The Sad Years

The Letters of Virginia Woolf Volume V: 1932-1935

edited by Nigel Nicolson, edited by Joanne Trautmann
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 476 pp., $14.95

The Wise Virgins: A Story of Words, Opinions and a few Emotions

by Leonard Woolf
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 247 pp., $9.95

Virginia Woolf could be icily curt about the phenomenon of “Bloomsbury” emerging during her lifetime. On March 19, 1932, she told an American academic, Harmon H. Goldstone, that “the name ‘Bloomsbury Group’ is merely a journalistic phrase which has no meaning that I am aware of.” To the same academic’s persistent queries, she replied on August 16, 1932: “The Bloomsbury Period. I do not want to impose my own views, but I feel that Bloomsbury is a word that stands for very little. The Bloomsbury group is largely a creation of the journalists. To dwell upon Bloomsbury as an influence is liable to lead to judgments that, as far as I know have no basis in fact.” Harmon H. Goldstone must have been very obtuse indeed if he could not detect the tone of the final dismissive comment: “I am sorry not to be more helpful; but as I think I have already said, I am sure you will write better if you are fettered as little as possible by the views of the author.”

Volume V of her Letters, covering the period 1932-1935, is the saddest of any of the collections to date, yet it captures what was rare and splendid about a remarkable group of friends. By 1932 Virginia Woolf was fifty, and in the three ensuing years she experienced the deaths of many of those dearest to her, the recognition of the disintegration of love, the atrophy of her creative powers, and an overwhelming sense that madness was enveloping Europe.

The year 1932 opened with the death of Lytton Strachey. To Ottoline Morrell she wrote on February 8: “We must always hoard the memory of him up together—that will be something real—otherwise, running about London and finding everything going on, I am aghast at the futility of life—Lytton gone, and nobody minding. But with you, who loved him, some reality comes back. So you must let me come sometimes.” To Dora Carrington, on the very day of Strachey’s death, she wrote:

Darling Carrington,

We are all thanking you for what you gave Lytton. Please Carrington, think of this, and let us bless you for it.

This is our great comfort now—the happiness you gave him—and he told me so.

Virginia

After two suicide attempts herself, Virginia sensed that Carrington’s death was inevitable. Her anguished knowledge breaks through in a letter written a week before Carrington shot herself:

Oh but Carrington we have to live and be ourselves—and I feel it is more for you to live than for any one; because he loved you so, and loved your oddities and the way you have of being yourself. I cant explain it; but it seems to me that as long as you are there, something we loved in Lytton, something of the best part of his life still goes on. But goodness knows, blind as I am, I know all day long, whatever I’m doing, what you’re …

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