Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf; drawing by David Levine

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, the intelligence of the Miss Stephen who expected much of herself in the way of work, discipline, and proper attention to the matter in hand.

The letters are likely to find a specially attentive audience among those who will scan them for evidence of the woman writer’s particular pattern of struggle. But it will be seen quite clearly that, while their author understood and discussed elsewhere the plight of the generality of her sex, she herself was very largely saved from it, by her own determination, by the social structure of the day, still working in favor of her class, and (chiefly) by a wise husband. If her times of madness and threatened madness, and her eventual suicide, give her an emblematic force as one more female victim of her own genius, it must be said that without Leonard’s protection she would not have lived to write A Room of One’s Own.

But she drew good fortune to herself alongside the ill, attracting the friends who fly about and perch on these pages, as well as the husband who used the larger part of his own strength and wits in her service. The early love notes to Leonard give rare instances of Mrs. Woolf taking pleasure in her own person—

…the great variegated creature. She wishes me to inform you delicately that her flanks and rump are now in finest plumage, and invites you to an exhibition. Kisses on your dear little pate. Darling Mongoose. Mandril

(Interesting, too, to see how she thought of herself as the large Brute, of him as the little creature, the little beast, the “little ribby body.”) For the most part, later, she suffers from her lack of children and, very largely, from a sense of deficiency in herself. There is vicarious pride in the love affairs and childbearing of her friends and above all of her elder sister Vanessa, who, in Virginia’s view, combined painting, marriage, adulterous love, and mothering to perfection. The editors describe Vanessa as having her personality reflected in the letters “as the sun is by a shield,” but I am not sure that this description is quite apt; Vanessa remains enigmatic and just out of focus, a formalized, semi-mythical figure, in spite of many chats with her on the subject of servants, aunts, the naming of children, and other such issues.


Servants are indeed an absorbing running theme of this volume. After an illness, in January 1919, Virginia wrote in her diary that she felt so reduced that “even the muscles of my right hand feel as I imagine a servant’s hand to feel”: a curious and telling phrase, with its assumption that servants are necessarily worked to a condition of painful fatigue. The Woolfs normally had two young women to work for them, and many pages here are devoted to discussions, usually with Vanessa, of the moods, shortcomings, charms, sudden notices and withdrawals of notice of Nelly Boxall, the cook, and Lottie Hope, her friend, who was given to waking the Woolfs in the middle of the night to announce her own imminent death from unnamed, lightning disease. A note describes Lottie as a “foundling”; she was given to shouting when she felt imposed upon; and her mysterious illnesses did, in fact, culminate in a necessary operation, performed at the Homeopathic Hospital in Great Ormond Street. The last mention of her in this volume is of her convalescing “at home” (whatever a foundling’s home may be) and sending Virginia (“We drag on with Chars”) long letters, “from friend to friend.” It would be good to see both sides of this exchange, but Lottie and Virginia were evidently equally careless here.

There’s another, more glaring gap in the correspondence. The years covered by this volume also encompass the six years in which Virginia Woolf knew Katherine Mansfield (who died in fact eleven days after the last letter was written, on January 9, 1923); but the strength of the link between the two women is not much in evidence here. Only one short letter is printed, and there is mention of the existence of one other. That there were more is certain, from references in Katherine Mansfield’s letters to Ida Baker and John Middleton Murry and from her own surviving part of the correspondence, in which she thanks Virginia for gifts of flowers and cigarettes, and writes with a blend of archness and intensity that is, characteristically, both touching and irritating:

Virginia dear, I shall love to come and dine on Wednesday night with you alone: I can’t manage Friday. Ever since I read your letter I have been writing to you and a bit “haunted” by you: I long to see you again…. My God, I love to think of you, Virginia, as my friend. Don’t cry me an ardent creature or say; with your head a little on one side, smiling as though you knew some enchanting secret: “Well, Katherine, we shall see.”…But pray consider how rare it is to find someone with the same passion for writing that you have, who desires to be scrupulously truthful with you—and to give you the freedom of the city without any reserves at all.

Leonard Woolf’s account of the relationship is that his wife at first disliked Katherine Mansfield’s cheap scent and cheap sentimentality, whereas he found her very amusing and liked her, despite a feeling that she disliked him. “By nature, I think, she was gay, cynical, amoral, ribald, witty,” he wrote, adding that it was her husband Murry’s Pecksniffian character he could not abide; and he felt it spoiled her too.

To Virginia she was the friend and the enemy. Elizabeth Bowen reported that, even many years after Katherine’s death, Virginia could not speak of her without jealousy. And in the immediacy of her death she wrote in her diary: “I was jealous of her writing—the only writing I have ever been jealous of…”—and went on—“Probably we had something in common which I shall never find again in anyone else. (This I say in so many words in 1919 again and again.)” It is presumably to unpublished passages of her 1919 diary that Quentin Bell refers in his biography, where we find, in his discussion of Virginia’s relations with Vita Sackville-West, the assertion that “since her marriage, no one save Katherine Mansfield had touched her heart at all, and Katherine but slightly” and on the next page, still more positively:

Virginia felt as a lover feels—she desponded when she fancied herself neglected, despaired when Vita was away, waited anxiously for letters, needed Vita’s company and lived in that strange mixture of elation and despair which lovers—and one would have supposed only lovers—can experience. All this she had done and felt for Katherine, but she never writes of her as she does of Vita.

The bare bones in the letters are a first mention in July 1916:


Katherine Mansfield has dogged my steps for three years—I’m always on the point of meeting her, or of reading her stories, and I have never managed to do either…. Do arrange a meeting…

—this to Lytton Strachey, who had met Katherine Mansfield at Garsington and reported her enthusiasm for Virginia’s first novel, The Voyage Out.

In February 1917 Virginia is telling Vanessa that she has had “a slight rapprochement with Katherine Mansfield; who seems to me an unpleasant but forcible and utterly unscrupulous character, in whom I think you might find a ‘companion’ ” (this a compliment of sorts, of course). In April Virginia is going to see Katherine “to get a story from her, perhaps.” By the summer the two writers are on close terms (this is probably the time of the letter from Katherine to Virginia quoted above), and by November the Woolfs have started printing Katherine’s story “Prelude,” which is actually published in the autumn of 1918. Virginia told Violet Dickinson that “Prelude” had been turned down by another publisher, and she defended it from what was clearly a blast of contempt from Clive Bell—“I only maintain that K.M.’s story has a certain quality as a work of art besides the obvious cleverness, which made it worth printing, and a good deal better than most stories anyhow.” Otherwise she has little to say about it. Nor does Leonard give any estimate of its literary value, confining his comment to a note that it earned £7.11s8d for the Hogarth Press.

Things were never easy between the two women. Katherine wrote of Virginia, “Ain’t she a snob?” and privately described Night and Day as “tahsome.” She was also a bit in awe of her, like many other people; an entry in her 1919 journal goes: “If one wasn’t so afraid—why should I be? this isn’t going to be read by Bloomsbury et Cie….” They quarreled when Virginia reported unkind remarks made by Bell and Desmond McCarthy about Katherine to her—one of the tedious Bloomsbury gossip scandals, this. There was resentment over Katherine’s review of Night and Day (she had earlier praised Virginia’s not very good short story “Kew Gardens” extravagantly). The Night and Day review reads rather well today: it commends the novel for its “air of quiet perfection” within the Jane Austen tradition, but regrets that the author has not found some new form of expression. She remarks on “her lack of any sign that she has made a perilous voyage—the absence of any scars. There she lies among the shipping—a tribute to civilization for our admiration and wonder…. In the midst of our admiration it makes us feel old and chill: we had never thought to look upon its like again!”

Katherine’s words were taken to heart, even if they were also resented. Virginia did not want to be Jane Austen all over again. And her next book, Jacob’s Room, departs radically from the conventional structure of Night and Day and moves very much in the same direction as that on which Katherine was embarking in “Prelude.” There is the same fragmentation, the same refusal to provide a structure around a graspable “point” or series of points, the same delight in fluidity of character, the same insistence on the visual, the surface stir. Methods and form make the two writers at least cousinly at this moment. Virginia’s voice in Jacob’s Room is a finer, more piercing instrument than Katherine’s in “Prelude”; the empty space where Jacob exists is a subtler and more original device than anything yet done by Katherine. Still, the fact is that Virginia drew something from Katherine.

She also felt threatened by her (“The Athenaeum has…adopted Katherine as their writer of genius, which means, I’m afraid, that poor Mrs. Woolf—but we writers are never jealous” she wrote to Vanessa early in 1920); and knew how to put her down, English lady to wild colonial girl. Then Katherine fueled Virginia’s hostility and superiority with “Bliss,” a story Virginia disliked with some justice for its shallowness: if that was the sort of success KM was going in for—. Murry made everything worse, and the tone of Virginia’s posthumous essay on Katherine in The New York Herald Tribune (“A Terribly Sensitive Mind,” 1927) obviously owes a good deal of its sharpness to Bloomsbury’s detestation of the man and his cult of his dead wife. But if one returns to Katherine’s last extant letter to Virginia, written from Menton, in which she recalls a visit to Asheham (the Woolfs’ first Sussex house), it is impossible for us at any rate to resist its evidence of a nervous but true affection. Katherine is again giving the freedom of her city:

Whenever I think of Asheham it is of clouds—big golden clouds, hazy, spinning slowly over the downs…. Oh, how beautiful Life is—Virginia, it is marvellously beautiful. Were one to live for ever it would not be long enough…. Farewell, dear friend (may I call you that)

What happened to Virginia’s letters to Katherine? It is possible, I suppose, that Murry, in his pain and exasperation, chucked them out in 1923. The loss is the more to be regretted since Virginia’s last references to the living Katherine appear so callous and beside the point. “Perhaps we fear or hate or wish annihilated this phantom of ourselves”: she may have thought so now. She refers to Katherine’s “complete recovery” a few months before her death and, during her last terrible visit to London, remarks to Lytton Strachey: “What a joke that the Murry’s have turned up again! I long to know further developments.”

The further development was announced “sensationally” by Nelly the cook at breakfast not long afterward: “Mrs. Murry’s dead! It says so in the paper.”

But this is one strand only among the many other themes which could be traced through the 600-odd pages of these letters. Her literary judgments are quick, definite, very much her own. Reading Ulysses becomes a martyrdom; unshockable by the buggery of Bloomsbury, she is nevertheless shocked by Bloom, and sets her lines of demarcation against Joyce, in spite of Eliot’s recommendation: “a gallant approach,” then “smash and splinters.” But “Tom Eliot’s poem” pleases her at first reading, for sound if not for sense (it was The Waste Land). She chides Gerald Brenan for solitariness, his young man’s habit of holding books up before his eyes—“French literature falls like a blue tint over the landscape”—but rejoices herself in the tint of Proust, “as if a miracle were being done before my eyes.” Clan loyalty makes her over-praise Lytton. She cares for Forster’s good opinion, ventures none on his work. Perhaps the most arresting statement in the whole volume is her remark to him that her insanities have “done instead of religion.”

The editing of these letters is scrupulous, attentive, and perceptive; and the index a comprehensive one, which cannot always be said these days.

This Issue

March 31, 1977