The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume II: 1912-1922
edited by Nigel Nicolson, edited by Joanne Trautmann
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 627 pp., $14.95
Letters can have their sinister side; Virginia Woolf knew that. This is what she wrote in Jacob’s Room:
Let us consider letters—how they come at breakfast, and at night, with their yellow stamps and their green stamps, immortalized by the postmark—for to see one’s own envelope on another’s table is to realize how soon deeds sever and become alien. Then at last the power of the mind to quit the body is manifest, and perhaps we fear or hate or wish annihilated this phantom of ourselves, lying on the table.
Anyone who commits pen to paper must wish, sometimes, to snatch back the phantom self. But Virginia’s ghost has special claims on us—and to some aspects of her nature this volume would certainly have ministered. She cared deeply for praise, approval, fame, for the ascendancy of Mrs. Woolf as a literary eminence over any possible rivals, whether Lytton Strachey or Katherine Mansfield. Then she was herself enjoyably sensitive to the revelations of idiosyncracy, period detail, and quirk of character filtering through volumes of memoirs or letters: some of her finest reviews deal with such things.
She was not a secretive person. On the whole, it’s true, she talked to herself (in her diaries) better than she talked on paper to other people; alone, she can coax and tease with no sense of strain, no desire to impress even the elderly Virginia aged fifty she imagines as reader; and she can outline her plans for work with the certainty that she is addressing an intellectual equal. But still these are the fluent and confidently penned words of a woman who knew her friendship was always a prize, never an imposition. Not many of her recipients threw away her letters—a subject to which I shall return.
When Leonard Woolf published A Writer’s Diary (his selection from the twenty-six, volumes of her diaries) in 1954, he felt obliged to justify his action in a preface stating his belief in her standing as a “serious artist.” Perhaps he thought her neglected or under attack; hindsight sees also a gesture shielding her from the exaggerated interest in her private life and circle of friends which has grown up since. Do the letters feed the appetite for gossip merely, or do they relate to an assessment of her artistry? It seems to me that they do connect valuably with some of the strengths of the novels and criticism: a sense of comedy and a gift for catching the heartbeat of a house or a roomful of people, for conjuring up weather or mood in phrases of miraculous lightness and speed. Her sentences are never heavy or shabby. We may guess at strain in her at times, but what she writes retains its composure and grace. She is neither pompous nor disheveled. And perhaps the strongest and most consistent impression she gives is not that of the greatly praised tremulous sensibility at work, but of unyielding intelligence …