The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume Two: 1912-1922

Unknown“Between 1912 and 1922 Virginia Woolf married, published her first three novels, twice went mad, and co-founded the Hogarth Press,” writes Nigel Nicolson in his introduction to The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume Two: 1912-1922. “The same years contained the First World War.”

If you found the first volume of VW’s letters slow-going, as I did (they were almost exclusively written to Violet Dickinson and the Vaughn cousins, which didn’t provide fodder for great literary wit and insight), the second volume picks up nicely. In addition to covering the events above, the tone and craft of the letters are more impressive and expansive because many of them are written to other Bloomsbury members – and she sharpens the knife accordingly.

Surprisingly, there is relatively little about the war other than the most basic domestic hardships, but it was interesting reading about the end-of-war celebrations in this 1918 letter to Vanessa:

“The dazed discontented aimless feeling was so queer; starting with such emotions and high passions, and getting gradually more and more sodden and depressed, and wanting to do something very exciting and not knowing what. [Middleton] Murry was at the War Office. He said he tried to feel but couldn’t feel anything except horror and misery … Harrison, the dentist, said that peace was much worse than war; nobody kept their appointments.”

Woolf’s attitude towards the war is well summed up by E.M. Forster in his Rede Lecture at Cambridge University in 1942, which is quoted in the book: “She was convinced that society is man-made, that the chief occupations of men are the shedding of blood, the making of money, the giving of orders and the wearing of uniforms, and that none of these occupations is admirable.”

Speaking of Forster, here’s an interesting bit about his stay with Thomas Hardy, recollected as he stayed with Leonard and Virginia at Monk’s House.

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She’s particularly amusing when referring to James Joyce: “What I suspect is that Joyce is one of these undelivered geniuses, whom one can’t neglect, or silence their groans, but must help them out, at considerable pains to oneself.”

In the below, she starts by sharing her love of Proust, but her comments on Ulysses are hilarious:

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There’s a great deal about Katherine Mansfield in this book, too, who Virginia is clearly very cagey about: “I have had a slight rapprochement with Katherine Mansfield; who seems to me an unpleasant but forcible and utterly unscrupulous character,” she says in a  1917 letter. But later that year, “… She has a much better idea of writing than most. She’s an odd character …”

She seems to feel nothing but warmth and appreciation, though, towards T.S. Eliot – both the man and the poet. I liked this comment from her after “Tom” read her and Leonard The Waste Land for the first time: “I have only the sound of it in my ears, when he read it aloud; and have not yet tackled the sense. But I liked the sound.” (As an Eliot fan, I can’t tell you how much this resonates with me.)

Not only is there no sign of jealousy of Virginia regarding T. S. Eliot, but she goes out of her way to help Ezra Pound in his appeal to begin a subscription service among their friends to help support Eliot in his writing career. The whole affair, while well-intended, is deeply uncomfortable to almost everyone involved, including Eliot and Woolf. (no one wants to lend the money to Pound, who’s collecting it, because they’re afraid he’ll drink it away). It also strangely echoes Howard’s End, in that the more the literary types intervene to help out the bank clerk’s situation, the more they end up ruining his life. (There’s much else to remind one of Howard’s End in this volume, with umbrellas that go missing, the frequent house-hunting and the poor health of almost everyone in the book.)

The below was sent to Hogarth Press subscribers:

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There’s a lot of joy to be had by the beginnings of the Hogarth Press, which began as a subscription for their friends. It’s so easy to think of the Hogarth’s prestige and legendary status, but these letters remind you that it was an unglamorous enterprise as any other. Below are some of my favorite quotes about the press:

  • “We are thinking of starting a printing press, for all our friends’ stories,” she tells Lady Robert Cecil in 1916. “Don’t you think its a good idea?”
  • “After two hours work at the press, Leonard heaved a terrific sigh and said ‘I wish to God we’d never bought the cursed thing!”
  • “Not one of our intimates has yet bought a copy.”

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Vanessa Bell emerges as a particularly enigmatic figure. While Leonard keeps Virginia grounded, Vanessa is her north star, someone who she’s constantly drawn to but frequently seems just out of reach. While I don’t need to read a single other word about Vanessa’s domestic servant crises (if this volume is ever published as an abridgment that has edited out all of these episodes, I highly suggest you buy it), Vanessa grows more and more fascinating as the letters accumulate.

  • “.. One of the concealed worms of my life has been a sisters jealousy – of a sister I mean; and to feed this I have invented such a myth about her that I scarcely know one from tother.” (1917)
  • “Nessa seems to have slipped civilization off her back, and splashes about entirely nude, without shame, and enormous spirit. Indeed, Clive now takes up the line that she has ceased to be a presentable lady.” (1917)
  • “Nessa [lives] like an old hen wife among ducks, chickens and children. She never wants to put on proper clothes again – even a bath seems to distress her.” (1917)

She also gleefully quotes to Vanessa an old friend of the family, who was heard to have said of the Stephens’ girls: “Strange what’s come to those two girls. Such a nice home they had. But of course they weren’t baptized!”

But it is Leonard Woolf who is the unacknowledged star of this book. It’s Leonard who nurses her through her illnesses; who grounds her imagination in real life (while, it seems encouraging it in her writing); and provides her with the stable, loving, domestic life that she cherishes – and that allows her to focus her energies on her work:

To Lytton Strachey (1919): “What I like is first going for a walk; then having tea; then sitting and imagining all the pleasant things that might happen to one.”

To Vanessa Bell (1922): “I write-read-write-read- from morning to night. For an hour I wet myself on the high road – back to tea – Shakespeare, Joyce – and so on. It is a very exciting life, entirely devoid of human beings.”

To Molly McCarthy (1913): “I believe our half in half existence is ideal. A taste of people, and then a drench of sleep and forgetfulness, and then another look at the world, and back again.”

There’s much more of interest in this volume. For example, despite the fact that she ‘goes mad’ a couple of times during these years, you see no trace of it in her letters. (The only cue is that the amount of letters dwindles to a trickle.) And although she publishes three novels during this time, she doesn’t seem to be a writer of magnitude, even by the end, when she’s almost 41 (giving hope to all late-bloomers).

The whole book is a whopping 602 pages, but I’m already excited to read volume three. That is, after I read the selected letters of Vanessa Bell … who now intrigues me almost as much as her sister.

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