The Letters of Virginia Woolf Analysis
The scope of such a collection of letters makes possible many different avenues of study. Their importance too derives from differing sources. In their most literal sense, they record the personal correspondence of a talented and influential writer. They also document the social interactions of the Bloomsbury group of artists, writers, and intellectuals, both within the group and with various social, political, and business contacts. They describe a time and a place, London and the English countryside in the early part of the twentieth century, a time and place of two world wars.
These letters also document a life. They provide a comprehensive record of the life of a writer considered by many to be a genius, who was plagued by periods of depression, even insanity. The letters demonstrate her personal and social life from her childhood to her death. In so doing, they offer insight into her personality, self-image, and attitudes toward people, places, and other contemporary writers. The editor of the letters, Nigel Nicolson, suggests that, while important and enlightening diaries may continue to be written, this collection of letters may never be surpassed, either in artistic merit or sheer number.
Especially in the earlier volumes, Woolf is an expressive and self-aware writer. Her tone is often playful, mocking, or sarcastic in correspondence to her childhood friends, even as they enter adulthood. The tone matures in later volumes, however, retaining the self-deprecating and reflective quality of earlier letters when Woolf’s audience is a personal friend, and leaning further toward formalized gentility when she is addressing a social or business acquaintance. Thus, the earlier volumes reveal much more about her developing personality and aesthetic preferences, while the later volumes record the mature life of a Bloomsbury writer and intellectual.
By the second volume, Woolf has married and has begun to work on her earliest novels, The Voyage Out (1915), Night and Day (1919), and Jacob’s Room (1922). These letters record the evolution of the manuscripts, offering some insight into how the composing process is progressing, but more often addressing the issues of a novel’s publication and its subsequent critical reception. Although her Diaries (1977-1985) reveal more about the writing process than do the letters, the latter address such items as press runs, income from writing, and the problems of printing. The Woolfs, Leonard and Virginia, began the Hogarth Press during this time, publishing for the first time the works of many writers who would become well known, such as T. S. Eliot and Katherine Mansfield.
Woolf expressed the thought that nothing in fact existed until it had been put into writing. Accordingly, her letters strongly suggest that Woolf is interpreting, if not creating, the world and the people she describes. The letters are often full of metaphor and analogy, their poetic qualities on a par with those of her novels. Whereas some sentences and entire letters appear to be well-formed thoughts, others indicate the writer’s thought process behind the composition, the initial vision and subsequent revisions of an idea.
The third volume allows the reader to follow Woolf’s evolving feelings for Violet Dickinson and for Vita Sackville-West especially. In letters to Vita, the salutations change from a formal, social tone to an intimate, endearing one. The contents trace the relationship of Woolf and Sackville-West, ranging from objective analysis of their passions and their social positions to discussions of the real or imagined reactions of others. Woolf writes her most enduring novels during this period: Mrs. Dalloway (1925), The Common Reader (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and her genre-breaking and gender-bending “autobiography”...
(The entire section is 892 words.)