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The Father of Virginia Woolf: Women and the Essay

I recently read A C Grayling’s biography The Quarrel of the Age: The Life and Times of William Hazlitt (2000). It’s the fascinating story of a fascinating man, elegantly written and immensely readable. Hazlitt was an essayist, arts critic, and a life-long radical. Unlike the friends of his youth, Coleridge and Wordsworth, he never abandoned his radical politics. He was devastated by the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte and the subsequent restoration of European monarchies. He was an independent thinker, who wrote in an intensely personal and original style.

Hazlitt was also a philanderer, a man who had numerous infatuations and affairs, and who frequently visited prostitutes. In one bizarre and rather obscure incident in the Lake District, he is said to have “spanked” a local girl. Mmm. I think the word the biographer is struggling for is “assaulted”. According to Grayling, Hazlitt did this because she must have been “teasing him, or leading him on and then denying him”. Hazlitt later divorced his first wife – by that time they were living apart – because he was obsessed with his landlady’s daughter, a girl half his age. He described this relationship in the autobiographical Liber Amoris, causing a scandal into the bargain.

William Hazlitt
Of course, Hazlitt’s admirers do not characterise him as a philanderer or serial adulterer. He is a lover, a romantic, a man who believes in love at first sight only to have his heart broken, an unfortunate in love, a man of profound passions, an unrequited lover. And who’s to say that he wasn’t also these things? Perhaps the tragedy of Hazlitt’s attachments is the way that the sense of male entitlement with which he was brought up lay at the root of much of his pain and suffering. He believed he had the right to assault a woman who rejected his advances, and he was convinced that his love for the landlady’s daughter was so profound and important that the object of his passion must return it. Such views distorted his relationships and his self-image, and created unbearable tensions between his ideal and the reality.

But whatever the truth is about his private life – and indeed, if the truth can ever, or even should, be discovered about his or any person’s private life – Hazlitt is regarded by many, and certainly by Grayling, as the greatest English essayist. The essay is an art, says Grayling, in which “English literature is incomparably rich”. In an appendix to The Quarrel of the Age, he traces the development of that art from classical authors – Cicero, Pliny and so on – through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and on to the eighteenth with Joseph Addison, Jonathan Swift, and Richard Steele. Hazlitt is “the supreme English essayist”, though there are others worthy of note: Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Thomas De Quincey, Leslie Stephen, Matthew Arnold, Robert Louis Stevenson, Augustine Birrell, etc etc etc.

And lest we should fear that women have been omitted from Grayling’s pantheon of greats, Leslie Stephen (“an essayist of the first rank”) is also the “father of Virginia Woolf”. 

Well, you can’t get fairer than that, can you?

Except that the fact that Virginia Woolf herself was no mean essayist isn’t mentioned at all.

There is not one single woman essayist mentioned.
Not one.

 An editor once told me that lists are boring. Reader, if you agree with that, look away now. Because what follows is a list.

 Of women essayists.

 Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797)

 Harriet Martineau (1802–1876)

 Hannah More (1745–1833)

 Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743–1825)

 Jane Bowdler (1743–1784)

 Frances Brooke (1724–1789)

 Elizabeth Griffith (1727–1793)

 Eliza Haywood (c. 1693–1756)

 Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806)

 Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (1720–1800)

 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762)

 Alice Meynell (1847–1922)

 Dorothy L Sayers (1893–1957)

 Muriel Spark (1918–2006)

 Storm Jameson (1891–1986)

 Rebecca West (1892–1983)

 Oh, and Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)

And that’s not even mentioning any essayists outside Britain, such as Susan Sontag (1933– 2004), Adrienne Rich (1929–2012), Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964), Audre Lord (1934–1992), Joan Didion (b 1934)…Or any of the contemporary essayists working in what has been described as “a golden age of female essayists”[1]: Anne Lamott, Zadie Smith, Sarah Vowell, Roxanne Gay, Lena Dunham, Meghan Daum, Barbara Kingsolver, Taslima Nasrin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Cherrie Moraga, Rebecca Solnit, Samantha Irby…

I could go on. Many of these women’s writings I have yet to discover for myself, but there’s clearly a huge, exciting range of work out there to be explored. Some of us might question why we have to talk about a “female” or “woman” essayist at all. We don’t, after all, talk about “male” or “men” essayists.

Which seems to me to be the point really. And that’s why I’ve added the following book to my “to be read” list:-

Of Women and the Essay: An Anthology from 1655 to 2000, edited by Jenny Spinner. The book looks at the work of forty six British and American essayists, and lists 200 more in the appendix. It “lifts women writers from the cutting-room floor of essay scholarship and returns them to their rightful place in the essay canon.”

[1]  The Guardian, 18 November 2014


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