If you asked me to define what an essay means to me, I’d have two separate answers. The first is completed weekly for my course, considering genre or language or fragmented identity. The second type is written for my blog - the careful choice and exploration of a particular subject, topic or issue. Similarly, there are various forms of essay I love to read, both critical and creative (with plenty of crossover between the two). Some time ago, a reader asked if I might give some recommended ones to read. It was a hard list to whittle down, and is by no means a comprehensive overview of all my favourite essays – a tricky thing to compile in an age where the lines between essay, opinion column, book review and blog post have been rubbed out and redrawn. So this is just a small handful of pieces that have influenced, encouraged, motivated, dazzled, provoked and left lasting impressions. I have given links where possible.
- · I first read Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ at sixteen, thrilled on discovering that a form I'd previously thought dry and analytical could become so alive under the right pen. Charting female literary heritage, changing values and the craft of writing, her essay is a treatise on everything from emancipation to observations that “a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built… into arcades or domes.” (See also ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, ‘The Leaning Tower’ and anything else of hers you can lay your hands on. ‘The Decay of Essay-Writing’ and ‘The Modern Essay’ are both fascinating looks at the form itself.)
- · Is there a distinction between autobiography and essay? Hilary Mantel’s reflections on her time in hospital following surgery could qualify as a diary entry or short memoir piece, but also forms a powerful essay on hallucination, pain and being a patient. Her body is stripped back to its messy functions and malfunctions, experiencing “the iambic pentameter of the saline stand, the alexandrine of the blood drain, the epidural’s sweet sonnet form.” (See also her essay on Kate Middleton and the concept of the royal body here.)
- · Jeanette Winterson’s ‘A Place Before the Flood’ ruminates on her four-day stay in a boat atop the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London (an installation based on the Roi des Belges from Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’). As gorgeous as the rest of her prose, here she becomes “a slow shutter-speed camera” to record “the tide of people flowing over the tide of the river.” As she sees and captures, “the boat itself bears witness to the unspeakable strangeness of life.” It can be heard as a podcast here.
- · Laurie Lee’s ‘Writing Autobiography’ has been mentioned before, but these concluding sentences further illuminate his mastery of thought and image: “The autobiographer’s self can be a transmitter of life that is larger than his own – though it is best that he should be shown taking part in that life and involved in its dirt and splendours. The dead stick ‘I’, like the staff of the maypole, can be the centre of the turning world, or it can be the electric needle that picks up and relays the thronging choirs of life around it.” (See also ‘An Obstinate Exile’ and ‘First Love’. All are taken from the exquisite collection ‘I Can’t Stay Long’.)
- · ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ demonstrates George Eliot’s sharp intellect and keen wit in criticising the type of ‘silly’ books that “we imagine, are less the result of labour than of busy idleness,” concluding that the novel should be a form “free from rigid requirements… we have only to pour in the right elements – genuine observation, humour and passion.”
- · I’ve mentioned my treasured second-hand find, ‘A Book of English Essays’ before, discussing Maurice Hewlett’s ‘The Maypole and the Column’ here. There are other essays in the compilation worth mentioning too, particularly William Hazlitt’s ‘On Going on a Journey’, which perfectly captures the serenity of a solitary walk: “I begin to feel, think, and be myself again.”
- · Walter Pater’s Conclusion to ‘The Renaissance’ is another one difficult to condense into a word or two. It’s an intriguing ‘live-in-the-moment’ manifesto, an aesthetic theory, a stunning piece of writing. The prose twists and turns, yielding comments such as, “the whole scope of observation is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind,” and “to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life,” and “what we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions.”
- · George Orwell’s ‘Books v. Cigarettes’ is an interesting discussion of the reasons given by some for not buying books – concluding that, at the time of writing, reading is the cheapest pastime after the radio. This passage is particularly resonant: “there are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life, books that one dips into but never reads through, books that one reads at a single sitting and forgets a week later: and the cost, in terms of money, may be the same in each case.”
Then there are the essays and essayists I am still meaning to read – Joan Didion, for example, and Susan Sontag, as well as the whole volume of ‘The Oxford Book of English Essays’ (ed. John Gross). I’d love other people’s suggestions to stack up on my ‘to read’ list too, so please do let me know if you have favourites that you think worth sharing.
I thought this outfit seemed somewhat appropriate, as it's the kind of thing I'd wear for a day of lazing around reading essays (although perhaps minus the belt and heels). Everything I'm wearing is vintage or second hand. The photos were taken last summer by the ever-fabulous, always-industrious Florence Fox.