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.”