In 1915, under the terms of the National Registration Act, Virginia Woolf was registered by her husband Leonard as an 'author'. This official classification seems straightforward enough. The literary vocation of Virginia Woolf seems a public fact, now as then, to which we might hardly give a second thought, especially given the avalanche of work on her literary ideas, politics, psychology, autobiographical and critical writings that began with Quentin Bell's 1972 biography of his aunt and gathered force and momentum with the publication of her complete diaries, letters and collected essays. In truth, everything about Virginia Woolf, author, is in danger of becoming benignly familiar to common readers as well as professional critics - her life, her critical precepts, her feminist politics, the distinctive rhythms of her prose.
Yet, just when we believe Woolf is securely enshrined in the niche ('modern author, female') assigned to her, we encounter, as we do in a radio address entitled 'Craftsmanship', a writer whose relationship to words strikes us as either so advanced or so primitive as to confound any settled view we might have of her. Woolf begins this talk, part of a series devoted to the theme 'Why Words Fail Us', by confessing to a limited knowledge of her subject: 'Now we know little that is certain about words,' she disingenuously remarks, 'but this we do know - words never make anything that is useful; and words are the only things that tell the truth and nothing but the truth.' This is an extraordinary claim and we hardly know how to credit it. First, there is the questionable assertion, which Woolf treats as incontrovertible fact, that words never make anything useful. But of course they do - they are used to make inventories, manuals and guides, contracts, treaties, to name only a few of the useful forms words may take, as Woolf elsewhere openly acknowledges.
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