Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Edited by Vita Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, some 3,800 letters by Virginia Woolf appear in these six volumes. The letters begin with a note written by Virginia Stephen at the age of six; they end with her suicide letters to Vanessa Bell, her sister, and Leonard Woolf, her husband, in 1941 at the age of fifty-nine. In between these dates, Woolf’s letters provide a personal chronicle of her life, her writing, her friends, and her feelings. They also provide insight into the core of the Bloomsbury group, a loosely-knit group of writers, artists, and intellectuals who form a bridge between the aesthetics and philosophies of Victorian England and the aesthetics and philosophies of modernism in British and American art and literature.

Among Woolf’s early correspondents in the Bloomsbury circle are her brother Thoby Stephen, her sister Vanessa, Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes, Violet Dickinson, her half brother George Duckworth, and her husband Leonard Woolf. Later volumes also include letters to contemporary writers such as T. S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, Rebecca West, H. G. Wells, and James Joyce. Throughout the volumes are letters to Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson; Sackville-West was to become Virginia’s lover and the model for the title character of her novel Orlando (1928), described by the editor of the letters, Nigel Nicolson, Sackville-West’s son and Woolf’s nephew, as the longest and most charming love letter in literature.

Despite her last request to Leonard that he destroy all her papers, these documents still exist, a record of the social intercourse of one highly accomplished writer with other brilliant minds. They reveal much about the personality of a woman who at times fought mental instability, if not insanity. They also reveal the genius of a woman who devoted her life to writing, to articulating the world around her. Though sometimes hastily composed, the letters reflect a life lived at a time when carefully written words were the predominant method of social interaction.

The volumes cover the time periods as follows: volume 1, 1888-1912; volume 2, 1912-1922; volume 3, 1923-1928; volume 4, 1929-1931; volume 5, 1932-1935; volume 6, 1936-1941. Each volume is extremely well-indexed; some photographs are included. Volume 6 contains letters left out of previous volumes, as well as a speculative dating of Woolf’s final letters explaining her intention to kill herself.