Book Review: Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf

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Essays on the Self is a fascinating new collection of Virginia Woolf essays recently published by Notting Hill Editions.

The book explores the idea of the self in a very thought-provoking way and is a real treat for Woolf fans who like to analyze the more complex themes and ideas in her works.

The introduction, written by Joanna Kavenna, is very academic and a bit existential but it’s nothing that Virginia Woolf fans aren’t used to. In fact, I think that’s what the publishers of the book were counting on when they put this book together.

The following is an excerpt from the introduction:

“Virginia Woolf {1882-1941) wrote scintillating prose on a variety of themes, but I have chosen to focus this selection on the ‘self.’ So the question I should immediately answer is why? Why not choose the rights of women or the revolutions of modernity or the phases of the novel? Why start grappling with the finite and possibly illusory self? Why drag Woolf in as well? What is the self? What does it mean? Whose definition? The self of the artist, or their social self? The self of the individual coerced by ordinance, the self behind the mask? Yet where does mask end and self begin? One self, or an inestimable quantity? Shifting, or indivisible?

The essays in this collection are, of course, not merely concerned with the self. Woolf does also discuss the rights of women, the revolution of modernity, the past, present and future of the novel. She is eloquent on social inequality and the agony of war. She is a robust literary antiquarian, she rakes through the past in search of treasure. She is transfixed, as well, by the aesthetic contests of the present, the dynamic incompleteness of her era. She fights with local demons, she mocks those who mock her, and generally prevails. The essays I have chosen were written between 1919 when Woolf was 37 and 1940 when she was 58. During this time, Woolf changed, many times over, her opinions changed, her circumstances too; she was not a fixed entity, reiterating a rigid and immaculate position each time she picked up her pen.

Yet, in answer to my self-imposed questions; the question of the self is central, in some way, to every essay in this collection. Woolf is transfixed by the nature of the finite self (‘Who am I? ‘Who is everybody else?’) and how individual self is anyone, everyone, and yet each self is utterly distinct. Each self exist once on earth, in one moment of collision with everything around – Reality, Society, the beauty, ecstasy and tragedy or ordinary life. Each one of us speaks of ‘myself’ and ‘yourself,’ distinguishing the lone self from a bewildering array of other selves. Yet, as Woolf acknowledges, this is also the enterprise of any writer: to discern the self in a crowded room, to isolate a single vantage point, to communicate this vantage point to others. How to express the perceptions of this self, in received language, within the baggy old conventions of the novel, and yet without sacrificing any trace of authenticity or personal realism? – this is the dilemma of any writer who is not enslaved by choice or compulsion to an overarching ideology. The originality of the self is the one certain route to originality in art; the self, undisguised and unbridled, is inevitable distinctive.”

The introduction is written by British novelist and travel writer Joanna Kavenna, whose other works include The Ice Museum, The Birth of Love and Inglorious. She’s also had short stories and essays published in The New York Times, New Yorker, The Guardian and The London Review of Books.

Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf

Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf

Purchase Essays on the Self on (note: if you live in the U.K. please use this link) or on the publisher’s website at

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About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Rebecca graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in Journalism in 2001.