In 1925, the same year that Mrs Dalloway defined her status as a major novelist, Virginia Woolf collected a volume of the Iiterary essays she had written over the previous twenty years, mostly for The Times Literary Supplement. She chose the title The Common Reader, and was sufficiently attached to it to use it again for her second essay co11ection in 1932. After her death, Leonard Woolf brought out several further volumes of her essays under different titles, and eventually a four-volume Collected Essays (cited here). Fina11y, in 1976, her autobiographical essays were pubIished und er the title Moments of Being. But the phrase "the common reader" is the only one she herself chose to group her essays under, and to represent her view of Iiterary criticism. It is taken from Johnson's Life of Gray: "I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by Iiterary prejudices, after a11 the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided a11 claim to poetical honours" (Lives of the English Poets, Everyman edn, London: Dent, 1961, 2:392). The common reader is the natural companion of the essayist, and the essay is, of course, the natural means of expression fo~ such areader, as Woolf's volumes demonstrate. In her page-Iong Preface to The Common Reader (unfortunately not reprinted in Collected Essays) Woolf distinguishes hirn from the critic or scholar: "He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others." But he plays an active, creative role as well: "he is guided by an instinct to create for hirnself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole - a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing." This gives her own essential aim
in her literary essays - a sense of wholeness - and three of her own favourite subjects, to which we might add a fourth as our own starting-point: her theory of the art of reading.