In 1912, when she was thirty, Virginia Stephens married Leonard Woolf; shortly before, she had completed her first novel. And there, with new doors opening on her life and her career, the first volume of her collected correspondence is brought to a close. The present volume of The Letters of Virginia Woolf documents the next ten years, a decade within which she and Leonard, despite enormous difficulties, created a satisfying and successful marriage; and which, despite those same difficulties, saw her third novel in print. Only a few years down the road lay the novels of her major phase: Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927).
Though she might feel that the sex act is overrated—“Why do you think people make such a fuss about marriage and copulation . . . certainly I find the climax immensely exaggerated”—she and Leonard clearly enjoyed each other both in and out of bed. Between them there was enormous affection and tenderness. On their honeymoon, she writes of their walking together in the morning, reading together in the afternoon, having tea and then walking again together: “in between the crevices we stuff an enormous amount of exciting conversation.” Later, attempting domesticity, Virginia even tried her hand at cooking and enlisted in a cooking class: “I distinguished myself by cooking my wedding ring into a suet pudding.” For a time there was talk of a child. Her friend Violet Dickinson sent a cradle; Virginia examined one set of lodgings with an eye to children: “There’s a little patch of green for my brats to play in. . . .” The urge to cook disappeared; the child proved impossible; but the marriage persisted. According to her biographer, Quentin Bell, she and Leonard shortly evolved a pattern that endured through their lives: they wrote in the morning, walked in the afternoon, read at night, had friends to tea, dinner, or overnight, and once or twice a week, they traveled to London for business and pleasure. As we follow their letters we discover that their lives moved rhythmically between Hogarth House in Richmond and their home in Sussex (Asheham House). They made room in their lives for holidays elsewhere, to Northumberland, for example, and to Cornwall. The novel To the Lighthouse, most of it set in Cornwall, seems to have been something of an inevitability; on that coast, she writes, “I find that one lapses into a particular mood of absolute enjoyment—which takes me back to my childhood.”
Ironically and hauntingly, in the light of what followed, she told one correspondent: “I wish you were as happy as I am—and its quite clear that I shall never be ill again because with Leonard I get no chance!” One year later she had succumbed to another of her bouts of mental illness. Thus, from July to December, 1913, the letters are few and brief; from August 5 to December 4 there are no letters at all. In September she attempted suicide by taking an overdose of veronal, and almost succeeded. The letters we do have from this period are short affectionate notes to Leonard: “Goodbye, darling mongoose—I do want you and I believe in spite of my vile imaginations the other day that I love you and that you love me.” At such times Virginia could, as a result of her “vile imaginations,” turn on Leonard. In 1915, she had an even more violent breakdown, and there is another gap in the letters, this one from March, 1915, to August of that year. We can, through the tone of the letters, follow the course of her recuperation after both breakdowns. The first letters are banal, even trite. After a time she can permit herself to adopt the tone of amused exasperation: “Please, for Gods sake, Hell take you, dont send anything more—nevertheless, I’m very grateful. . . .” Though in necessary seclusion, she can reach out to life again: “I am to be allowed to write, and gradually return to the world.” Lytton Strachey received an almost formal notice: “I think it is about time we took up our correspondence again.”
Though she did not have another mental breakdown until her suicide twenty-five years later, she was watched constantly and carefully. With a headache, insomnia, the sniffles, her activity was quickly curtailed. Indeed, we find her urging her own regime on others. She chides Saxon Sidney-Turner for keeping late hours: “Twice you date your letters 2 a.m. and if so, how can you possibly be well? Even if you dont sleep, try going to bed at 10. I find nothing makes so much difference. One late night is sufficient to start a headache.” She warns her sister, Vanessa, about overwork: “I do think it a most ridiculous thing, knowing what horror illness is. I now take 3 glasses of milk daily. If you would take one, some good would be done.
Nevertheless, hers was a life of immense creation. In the ten years covered by the present volume, she produced short stories, essays, reviews, and two more novels. Night and Day appeared in 1919, Jacob’s Room in 1922. And there, as she exhibits the muffled pride and coy deprecation with which one might describe one’s latest offspring, the volume concludes: “It gives me great pleasure that you should like jacob. I had many doubts whether it meant anything to anybody.” Whether those doubts were real or feigned, she certainly did not doubt the strength of her commitment to the literary act. She saw a succession of novels stretching before her: “I am buoyed up, as usual, by the thought that I’m now, at last, going to bring it off—next time. I suppose one goes on thinking this for ever; and so burrowing deeper and deeper into whatever it is that perpetually fascinates.” Without self-consciousness now, she could speak of art as a struggle and as a necessary failure:. . . beauty . . . is only got by the failure to get it; by grinding all the...