Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters Of Virginia Woolf

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The selected letters is Joanne Trautmann Banks’s collection of the greatest hits, and this volume does a great service for those of us who are dipping our toes into the letters and not yet ready to read all six volumes. There are also 12 new letters that appeared after the complete collection was released. A remarkable collation giving the breadth and depth of VW’s life in a more easily digestible format. “Gracious child, how you gobble!”

This keeps echoing in my head and has been working as a great incentive to be a good person: “How I adore nice people. What else makes life worth living?” (19 Sept 1937 to Ethel Smyth)

On reading:

  • 30 Oct 1904 to Violet Dickinson; “… the only place I can be quiet and free is in my home, with Nessa: she understands my moods, and lets me alone in them… I long for a large room to myself, with books and nothing else, where I can shut myself up, and see no one, and read myself into peace.”
  • 16 April 1906 to Violet: “I lead the life of a Solitary: read and write and eat my meal, and walk out upon the moor, and have tea with Madge, and talk to her, and then dine alone and read my book, which I might be doing now if I weren’t writing to you.”
  • 21 Aug 1927 to Saxon Sydney- Turner; “Do you agree that one never thinks of Saxon or Barbara singly, but always as the centre of a nest of other objects? this fact has never been observed by the novelists—but my word, what a set of dunderheads and duffers they are! Even Scott has passages of an incredible imbecility. Trollope has gone up in my estimation however. But then, as its all a question of mood, and of what one’s just read, or whom one’s just seen, whats the good of criticism?”
  • 19 Feb 1929 to Vita: “I am sometimes pleased to think that I read English literature when I was young; I like to think of myself tapping at my father’s study door, saying very loud and clear ‘Can I have another volume, father? I’ve finished this one’. Then he would be very pleased and say ‘Gracious child, how you gobble!’… and get up and take down, it may have been the 6th or 7th volume of Gibbons complete works, or Speddings Bacon [Life and Letters of Sir Francis Bacon, edited by James Spedding], or Cowper’s Letters. ‘But my dear, if its worth reading, its worth reading twice’ he would say. I have a great devotion for him —what a disinterested man, how high minded, how tender to me, and fierce and intolerable—”
  • 28 Dec 1932 to Ethel Smyth: “Nobody but the postman can possibly interrupt me between today and tomorrow. Therefore I am sunk deep in books. Oh yes, I write in the morning—just a little joke [Flush] to boil my years pot: but from 4.30 to 11.30 I read, Ethel. Isn’t that gorgeous?… D’you know I get such a passion for reading sometimes its like the other passion —writing—only the wrong side of the carpet. Heaven knows what either amounts to. My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery—always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? Whats this passion for?… oh so may books —doesn’t it break your heart almost to think of me, with this passion, always consumed with the desire to read, chopped, chafed, bugged, battered by the voices, the hands, the faces, the bodily presence of those who are pleased to call themselves my friends? Its like knocking a bluebottle off its lump of sugar perpetually…”
  • 29 July 1934 to Ethel Smyth: “Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading. Its a disembodied trance-like intense rapture that used to seize me as a girl, and comes back now and again down here, with a violence that lays me low.”
  • 8 Feb 1936 to Hugh Walpole: “I’m reading David Copperfield for the 6th time with almost complete satisfaction. I’d forgotten how magnificent it is. Whats wrong, I can’t help asking myself? Why wasn’t he the greatest writer in the world? For alas – no, I won’t try to go into my crabbings and diminishings.”
  • 25 June 1936 to Ethel: “I’m almost floored by the extreme dexterity insight and beauty of Colette. How does she do it? No one in all England could do a thing like that.”
  • 1 Feb 1941 to Ethel: “Did I tell you I’m reading the whole of English literature through? By the time I’ve reached Shakespeare the bombs will be falling. So I’ve arranged a very nice last scene: reading Shakespeare, having forgotten my gas mask, I shall fade far away, and quite forget… They brought down a raider the other side of Lewes yesterday. I was cycling in to get our butter, but only heard a drone in the clouds. Thank God, as you would say, one’s fathers left one a taste for reading! Instead of thinking, by May we shall be – whatever it may be: I think, only 3 months to read Ben Jonson, Milton, Donne, and all the rest!”

On writing:

  • January 1907 to Lady Robert Cecil (Nelly): “I think you ought to write novels: you can write letters which is far harder.”
  • 25 Aug 1907 to Violet: “Never did any woman hate ‘writing’ as much as I do. But when I am old and famous I shall discourse like Henry James [whom she had just described as saying ‘My dear Virginia, they tell me… that you… as indeed being your fathers daughter nay your grandfathers grandchild – the descendant I may say of a century… of quill pens and ink – ink – ink pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me… that you, that you, that you write in short.’]
  • 22 June 1930 to Ethel Smyth: “And then I married, and then my brains went up in a shower of fireworks. As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets, as sanity does.”
  • 2 June 1935 to Ethel Smyth: “I’m sorry I’ve been incommunicative, but I can only write letters when my mind is full of bubble and foam; when I’m not aware of the niceties of the English language. You dont know the bother it is, using for one purpose what I’m perpetually using for another. Could you sit down and improvise a dance at the piano after tea to please your friends?”
  • June 28, 1936 to Julian Bell: “[re: his piece on Roger Fry] My criticism is; first that you’ve not mastered the colloquial style, which is the hardest, so that it seemed to me (but my mind was weak) to be discursive, loose knit, and uneasy in its familiarities and conventions. However you could easily pull it together. Prose has to be so tight, if it’s not to smear one with mist.”

On dispassionateness:

  • July 1906 to Madge Vaughan: “But my present feeling is that this vague and dream like world, without love, or heart, or passion, or sex, is the world I really care about, and find interesting.”

On her brain:

  • Dec 1907 to Violet: “Now my brain I will confess, for I dont like to talk of it, floats in blue air; where there are circling clouds, soft sunbeams of elastic gold, and fairy gossamers – things that cant be cut – that must be tenderly enclosed, and expressed in a globe of exquisitely coloured words. At the mere prick of steel they vanish.”

On not wanting children:

13 May 1908 to Violet: “I doubt I shall ever have a baby. Its voice is too terrible, a senseless scream, like an ill omened cat. Nobody could wish to comfort it, or pretend that it was a human being… the amount of business that has to be got through before you can enjoy it is dismaying.”

On French:

  • 25 Dec 1906 to Violet: “… I think it a virtue in the French language that it submits to prose, whereas English curls and knots and breaks off in short spasms of rage.”

On autobiography:

  • 28 Dec 1932 to Hugh Walpole; “Of all literature (yes, I think this is more or less true) I love autobiography most. In fact I sometimes think only autobiography is literature—novels are what we peel off, and come at last to the core, which is only you or me.”
  • 22 Dec 1934 to Victoria Ocampo; “Very few women yet have written truthful autobiographies. It is my favourite form of reading (I mean when I’m incapable of Shakespeare, and one often is)”
  • 5 April 1928 to Ling Su-Hua: “I find autobiographies much better than novels.”

Humorous:

  • 17 July 1935, to Vanessa; “I have been asked to be President of the P E.N Club in succession to [H.G.] Wells: this is about the greatest insult that could be offered a writer, or a human being.

Gertrude Stein:

  • 16 Sept 1925 to Roger Fry: “We are lying crushed under an immense manuscript of Gertrude Stein’s [Hogarth Press pub’d Composition as Explanation in Nov 1926]. I cannot brisk myself up to deal with it – whether her contortions are genuine or fruitful, or only such spasms as we might all go through in sheer impatience at having to deal with English prose. Edith Sitwell says she’s gigantic, (meaning not the flesh but the spirit). For my own part I wish we could skip a generation – skip Edith and Gertrude and Tom and Joyce and Virginia adn come out in the open again, when everything has been restarted, and runs full tilt, instead of trickling and teasing in this irritating way.
  • 2 June 1926 to Vanessa: “We were at a party at Edith Sitwell’s last night, where a good deal of misery was endured. Jews swarmed. It was in honour of Miss Gertrude Stein who was throned on a broken setee… This resolute old lady inflicted great damage on all the youth. According to Dadie [Rylands], she contradicts all you say; insists that she is not only the most intelligible, but also the most popular of living writers; and in particular despises all of English birth. Leonard, being a Jew himself, go on very well with her.”
  • 26 May 1938 to T.S. Eliot: “Dear Tom, Whichever Woolf it was, it wasnt this Woolf; but now it is this Woolf – which sounds like a passage from the works of the inspired Miss Stein.

Ambivalence about Stella Benson’s writing:

  • 20 April 1931 to Ethel: “Stella Benson I dont read because what I did read seemed to me all quivering—saccharine with sentimentality; brittle with the kind of wit that means sentiment freezing: But I’ll try again: I’ll think about jealousy.”
  • 28 Dec 1932 to Ethel: “And I’m reading Stella Benson: with pleasure…”
  • 12 Jan 1933 to Stella Benson; “I have just finished Tobit and so can say… I like it immensely.”
  • 19 Dec 1933 to Ott; “Did you know Stella Benson? I’m sorry for her death—I think one of these days she might have written something I liked—And I wanted to see her, apart from the dull little man [her husband] who never left her alone for a moment.”