Love letters

To the Lighthouse; The Waves; Orlando

Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Reynolds (eds) <em>Vintage,

With so many editions of Virginia Woolf already on the shelf, the publication of another is in itself nothing to write home about. But for their new edition of Woolf's fiction, Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Reynolds have taken the unusual approach of commissioning introductions that actually make you want to read the books. Each of Woolf's novels in this series - three are already republished and six more will appear over the coming months - is prefaced by two short essays, one by a novelist or poet, the other by a critic. The idea, says Winterson, is to provide "doorways into the work".

While this is not exactly a new approach, it does, so far, seem to be the most successful attempt to separate the facts of Woolf's life from the achievements of her work, to communicate - in a refreshingly untortured way - what each of us might discover were we to visit, or revisit, these most elusive of texts. Because the writers have been cannily paired with each novel, every essay is appropriately personal, from Eavan Boland's first encounter with To the Lighthouse as an Irish teenager in a convent school in Dublin, to Peter Ackroyd's joy in the imaginative excesses of Orlando - Woolf's "love letter to language and to literature". Above all, however, these editions are distinguished by their affinity with the reader. They have a celebratory quality, a desire not to dissect Woolf, not to dispel the mystery or identify elements of her life down to the last household object, but actually to read her for the pleasures of the language, the syntax, the playfulness, the innovation. In so doing, they create a world that the reader can enter and live in, rather than one which must be revered from the outside. Or as Boland puts it: "The reader - far from being the exile and the outsider - is [Woolf's] true accomplice." What better tribute could this remarkable novelist have?

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