The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 3, 1923-1928

It’s taken me a few months to work my way through the 6 highly productive years covered in this volume of letters. During this time she wrote Mrs Dalloway, The Common Reader, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando, in addition to numerous essays, diary entries, and these letters. Her reputation began to soar but she still found time to write careful criticism to her nephew Julian about his poems, and launch her intense relationship with Vita.

The sheer volume of letters that deal with problems and theories of writing make me wonder if anyone’s ever attempted a corollary to Leonard’s compendium of her diary entries into a Writer’s Diary by making a compendium of advice from the letters. In these we find her thoughts about Gertrude Stein (“For my own part I wish we could skip a generation—skip Edith and Gertrude and Tom and Joyce and Virginia and come out in the open again…”) among other current writers.

In 1925 she’s wrestling with what a novel is; a letter to Janet Case: “What is form? What is character? What is a novel?” and to Vita: “I want you to invent a name by the way which I can use instead of ‘novel’. Thinking it over, I see I cannot, never could, never shall, write a novel. What, then, to call it?”

Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it: But no doubt I shall think differently next year.

We see her rejecting London social life in order to focus on work: “I have banged my door on parties, dug myself into a dank dismal burrow, where I do nothing but read and write. This is my hybernating season. I read 5 hours yesterday, the same today. Its grim but salutary.” Yet we find she does not like reading novels: “Nothing induces me to read a novel except when I have to make money by writing about it. I detest them. They seem to me wrong from start to finish—my own included.”

“I am reading six books at once, the only way of reading; since, as you will agree, one book is only a single unaccompanied note, and to get the full sound, one needs ten others at the same time.”

Against typewriting: “And then you’d never believe what a sterilising fracturing bone-cracking backaching effect on the style the typewriter has.”

The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4: 1925-1928

This volume includes the essays I was grumpy about being missing from earlier volume, the editor choosing to put the entire Common Reader in here for some reason. Once you get over that chaffing, you settle in for hundreds of pages of essays printed across a much wider number of journals, including American ones which paid more than  TLS’s fee (so we see a precipitous drop in submissions to poor Bruce Richmond who was so important to helping VW gain confidence in her voice; plus there’s the 1921 matter of him rejecting her characterization of Henry James’s story as lewd).

Asking How Should One Read a Book, “one should read it as if one were writing it.” She gives an example of Defoe and how we casually drops in a little unnecessary fact that isn’t necessary to the story but is necessary to the truth of the story because this is how people talk—they always add some irrelevant detail without thinking. In this essay she also mentions something that I’m afflicted by: “so curiously is the brain compounded that while tracts of literature repel at one season, they are appetising and essential at another.”

We need to realize “how great a part the art of not reading plays into the art of reading. To be able to read books without reading them, to skip and saunter, to suspend judgement, to lounge and loaf down the alleys and bye-streets of letters is the best way of rejuvenating one’s own creative power.”

Another favorite, Street Haunting, has brilliant passages about books:

Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.

In writing of American writers, she praises Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al, pinpointing his success of using baseball as a meeting place for a diverse group of people who have no other center. “Games give him what society gives his English brother.” She also praises Americans for coining new words, saying that when the Brits want to freshen their speech, they borrow from America’s “poppycock, rambunctious, flipflop, booster, good-mixer — all the expressive ugly vigorous slang which creeps into use among us first in talk, later in writing…”

Tackling the subject of  her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, she notes how Cameron chased Tennyson into his room shouting Coward! Coward! when he refused to get a vaccination.

Orlando, A Biography

Reading this playful book that Woolf herself referred to as a “bad joke” in a several letters to friends and family was a joy. I feel like my reading this time (as opposed to when I read it in 2016) was deeper due to the onramp I took toward it, fully immersed in her journals/diaries/essays. I know more about her constant stretching towards defining what a novel is, what fiction is, and revel in seeing her throw the label off completely by tagging this a biography, complete with preface and index. I’m more aware of who the friends are that she thanks in the preface, and can appreciate the gentle wave she gives to Lydia Lopokova (“the beauty of movement”). I see the gentle threads that connect this to her earlier work with an interest in the concept of time (see Chapter 2’s digression on whether or not simply saying “Time passed” isn’t easier, a direct connect to The Lighthouse’s section Time Passes). From her diary, I’m also aware of her examination of her own growing fame, put into words by Orlando that “fame impedes and constricts,… [but] obscurity is dark, ample, and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded.”

Having just read her essay skewering Hemingway in 1927, I can see another barb for him here: “(And from this it follows that only the most profound masters of style can tell the truth, and when one meets a simple one-syllabled writer, one may conclude, without any doubt at all, that the poor man is lying.)”

What else? Of course the gender fluidity, plus commentary about reading, writing, teasing that she’s about to reveal the meaning of life, protesting against Victorian-era worship of the act of marriage, protesting about the treatment of women in general and women writers more particularly. It’s the most famous example of a labor of love, directed at Vita, swirling round Vita, with Knole as the backdrop and photos of Vita (and Angelica, VW’s niece) included to make it a proper bio.

Life? Literature? One to be made into the other? But how monstrously difficult! For – here came by a pair of tight scarlet trousers – how would Addison have put that? Here came two dogs dancing on their hind legs. How would Lamb have described that? For reading Sir Nicholas and his friends …, she somehow got the impression – here she rose and walked – they made one feel – it was an extremely uncomfortable feeling – one must never, never say what one thought. (She stood on the banks of the Serpentine. It was a bronze colour; spider-thin boats were skimming from side to side.) They made one feel, she continued, that one must always, always write like somebody else.

Kings 1 & 2, Chronicles 1 & 2, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

It’s taken me a while to muster up the desire to continue, after getting mired down in the dull, singsongy repetition of the two books of Kings. Don’t get me wrong— 1 Kings 1:1 starts out strong, you think, “AW YEAH!” when you hear that King David as an old man is shivering but finds that he can only go on if he snuggles up to a young virgin to warm him up. But then it’s a snoozefest, and David dies, and Solomon lives and here we have the famous decree to cut a disputed baby in half to identify the real mother. Guess how many wives Solomon had. 700 wives and 300 concubines—a bit excessive.

In 2 Kings, things still plod but there are scraps of interest. Elisha puts on a magic show raising people from the dead and creating unending flows of food (sounds familiar, right, Jesus?). There’s a disturbing scene where a woman complains that she agreed with her neighbor to first eat her son and the next day they’d eat her neighbor’s son, “So we boiled my son, and did eat him: and I said unto her on the next day, Give thy son, that we may eat him: and she hath hid her son.” In chapter 9, we get gruesome details of Jezebel’s death—thrown from a window and trampled by horses until nothing left but her skull. Chapter 18 describes men who during a siege have to “eat their own dung and drink their own piss.” Chapter 23 mentions male prostitutes (sodomites).

1 Chronicles is the place to go if you’re looking for Biblical names. New favorite verse is 1:1:10 – “And Cush begat Nimrod : he began to be mighty upon the earth.” But seriously, most of this book is just lists of names, a genealogy from Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael. We get a retelling of the stories we’ve already heard in the books of Samuel & Kings, like David’s story. 1:21:1 has the first appearance of the word Satan, which opens a can of worms. Previously, bad people were referred to as sons of Belial, and the Eden serpent in Genesis is just a snake. Whether or not there’s a definite article (the satan vs satan) shifts the meaning. The devilish Satan that we know won’t show up until Job. From Wikipedia:

The original Hebrew term sâtan (שָּׂטָן‎) is a generic noun meaning “accuser” or “adversary”, which is used throughout the Hebrew Bible to refer to ordinary human adversaries, as well as a specific supernatural entity. The word is derived from a verb meaning primarily “to obstruct, oppose”. When it is used without the definite article (simply satan), the word can refer to any accuser, but when it is used with the definite article (ha-satan), it usually refers specifically to the heavenly accuser: the satan.

2 Chronicles repeats a lot of the Kings stuff, about Solomon and his progeny. It’s a seesaw of God-fearing then God-snubbing people, with wars and peace then wars and peace again. I learned that 20,000 baths of wine = 120,000 gallons. We’ve got more mention of lost texts (like those of Iddo the seer). Next time I want to mis-inform someone, I’m going to say that God put the lying spirit in my mouth. Elijah prophesizes that Jehoram “shall have great sickness by disease of your bowels, until your bowels fall out by reason of the sickness day by day.” Yikes. And what would a book of the bible be without an evil woman; this time it’s our girl Athaliah (daughter of Jezebel, of course!) who counseled her son to do wicked things, then seizes the government by killing the whole royal family (Can I get some detail here?! All we have is “But when Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she arose and destroyed all the seed royal of the house of Judah.”). She actually gets a speaking part, too, very exciting for a woman: “Then Athaliah rent her clothes, and said, Treason, Treason.”

Things start to get dull in Ezra, where not much happens except the restriction on “mixed” marriage, so all the non-Jewish wives and children were abandoned. Some gruesome decree from King Darius where whoever alters his decrees “let timber be pulled down from his house, and let him be hanged thereon; and let his house be made a dunghill for this.”

The book of Nehemiah used to be mixed in with Ezra but has been separate since the 16th c AD. Dullsville: Jerusalem is rebuilt and there’s long lists of names to lull you to sleep. Really hope things start to pick up soon.

Which they do, in Esther. It’s always a good sign when a book is named after a woman. Things start out exciting, with Queen Vashti refusing to come and be ogled by the king and his friends on the 7th day of an epic 180 day drinkfest. This refusal sets off panic in the court, with the dudes protesting that if other women caught wind of this rebellion, they too would start standing up to their husbands. THIS MUST BE STOPPED! And so a law was written that every man would “bear rule in his own house”, Vashti was banished, and the search was on for all “fair young virgins” to be brought to the king. Enter our hero, Esther, a Jewish orphan being raised by her uncle Mordecai, who told her not to reveal her Jewishness. This is great: all these pure, young virgins, had to undergo 12 months of further purification (6 months being oiled up with myrrh, 6 months with “sweet odors”) before they were pure enough for the king to ravage. Esther’s chosen to be the new wife. Meanwhile, Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman, who then sets a plan in place to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. Haman throws lots to see when this should take place, and it’s determined that a year from now is the day. He gets the king to send decrees across the whole land saying that on such-and-such a day in 12 months, everyone should rise up against all Jews (“young and old, little children and women”), kill them and steal their money.  So Haman’s a bad dude. He goes around setting up a scaffolding to hang Mordecai from but the king remembers all the great things Mordecai has done for him and grants him great wealth. Haman is eventually hung on the gallows he created for Mordecai. Esther has revealed her Jewishness and gotten the king to reverse his decree, and thus the festival of Purim is born. (Pur-im, because the date of their supposed destruction was determined by throwing Pur, or lots). Oh, and bible scholars say this book is a complete fiction made up to explain the origins of Purim. It’s one of 2 books in the Hebrew bible that don’t mention god (Song of Songs the other).

Woolf on Hemingway

Reading Woolf’s review of Hemingway made me laugh out loud. She found herself unable to turn down the £120 offered for four reviews for the New York Herald Tribune but bemoans the effort in a Sept 1927 letter to Vita, “Here I am bound hand and foot to write an article on the works of a man called Hemingway… write for the Americans again, write for money again, I will not.” (Spoiler alert: she will and does.)

According to Hemingway’s biographer, Michael Reynolds, he read the review in Sylvia Beach’s Parisian bookshop (Shakespeare & Co) and was so furious “that he punched a lamp and broke it. Sylvia billed him for the lamp.”

Woolf begins the review uncovering the nature of criticism, attempting to pull back the curtain and explain the inner workings of what goes on. First, what does the critic already know about the author. Vague rumors—Hemingway is an American living in France, “an ‘advanced’ writer, we suspect, connected with what is called a movement, thought which of the many we own that we do not know.”

Then we must read his earlier book, The Sun Also Rises, in order to evaluate the current book, Men Without Women. In looking at that book, Woolf determines that Hemingway’s writing occasionally gives us a real emotion, “[b]ut there is something faked, too, which turns bad and gives an unpleasant feeling…” She sums up what she knows so far: he is not an advanced writer, he seems to fake his characters (this is a particular passionate inquiry of Woolf’s, see Mr. Bennett & Mrs Brown/Character in Fiction).

With this in mind, what do we make of his current book? Woolf starts with the problematic title, Men Without Women. Once you gender a book, you’ve “brought into play sympathies and antipathies which have nothing to do with art. The greatest writers lay no stress upon sex one way or the other.”

Another thing critics do is compare against classics, so Woolf flashes these short stories against the masters, to Hemingway’s disadvantage. “If one had not summoned the ghosts of Tchekov, Mérimée, and Maupassant, no doubt one would be enthusiastic.” The short stories aren’t as deep as his novel, probably due to the “excessive use of dialogue… At last we are inclined to cry out with the little girl in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’: ‘Would you please please please please please please stop talking?'” (This is where I laughed.)

She examines his craft and finds it lacking. Things are out of proportion. His “tendency to flood the page with unnecessary dialogue” trips him up. A true writer gets much closer to the truth, life, reality, than Hemingway does. To sum up, “he has moments of bare and nervous beauty; he is modern in manner but not in vision; he is self-consciously virile; his talent has contracted rather than expanded; compared with his novel his stories are a little dry and sterile.”

To the Lighthouse

I can’t recommend highly enough the best way to approach this book—sneaking up on it slowly by reading the months and years worth of letters and diaries and essays and other books that came before and during its birth. As soon as I reached 1927 in my chronology I got more and more excited that this was within reach, finally.

I haven’t read this in over 20 years. What is wrong with me? This needs to be a perennial read. Coming to it now, with a few decades under my belt, I’m even more staggered. The figure of Mr. Ramsay, so selfish in his widowhood, reminds me of my own father.

I can’t say too much here, there are really no words. After I finished, I immediately read Vanessa’s letter to Virginia that she wrote after reading it, high praise indeed, calling her a magnificent portrait painter for the likenesses she captured of their parents.

These seeds dropped into my brain at an early age, did they strengthen my resolve not to tether myself to one person for an eternal life sentence? Lily Briscoe succeeds and thrives as a spinster, urging her “exemption from the universal law” because she likes to be alone and to be herself. If so, add that to my growing list of debts to Woolf.

Most certainly I read this more slowly than ever before, taking long breaks in between sections to catch my breath and mull over her craft. If there is a blessing in the current chaos of pandemic life, it is in embracing slowness, stillness, appreciating things to the depth of their cores, no more surface skimming to get on to the next thing.

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Related: letters from readers, cf:

and one from George Duckworth: