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.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The collected letters provide insight into a woman’s struggles in her personal and professional life. Though she elsewhere recounts the discrimination she witnesses against women throughout history, her letters reveal little of the economic deprivation of women in general. Her tone, attitude, and comments, however, indicate the subtle discriminatory attitude she faced as a woman writer, a professional career woman, soon after the Victorian era of English history had ended. The letters describe the social roles and formalities expected of a woman; occasionally, they demonstrate the conflicts created when a woman of that time filled what were considered to be men’s roles. Ultimately, the letters record the social interaction of an articulate person, providing a study of life, literature, gender, and society in the person of Virginia Woolf and in the context of the Bloomsbury group, both highly representative of the evolving status of all these areas in the transitional period between the Victorian era of the nineteenth century and the modernist era of the twentieth century.

The Letters of Virginia Woolf

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

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...

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The Letters of Virginia Woolf

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

“It’s odd how being ill . . . splits one up into several different people,” wrote Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West during one of an extraordinary number of minor illnesses: her critical brain, she said, could read and conceptualize, but it felt separated from the person who could write books; and her body was yet another person, going its own way.

Actually, Woolf might have been describing not an illness, but her state of creative health. Like so many makers, she lived in and moved amphibiously among several levels and layers of the world at once: the social, the domestic, the critical and journalistic, and the small, intensely private area where she wrote her novels and short stories. These lives were...

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The Letters of Virginia Woolf

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

By now, readers of The Letters of Virginia Woolf have learned what to expect—and, more importantly, what not to expect. In the three years covered by the fourth volume of her collected letters, Woolf published her famous feminist statement, A Room of One’s Own (1929); then, returning to her fiction, she meditated and brooded upon and wrote and rewrote what many consider her major contribution to the form of the novel, The Waves (1931). Her reputation as a significant literary figure had already been solidified by reams of literary journalism, by a volume of critical essays, by a number of short stories, and by six novels, including Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and...

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The Letters of Virginia Woolf

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Bloomsbury was dying, quite literally. On January 25, 1932, Lytton Strachey died of cancer, an event that darkens the opening pages of Volume Five of The Letters of Virginia Woolf. “One hates so the feeling that things begin again here in London without him,” Woolf wrote. “I find I can’t write without suddenly thinking Oh but Lytton wont read this, and it takes all the point out of it.” Nor did she expect time to lessen the pain: “as time goes on the loss of Lytton becomes harder and harder to bear.” These notes went to Dora Carrington, who lived with and had become indispensable to Strachey, and to Ralph Partridge, to whom Strachey, an avowed homosexual, was at one time attracted. Partridge, in turn, was in...

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The Letters of Virginia Woolf

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

“Without someone warm and breathing on the other side of the page, letters are worthless.” So Virginia Woolf begins Three Guineas (1938), a book which many of her friends disliked and which she herself called, in a letter to Vita Sackville-West, “a piece of donkey-drudgery.” Three Guineas is in many ways the least typical of Woolf’s novels and literary essays. Factual, argumentative, sober, it was written, its author tells the Viscountess Rhondda, “because I could not write anything else.” All the same, Woolf clearly visualizes its audience: a middle-class man; a lawyer, graying at the temples; a respectable man with a family and a little property and the best education England could provide. In...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1972. Written by Virginia Woolf’s nephew, the first complete biography of Woolf was first published in two volumes (now combined). It includes numerous photographs, a chronology, references, and a short bibliography. Bell, as a family member, drew on Virginia’s letters and diaries, but his work was completed before all of Woolf’s letters and diaries had been compiled.

DeSalvo, Louise A. Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. A detailed study of Woolf’s life and personality based on her diaries,...

(The entire section is 313 words.)