Temperament of Genius

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Vol. VI, 1936-1941

edited by Nigel Nicolson, edited by Joanne Trautmann
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 556 pp., $19.95

The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Vol. III, 1925-1930

edited by Anne Olivier Bell, with Andrew McNeillie
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 384 pp., $15.95

To the present-day reader who can know “Bloomsbury” only by hearsay, and for a critic like myself who read Virginia Woolf’s works as they came out but who had no acquaintance with the older survivors of the set until their middle age in the Second World War, they must seem like the natives of some lost tropic of this century’s early history. One is apt to forget that they were not the only distinguished writers, artists, thinkers, Puritans, or hedonists of the time. After 1939 that phase of our civilization, sometimes known as the sunset of the high bourgeois culture of Europe, had clouded over. As the dramatis personae reappear in The Diary of Virginia Woolf, patiently annotated by Anne Olivier Bell, in the Letters, edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, and in Quentin Bell’s Life, their voices, with their cool antique accent, come back.

We now have the sixth and last volume of the wonderfully talking Letters; we have already had the third volume of the Diary covering the years 1925-1930: the final volume is yet to come. (It is therefore impossible to match the Letters with the Diary, in which Virginia talks to herself, but events rarely correspond with her private musings. In the Letters she carelessly and hastily gave away the projected self of the hour; in the Diary she contemplated herself and her work more searchingly, often more gloomily. Her truthfulness was, as is usual in diaries, a truth to the moment, as her observation of people changed from one day to the next. The unguarded candor on which “Bloomsbury” prided itself had the malice of artificial comedy, and she was known to have the sharpest tongue of all. But the cult of friendship was reckoned to be strong enough to stand the militancy. The artist was forgiven, the kensington lady not always.

Virginia Woolf was a compulsive letter writer. The “humane art,” as she once wrote in an essay on letter writing, was a way of warding off loneliness by keeping conversation going with the absent, at a time when conversation had revived as an art in itself. She did not much care for the solitude she needed but lived for news, gossip, and the expectancy of talk. She was a connoisseur of manners and gestures, and had the habit of asking a question and breaking off to ask another. If she wrote to captivate her friends and to keep the affection she so strongly needed, the other purpose of letter writing was to stir the mood for serious writing (Balzac also recommended this). Nigel Nicolson adds a passage that cannot be bettered:

She described people as if they had no substance until their differences from other people had been analysed, and events as if none had really taken place until it had been recorded, in a manner unmistakeably her own, imagining the smile, the frown, of the recipient, rarely repeating a phrase, so grateful for the wealth of the language …

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