Virginia Woolf, like James Joyce, is a key figure for an understanding of the direction that fiction is taking in our age. Like him, she has used her not inconsiderable powers in an attempt to adapt the novel to a changed, and continually changing world. David Daiches' critical essay, the second volume in New Directions' "Makers of Modern Literature," is a fit companion to Harry Levin's "James Joyce," which began the series.
The problem which Daiches poses is a crucial one. How shall a sensitive artist with a rich background in the fairly stable tradition of the nineteenth century write about a society where public values have broken down almost completely, and even personality is in flux? The critic traces Virginia Woolf's attempt at a solution, from her earliest novels, through her boldly experimental short stories, to the great achievements of her middle period, and the less successful attempts of her later years, which were carried off by sheer virtuosity in her command of language. He shows how she introduced the lyric element into the novel, turning from the epic style of earlier novelists to focus on the moment, on the unique personal experience. This experience is given added poignancy by her feeling that "personality . . . was a unity arising out of continual change. . ."
Virginia Woolf achieved the unified sensibility, the fusion of thought and emotion in concentration on a particular instant, but her total product lacks structural unity. Daiches, too, is full of remarkable insights into her work, but his total picture is not as clear as it might be throughout his book. One sentence in the final chapter provides an admirable summing up: "She developed a type of fiction in which sensitive personal reactions to experience can be objectified and patterned in a manner that is both intellectually exciting and aesthetically satisfying."
Most writers today have ignored the problem which Virginia Woolf chose to face. It is hardly surprising, then, that in her pioneer attempts at its solution she was not completely successful. If she did not write the novel of her age, however, she wrote several novels that should last well beyond her age, and although David Daiches has not written the critical appraisal, he has contributed sufficiently to an understanding of his subject to make his essay well worth reading.