Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Carlyle's House and Other Sketches - Virginia Woolf

This little book is a collection of seven sketches by Woolf from a long forgotten diary that she kept in 1909. This diary escaped publication after Virginia's death by a curious series of events, but the publishers, Hesperus Press Limited pride themselves in discovering lesser known works of famous authors; in their own words they are "committed to bringing near what is far - far both in space and time. Works written by the greatest authors, and unjustly neglected or simply little known in the English-speaking world, are made accessible through new translations and a fresh editorial approach."

True to their words, the book is a smartly edited work, with a foreword by Doris Lessing, no less. It contains elaborate notes on every sketch with exact dates and references, most of which may be unnecessary for the lay reader. The introduction makes for interesting reading, providing an insight into how the diary came to be printed and the commentary for the sketches gives a background and does of a good job of completing the picture that the sketches paint, many of which are too short to make sense without some history.

The sketches themselves are typically Woolf and give an interesting peek into the mind of a budding author. Virgina Woolf was far from an established author at the time that this journal was maintained and she kept this as an aid to her future novels, almost as an observation book, from which she drew in her later works. It was quite a surprise, personally, that Woolf worked at her writing, as one does at any other activity; practising, nurturing, researching and honing her skills. Her novels belie this input, appearing to me as works of brilliance, as if she just wrote it all out one fine day.

Out of the 100 pages that the book spans, the sketches themselves occupy only 15 pages, the rest being dedicated to notes and introductions. Woolf's acute powers of observation and uncanny knack of expression are in full evidence even here, as she describes people she meets and places she visits with remarkable clarity. 'A Modern Salon' was my favourite sketch, describing an aristocratic lady and her parties for the artistic community. 'Jews' is regarded as an anti-Semitic blotch on Woolf's nature, and it is an acerbic and rather nasty account of a Jewish lady. 'Cambridge' was rather dull and boring; the other sketches make for light and interesting reading. The commentary to 'Divorce Courts', in particular, was a good read.

Verdict: This one is for fans of Virginia Woolf and if you have not read her works before, this is not the best one to start with. The book is very well packaged and would come in particularly handy, I imagine, for students of literature. The blue cover, with a partially fogged window, adds class.