The Letters of Virginia Woolf

Six volumes of real genius boiled down into 1,500 words of solid prose!" she spluttered in 1905 over the task of writing a review article about Jane Carlyle's letters. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, the editors of "The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume I," announce their intent to issue a total of six volumes of her letters in six years, at the end of which the reviewer will face a similarly impossible task, for Virginia Woolf bids fair to be remembered as a great letter-writer as well as a novelist and critic.

Not all, by any means, of the letters in the present volume are pure gold, but the wonderful ones she writes about her work, mostly to women friends, when in her twenties and beginning to be a professional writer, give us a new Virginia Woolf - not without tears (tragic family deaths and mental breakdowns fill these years) but without Bloomsbury.

To be exact, these are the letters of Virginia Stephen, literary spinster, in her first 30 years fro 1888 when she was 6 to 1912 when she married Leonard Woolf. They read like a drama which seesaws emotionally from the heights to the depths, from brilliance to numb boredom, for Virginia Stephen was intermittently mad, not steadily neurotic. A surprising strength of character emerges from these letters. She fights with renewed force, after each collapse, for her independence as a woman and a writer from the spreading web of family and social connections that binds her down.

From a sanitarium in 1910 she writes her sister on mad-lucid letter which is funny and harrowing: "Miss Bradbury is the woman you saw out of the window and said was homicidal [sic]. I was very kind with her at dinner, but she then put me to bed, and is a trained nurse." Ordinarily her bouts of madness are indicated by a gap in the letters; they appear triggered by periods of grief and physical strain, such as the ordeal of her father's last illness which she reports in daily bulletins to Violet Dickinson, an old family friend, in 1904. "Oh my Violet," she writes from abroad after Leslie Stephen's death, in a letter which in its punctuation as in its anguish announces the onset of a breakdown, "if you could only find me a great solid bit of work to do when I get back that will make me forget my own stupidity - I should be so grateful. I must work." The idea seems not to have occurred to any of Virginia Stephen's male relations, or to the fashionable doctors whose blunders dogged her life.

More than half the letters in this volume are addressed to Violet Dickinson, a woman of aristocratic connections and wide social circle who is remembered as the editor (in 1919) of Emily Eden's letters. A lifelong spinster (she was over six feet tall) and world traveler, she was 13 years older than Virginia, who sometimes called her "Aunt" and, in the earliest letters, wrote her in a language of cuddly affection which reminds us, that Virginia was a motherless child from the age of 13.

Violet Dickinson gave far more than affection. She nursed Virginia at her Welwyn home through her suicidal depression in the summer of 1904, and then introduced her to the women's editor of The Guardian and to Nellie Cecil. The Guardian assigned Virginia books to review and published her first writing; with Nellie Cecil (a professional critic, as will as daughter and wife of peers - her nephew is Lord David Cecil) she collaborated on a literary column for The Cornhill. From then until her marriage, Virginia Woolf was a hard-working literary journalist; she adored it.

This is the new act of her life that opens in the letters at the end of 1904 - and it is the act that most surprises. We have always been told that what happened to Virginia Stephen in 1904 was her immersion in the "Bloomsbury" circle which began to form around the Gordon Square home she shared with her sister Vanessa, and to which her brother Thoby brought his brilliant Cambridge friends; that Virginia's intellectual sophistication 20th-century sensibility and literary life took root in the masculine Blooms bury atmosphere.

But her letters do not say so. It may be true, as the editors write, that meeting Clive Bell in 1904 was "a turning-point in Virginia's life" because "she had discovered a type of friend and conversation that she most enjoyed." But whatever their evidence may be, it is not in these letters. "He is clever, and cultivated - more taste, I think, than genius." Was her opinion of Clive Bell in 1906, just before he married her sister Vanessa; an opinion that history has seconded.

What mattered most was her own work. Her desk filled with books - Keats, James, Christina Rossetti, Flaubert and the novel a week The Times Literary Supplement sent her to review; she was starting her own sketches and fiction; she was teaching; she was earning money. She writes to Nellie Cecil with charming professional briskness - my English being valuable - about a farthing, every 10 words, I should say." She encourages Madge Vaughan to get on with her novel, in spite of a household of young children. She sends her manuscripts to Violet Dickinson for encouragement, and shares with her joy in solitude and work.

So bubbling with busy happiness are these letters that, reading them, we brace ourselves for the bubble's burst, for the next tragedy - Thoby's death of typhoid in November 1907 - that is to set off Virginia's next collapse. Astonishingly, heartbreakingly, the buoyant mood of her letters to Violet Dickinson persists will into 1908. Virginia turned all her strength (much diminished by the effort of nursing) and all her imagination as a writer to cheerful, chatty lying about Thoby' recovery; for Violet, who lay ill of typhoid at Welwyn, could not be told the truth.

Perhaps the effort of will - the effort of attending to the imperative need of others (which seems to have no parallel in her earlier or later life) warded off her own collapse. Virginia's next breakdown did not come until 1910; then she threw herself into work for Woman's Suffrage - rather grimly, for she did not care for the middle-class people and the Jews she met among the feminists.

Between 25 and 30 Virginia Stephen seems to age, and not attractively. Bloomsbury men cluster around her and several propose; she struggles through the work of G.E. Moore, the second-rate Cambridge philosopher who was the Bloomsbury mentor; she attends the Post-Impressionist exhibit organized by Clive Bell and Roger Fry without evident enthusiasm. The letters grow shrill, lifeless, and filled with nasty, sometimes lewd gossip about uninteresting people with sill nicknames - all very old-maidish. Is this perhaps the Bloomsbury tone?

There is a great life of happiness at the end of vilume, brought by the successful, whirlwind courtship of Leonart Woolf. Why did she marry her "penniless Jew"? This is the question most readers will open this volume to discover. Hew was not a homosexual, not a poseur, not a pendant. "He spent 7 years in Ceylon," she wrote Madge Vaughan, "governing natives, inventing ploughs, shooting tigers...He interests me immensely..." Virginia seems to have played Desdemona to Woolf's Othello, but with a difference, for he was giving up his career as colonial administrator for the chance to marry her, he was writing his own novel, and most of all, as she wrote Violet Dickinson, "L. thinks my writing the best part of me" and "L. wants me to say that if I cease to write when married, I shall be divorced."

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