literary genres. As opposed to the rationality and normativity of academic discourse, it is highly personal, flexible, and contingent. As Jean-Yves Pouilloux points out, the essay’s rejection of ‘pedanticism’ and ‘the spirit of seriousness’ constitute one of its ‘essential characteristics’. The essay presents itself ‘as a self-experience, an experience whose result, if not the aim is to take the measure of one’s thought, to know oneself through one’s writing.’ (Pouilloux np) Bacon, Pouilloux reminds us, used the term for the first time in English to designate a literary genre inaugurated by Montaigne which has also given rise to a long and sophisticated tradition in English letters.

2Inspired by Lukacs’s ‘On the Nature and Form of the Essay’ (1910) and Adorno’s ‘The Essay as Form’ (1984), Graham Good vindicates the essay as a literary genre rich with a distinguished literary and intellectual history, endowed with intrinsic creative possibilities (Good 1988). More precisely, the genre is conceived of as an expression of individuality in which the self constructs both itself and its object through careful personal observation feeding, in the case of English literature, both on a largely empirical philosophical tradition and the development of the novel. Unsurprisingly, the genre promotes individuality, operating by self-construction through independent observation, and displaying a certain rejection of tradition and authority as exemplified by famous essayists from Bacon to Orwell through some talented Victorian and modernist prose-writers.

3According to Karshan, who is himself indebted to Virginia Woolf, ‘the essay is a destroyer of generic categories, an apprenticeship, a haunting, a room of one’s own, homework, a bookshop, an assay, a taste, a ramble, an assault, a deformity, a sport, and everything and nothing’ (Karshan 2020). Yet, despite numerous and continuous studies variously exploring its history, national expression (Chadbourne 1983), relation to other literary genres, or some of the ‘genus essay’ including the ‘personal essay’ (Harris 1996), the essay remains a relatively understudied literary form as opposed to the other literary genres of prose, poetry and drama, as if the objective, rational, impersonal, and argumentative academic language was reluctant to apprehend its stylistic fluidity, its ontological slipperiness, features that make the essay ‘the dexterous availing oneself of accident and circumstance, in the prosecution of deeper lines of observation’, as Walter Pater wrote of Charles Lamb’s essays with his usual finesse (Pater 1889 121). Paradoxically, the observation which triggers and sustains the essay allows the genre to function as an excellent educational resource at the same time as it rejects abstract academic language and methods. Defining the ‘rarity’ that a personal essay appears to be, Wendell Harris (1996) points out that the personal essay is to be read with pleasure, does not age, and stimulates the reader’s own thoughts—almost a definition of all essays. Whether hortatory, ironic, politically engaged or neutral, scholarly or ostensibly disdainful of erudition, occasional or aiming at permanent conclusions, essays create a certain intimacy with their readers. Accordingly, Karshan makes this unjustly understudied fourth literary genre an intermediary between philosophy and public life, knowledge, and experience. Essays are powerful connectors. Their power is all the more efficient as they appear in specific media.

4This e-Rea issue focuses on Victorian and modernist writers’ literary essays that were initially published in periodicals, and subsequently republished or forgotten. The aim is to reconsider these essays in the context of easily discarded media and see how this affected their meaning, compared to later republications; or to unearth forgotten essays by influential writers of the time. This should firstly bring a modest contribution to a tentative history of the genre and definition of its characteristics and, secondly, help to study the transition between the Victorian periodical essay and its modernist counterpart.

5Since the eighteenth century, the essay has been intimately linked to the culture of periodicals, a link that was strengthened first in the reviews and magazines of the early nineteenth century and their successors in the long nineteenth century. Along with literary genre, the medium is one of the central parameters of the essay; it is also one of the most frequently neglected. Nineteenth and twenty-century essays are essentially essays published in periodicals, which range from the erudite quarterlies to the influential little magazines, through middle-class literary monthlies which flourished from the second half of the century onwards. A fair portion of them was later re-editorialized in collections according to a surprisingly long-lasting publishing model. The essay is therefore a substantial part of the periodical literature, also a long-neglected area of study, and now a legitimate field of research with learned international societies, journals, and substantial scholarship.

6Likewise, in the last two decades, periodicals have been in the limelight of modernist scholarship. The Modernist Journals Project, based in the USA, made available in its database many of the modernist periodicals published between 1890 and 1922, thus pointing out that magazines had been essential to the rise of modernism. In the UK, the Modernist Magazine Project produced an essential scholarly resource extending the range of modernism from 1880 to 1945, making available many 'little magazines' and resulting in a three-volume publication, The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, edited by Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker. Despite these major achievements, modernist magazines are far from being exhausted and still beg to be mined by scholars, especially for the essays and reviews they contain. Indeed, the essay shares its stylistic hybridity with another literary and journalistic genre which is the review. In the nineteenth century, the review experienced various forms and fortunes in British periodicals. It presented a single work but most often it dealt with a batch of heterogeneous publications. Its format was quite variable: from a few lines in the press to around twenty pages in quarterlies such as The Edinburgh Review and The Quarterly Review. The review primarily dealt with nonfiction in all areas of knowledge but it also increasingly engaged with fiction such as the novel, which was simultaneously acquiring a respectable status. Most of the reviews were anonymous and followed the vicissitudes of the arrival of the signature from 1859 onwards: at the end of the century, most of them were signed by celebrated and famous authors who were commissioned. This characteristic undoubtedly explains their preservation and their re-editorialization in the complete works of certain writers as is the case of both Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde.

7The following articles discuss British essays from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1930s, seeking to emphasize both the continuity and the variety of the genre without any pretension to exhaustivity. Essays published within that span of time vary in their themes; they also display an appreciable range of personal stances. Essays also appear as fascinating resources to probe the differences between forms of writing intended for periodicals and those destined for a book collection, between writing intended for Wilkie Collins’s ‘unknown public’ (Collins 1858) hooked to seriality, and more intimate forms of writing deployed in a collection which may deploy a sense of intimacy for its readers, between forms of writing (unjustly) reduced to topicality and forms allegedly free from the constraints and temporality of seriality.

8In spite of its staunch opposition to academic discourse, the essay can be envisaged as a precursor of it, raising, in fact, questions about the status of literature. As Mark Niemeyer shows in ‘Present Uncertainty and Looking to the Past: The Ambiguous Literary Nationalism of Putnam’s Monthly’, essays can probe the nineteenth-century definition and limits of literature, and vindicate their belonging to the category. It is in this perspective that Mark Niemeyer explores the ambiguities of the editorial policy of Putnam’s Monthly in the 1850s. Promoting national literature, the newly-established periodical soon found itself confronting questions and doubts about the definition and value of fiction as pertaining to literature. At a time when literature remained an undefined, contested category, essays about literature, including America’s literature, while promoting reflection on this type of writing, worked towards its legitimization. Here, essays and periodical culture meet, the second granting ambiguous hospitality to the first.

9The comparatively minor position of the essay in the academy can also be explained by the mass of periodical essays that were never collected and therefore never studied as literary texts. In that case, the ephemerality of periodicals has contributed to burying the multiplicity of essays that first appeared in their columns. Arguably, some may not deserve any serious study, but the fact remains that a whole section of the periodical production has been forgotten. Whatever may have been their authors’ objectives, their essays disappeared with the periodicals where they had first appeared, concomitantly concealing the importance of the medium in literary history. As Bénédicte Coste argues in ‘Those Forgotten Reviews: Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde as Reviewers’, collecting their reviews in book form at the turn of the century also highlights how these authors—both essayists (Evangelista 2020, 241-57) and reviewers—had their partially collected reviews published in volumes, although with some editorial changes. The title under which these collections appear is significant of the uneasiness of some literary executors: if Wilde's reviews are entitled as such in Ross’s edition (Wilde 1908), Pater’s haphazard collection of reviews appear as ‘essays’, a misnomer that redoubles the lack of proper consideration for both genres. However, contemporary times appear to be no more precise and define genres by their medium: recent university editions of the complete works of both Pater and Wilde term reviews and more substantial articles as ‘Journalism’, highlighting the journalistic origin of the review and paying homage, albeit silently, to the periodical essay and the periodical ecosystem which fostered those reviews.

10However, many literary essays of the Victorian period survived and even fuelled modernist essayistic writing, if only to be dismissed or contradicted. By bringing together and opposing the essays of Leslie Stephen, a full member of the Victorian periodical ecosystem, to those of Virginia Woolf, also a literary journalist, Marie Laniel compares and opposes two manners of conceiving the essay as a peripatetic genre where walking is a ‘structuring device’ (Forsdick 48). For Stephen and Woolf, the essay falls under the effects of ‘solvitur ambulado’; it allows one to deal with a problem and stimulate reflection as does the activity of walking that both were fond of. However, the status of the body during the walk differs in Stephen’s ‘London Walks’ (1880) and Woolf’s ‘Street Haunting’ (1927). What is at stake in those two different visions of the essay is the corporality of the essayist and its metamorphoses. Woolf’s essay points out the changes between the late-Victorian era, when the body is forgotten in favour of the intellect, and her modernistic times, when it is diffracted in favour of a sensitive subjectivity fully open to the flux of experience. The essay thus appears as the locus where the variety of sensory experiences are collected and subjective mutations carefully recorded.

11With ‘Constructing Modernism Periodically’, we see how the modernist essay asserts itself without totally relinquishing its Victorian predecessor. Dominika Buchowska focuses on The New Age and an iconic modernist figure with a career as brief as it was controversial: T. H. Hulme. His essays published in The New Age in 1913-1914 enabled him to defend his own vision of modernity and to position himself between the art criticism published in Blast and that of Bloomsbury at a time ‘human character changed’ (Woolf 421). A keen viewer of French art and an avid reader of French criticism, Hulme, unlike his competitors, takes his cue from the fiercely nationalistic Pierre Lasserre and from Henri Bergson, the proponent of élan vital, along with writings by Bernard Berenson, Aloïs Riegl, Wilhelm Worringer and Theodor Lipps. Positioning himself within the context of formalist art criticism, Hulme’s criticism becomes all the more striking as it appears besides reproductions of modernist artworks in 1914 in a magazine noted for its policy fostering contending views. In The New Age, and thanks to Orage’s editorial policy, itself inherited from some distinguished Victorian periodicals, Hulme could carve out a personal space to vindicate his views on avant-garde art. Based on the diversity of viewpoints and stances, Orage’s editorial policy displays some continuity with Victorian editorial practices; likewise, Herbert Read’s 1922 collection of Hulme’s essays testifies to established publishing practices where most of the essay collections are in fact collections of articles originally published periodically.

12In his article, Xavier Le Brun comes back to Virginia Woolf and her well-known essay ‘How Should One Read a Book?’, which was first a lecture given at Yale University in 1926, before being published in the Yale Review (1926), then worked upon and published in the second volume of The Common Reader (1932). His analysis points out that the collected text is not simply a translatio from one medium to another merely providing Woolf with the opportunity to rework her essay. For Woolf, as Lebrun argues, the periodical essay deploys the space of public exchange while the collected essay establishes a sense of intimacy between writer and reader. The essay feeds on Woolf’s representations and own experience of the medium and the situation of enunciation which it induces: in periodicals, it bears the trace of public exchange; in a book, the essay connects author and reader, fostering an intimate dialogue. The modifications made between 1926 and 1932 start from this difference in the targeted readership induced by the two media.

  • 1 ‘Even for our grandparents a “house,” a “well” a familiar tower, their very clothes, their coat: we (...)

13Another form of intimacy is explored by Daniel Schneider in the ‘thing-essay’, a sub-genre he introduces which can be approached as the seismograph of our relationship to everyday objects, from Charles Lamb’s ‘Old China’ to modernist conceptions of the ordinary as extraordinary. Considering the newly bought ‘extraordinary old blue’, Bridget Elia is attentive to the status both of the purchasing subject and the purchased object, noting the effects of relative wealth on one’s enjoyment of different treats: ‘A purchase is but a purchase, now that you have money enough and to spare. Formerly it used to be a triumph’ (Lamb 1895 71). Some decades later, Rilke recorded a more marked ontological change affecting what he termed ‘a vessel’.1 Relying on the distinction Heidegger and Bill Brown make between object and thing, Schneider proposes to explore the ‘thing-essay’ as found under the productive pen of G. K. Chesterton celebrating lampposts (an essay first published in a periodical) and under that of Rosamund Macaulay praising the chair where to philosophize at ease (an essay directly published in a collection). Valuing everyday objects in an era of mass consumption and showing their capacity to recover their ontological thinginess, Chesterton and Macaulay use the essay as a minute seismograph but they also use its creative potentialities to give back to various objects an ontological status replete with imaginative possibilities.

14Arguably the articles presented here underline the solid and lasting link between essays and periodical culture since the nineteenth century, which is still understudied, perhaps because of a problem in terminology that leaves scholars hovering between ‘article’, ‘contribution’, and ‘essay’. Between literary and journalistic genres, the essay hesitates, indifferently chooses indifferently the first or the second, or even passes from one to the other, sometimes at the cost of its reduction to mere forgotten material but also at the cost of the freedom which animates it and gives it the poetic flexibility long identified by critics.

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Adorno, T. H. ‘The Essay as Form.’ New German Critique 32 (1984), 151-71.

Brooker, Peter and Andrew Thacker, eds. The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines. Volume I: Britain and Ireland 1880-1955. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Brooker, Peter and Andrew Thacker, eds. The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines. Volume II: North America 1894-1960. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Brooker, Peter and Sascha Bru, Andrew Thacker, and Christian Weikop, eds. The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines. Volume III: Europe 1880 – 1940. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Chadbourne, Richard M. ‘A Puzzling Literary Genre: Comparative Views of the Essay.’ Comparative Literature Studies, 20. 2 (Summer, 1983), 133-153.

Collins, Wilkie. ‘The Unknown Public.’ Household Words, vol. 18, no 439 (August 21, 1858), 217-22.

Ellman, Richard and Charles Feidelson, eds. The Modern Tradition; Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: OUP, 1965.

Evangelista, Stefano. ‘Things Said by the Way: Walter Pater and the Essay.’ On Essays: Montaigne to the Present. Ed. Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. 241-257.

Forsdick, Charles. ‘De la plume comme des pieds: The Essay as a Peripatetic Genre.The Modern Essay in French: Movement, Instability, Performance. Edited by Charles Forsdick and Andrew Stafford. Bern: Peter Lang, 2005. 45-60.

Good, Graham. The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay. Milton Park: Routledge, 1988.

Harris, Wendell V. ‘Reflections on the Peculiar Status of the Personal Essay.’ College English, 58.8 (1996), 934-953.

Karshan. Thomas. ‘What is an Essay? Thirteen Answers from Virginia Woolf.’ On Essays: Montaigne to the Present. Edited by Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. 31-54.

Lamb, Charles. ‘Old China.’ Old China and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1895.

Lukacs, Georg. Soul and Form: Essays. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1974.

Pater, Walter. ‘Charles Lamb.’ Appreciations: with an essay on style. London: Macmillan, 1889. 107.119.

Pouilloux, Jean-Yves. ‘ESSAI, genre littéraire.’ Encyclopædia Universalis [en ligne], consulté le 22 mai 2023.

Woolf, Virginia. ‘Character in Fiction’, The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Volume III: 1919-1924. Edited by Andrew McNeillie, London: The Hogarth Press, 1987. 420-38.

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1 ‘Even for our grandparents a “house,” a “well” a familiar tower, their very clothes, their coat: were infinitely infinitely more intimate; almost everything a vessel in which they found the human and added from the store of the human’ (Rilke rpt Ellmann and Feidelson 1965 191).

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Bénédicte COSTE et Christine REYNIER, « Introduction »E-rea [En ligne], 20.2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2023, consulté le 01 octobre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Bénédicte COSTE

Université de Bourgogne

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Christine REYNIER

Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3

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