The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 4, 1929-1931

This volume points out a clear shift in VW’s friendships, veering slightly away from Vita and into Ethel Smyth (composer)’s arms. We have Woolf’s reactions to her readers’ reactions to her books, A Room of One’s Own and The Waves. Nessa is a constant presence and at the end a frantic torrent of panic around Lytton’s illness (he dies in January 1932). She and Leonard successfully sue a hotel about the noise pollution their nightly band makes.

This, from the introduction, seals my satisfaction in the current project I’m on, to read everything chronologically:

The diary and letters are complementary. Almost nothing is repeated from one into the other. Virginia tossed away an idea or a phrase as soon as she had minted it. Each fills the gaps left by the other, gaps created because many of her letters do not survive, and by what she deliberately withheld from her friends or did not bother to mention in her diary. They must be read side by side. Together they form the portrait of an artist in travail, but one who did not allow her creative anguish to suppress her gaiety. If the diaries seem more contemplative, and the letters more exuberant, it was because these moods alternated in her, and for each she adopted the appropriate vehicle, a hammock and a trampoline.

To Gerald Brenan about Robinson Jeffers: “Tomorrow I shall go back to London, and there already awaits me a string of inevitable experiences—what is called “seeing people”. You don’t know what that means—it means one can’t get out of it. It means that Miss Winter has asked us to ask Mr Robinson Jeffers to tea because he is only in London for a week and will then return to a cave in California and write immortal poetry for ever. Mr Jeffers is a genius so one must see him.”

On writing:

“I write everything except Orlando 4 times over, and should write it 6 times; and after a morning of grunting and groaning have 200 words to show: and those as crazy as broken china.”

“Yet after all, thats the way to write; and if I had time to prove it, the truth of one’s sensations is not in the fact, but in the reverberation.”

“[I] light a cigarette, take my writing board on my knee; and let myself down, like a diver, very cautiously into the last sentence I wrote yesterday. Then perhaps after 20 minutes, or it may be more, I shall see a light in the depths of the sea, and stealthily approach—for one’s sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish; and if one brings it up it wont be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea. Now these are the great excitements of life.”

“Its so difficult to write, because,—well, after finishing a book, the mind bobs like a cork on the sea—I hate the feeling; I had forgotten the horror.”

“I have finished my book [The Waves]—yes—but it is a failure. Too difficult: too jerky: too inchoate altogether. But what’s the point of writing if one doesn’t make a fool of oneself?”

“All writing is nothing but putting words on the backs of rhythm.”

The Waves

After closing the book, the words continued to wash over me as their echoes faded. What is there to say about this magnificent poem? I’d forgotten in the 20 year span since I last read it how powerful it was, seductive. Was I able to read it slowly last time? Did I savor it in small bursts like this go-round? Did I have the same level of appreciation as this time when I was excited to reach 1931 in her chronology, knowing that The Waves awaited? Or is a deeper understanding only possible now as a middle aged person rather than as a bubble-headed undergrad flinging her way into the world, at the beginning of her journey? The progression through time squeezed my heart in a way that would be imperceptible to a twenty-something. I also find it invaluable to have been her sweat and tears and gnash her teeth over the prior months in working hard at this masterpiece, in contrast to how she flung off the “joke” of Orlando in a dash. Rhythm and pace and beat preoccupied her thoughts, how helpful to have been becoming close pals with Ethel Smyth at the same time as composing this?

Several images in here that have popped up in her other writing, the rooks settling like a net on the trees, the fin out on the water, the moths.

I appreciate the many years I’ve belonged to the VW listserve, as the question of pronunciation of names came up a while ago, someone calling out how the emphasis is always on the first syllable in British names (BERNard, not berNARD) which left me correctly pronouncing the characters this time.

I immediately jumped to my new favorite resource to read a selection of letters that were written to her in response. The below might be my favorite, feeling a similar feeling of the “utmost depression” as one who also proposes to write.

 

The Book of Job

Coming across the book of Job in the Bible is like stumbling onto an oasis in the desert. It’s downright Shakespearean, even set up like a play wherein Satan goads God into tormenting Job with further and further pain to see if Job will renounce him; later, Job’s three pals show up to throw shade at him and taunt him for obviously not being a true believer since God has forsaken him. This is the book that Melville quotes from in Moby- Dick, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” And Virginia Woolf, the daughter of famous un-believer Leslie Stephen, adds it to her repertoire in 1922: “I read the book of Job last night—I dont think God comes well out of it.”

So the quick and dirty summary: Job’s a wealthy dude with a large family and he’s very God-abiding/fearing. Satan makes a bet with God that he can get Job to denounce him, God says “Go for it, but don’t kill him.” Satan kills off Job’s entire family and has all of his wealth stolen. Job doesn’t budge. Satan’s strolling around heaven again and God brags about how great Job is, prodding Satan to try again, which he does by putting boils and other bodily ills to Job. His wife (of course! women are always evil in the Bible) counsels Job to curse God but he refuses. Then three of his friends arrive to harangue him and tell him he’s obviously good for nothing. Job philosophizes and it gets a little sleepy there in the middle. Then a 4th “friend”, Elihu shows up to continue to berate Job before God pops over to shut everyone up. God’s pissed at the three friends and Job prays for them, then Job is rewarded with double the wealth he originally had and, oddly, the exact number of sons and daughters he had that were murdered. Bananas. He lives for 140 years, happily ever after.

There’s a lot of quotable bits here, but my favorite might be verse 6:6: “Can that which is unsavory be eaten without salt? or is there any taste in the white of an egg?” (Verse 10:10 a close second: “Have you not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?”)

Crash Course: If You Want To Get Away With Murder Buy A Car

Great graphic journalism depicting the absolute insanity of the laws we have on the books that protect cars and leave pedestrians defenseless. I heard an interview with Phoenix on the podcast War on Cars and ordered it up immediately. What struck me was his perception that cars is what has shaped Americans into the teeming mass of self-centered jerks that we are—you get into your enclosed bubble and mow down whoever’s in your way. The book depicts roads empty of people or other cars which gives it an eerie feeling; he continues to hammer home how much damage these objects do— because of mass and speed — to the human body. He brings up the creepiness of an empty parking lot, how alien it feels, but lord help you if it’s a parking lot pulsing with angry motorists instead, like the wild west.

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3: 1925-1930

I stumbled across my own manic underlining in this volume, decades-old notes from my past self to my current, proclaiming what was important to me then. For this read I adopted the much saner light pencil markings and dogeared pages.

Again there is too much to mention from this fertile period (To the Lighthouse, Orlando, Room of One’s Own, The Waves). She exposes the day-to-day struggle she has with both writing and managing servants. (Surely someone has written something interesting about Woolf & the servants? Ah, yes.)

The idea of writing something about Woolf’s more mindful comments constantly pricked me: “But I dont think of the future, or the past, I feast on the moment. This is the secret of happiness; but only reached now in middle age.”

More on middle age: “At 46 one must be a miser; only have time for essentials.”

She grapples with her increasing fame and continues to hate Americans: “Also the ‘fame’ is becoming vulgar & a nuisance. It means nothing; & yet takes one’s time. Americans perpetually.”

Continued love of walking around London: “Also London itself perpetually attracts, stimulates, gives me a play & a story & a poem, without any trouble, save that of moving my legs through the streets.” and “To walk alone in London is the greatest rest.”

Some exquisite phrases:

  • “… something of a gorged look, which connoisseurs have; as if he had always just swallowed a bargain.”
  • “Quiet brings me cool clear quick mornings, in which I dispose of a good deal of work, & toss my brain into the air when I take a walk.”
  • “… I have such a razor edge to my palette that seeing people often disgusts me of seeing them.”
  • “Time flaps on the mast—my own phrase I think.” (she’s quoting herself from Mrs Dalloway)

An occasional peek at her relationship with Leonard: “I like to have space to spread my mind out in. Whatever I think, I can rap out, suddenly to L. We are somehow very detached, free, harmonious.” and “Had I married Lytton I should never have written anything. So I thought at dinner the other night. He checks & inhibits in the most curious way. L. may be severe; but he stimulates. Anything is possible with him.”

On Shakespeare: “I read Shakespeare directly I have finished writing, when my mind is agape & red & hot. Then it is astonishing. I never yet knew how amazing his stretch & speed & word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace & outrace my own, seeming to start equal & then I see him draw ahead & do things I could not in my wildest tumult & utmost press of mind imagine. Even the less known & worser plays are written at a speed that is quicker than anybody else’s quickest; & the words drop so fast one can’t pick them up.”

Reading: “I am reading Dante; & my present view of reading is to elongate immensely. I take a week over one canto. No hurry.”

Men’s confidence: “And the egotism of men surprises & shocks me even now. Is there a woman of my acquaintance who could sit in my arm chair from 3 to 6.30 without the semblance of a suspicion that I may be busy, or tired, or bored; & so sitting could talk, grumbling & grudging, of her difficulties, worries; then eat chocolates, then read a book, & go at last, apparently self-complacent & wrapped in a kind of blubber of misty self satisfaction? Not the girls at Newnham or Girton. They are far too spry; far too disciplined. None of that self-confidence is their lot.”

Her comments about the General Strike of 1926 are of interest as we live through the pandemic: “(one of the curious effects of the Strike is that it is difficult to remember the day of the week). Everything is the same, but unreasonably, or because of the weather, or habit, we are more cheerful, take less notice, & occasionally think of other things… There are various skeleton papers being sold. One believes nothing… So we go on, turning in our cage. I notice how frequently we break of⁠[f] with ‘Well I don’t know.’… The shops are open but empty. Over it all is some odd pale unnatural atmosphere—great activity but no normal life. I think we shall become more independent & stoical as the days go on.”

On not wanting children anymore: “And yet oddly enough I scarcely want children of my own now. This insatiable desire to write something before I die, this ravaging sense of the shortness & feverishness of life, make me cling, like a man on a rock, to my one anchor. I don’t like the physicalness of having children of one’s own.”

A Room of One’s Own

I’m apparently re-reading this book every two years (2014, 2016, 2018), which feels completely reasonable. This was the first reading where I’ve been comfortably sunk in VW-land for months as I read her work chronologically. And so it struck me to see threads of things she’s been grappling with, like what is “the novel” anyway? And her favorite writers show up again, and anyone who’s been on this same journey will recognize flashes and flares of ideas from her myriad of essays, letters, and diary entries.

Other thoughts from the grab-bag of my brain: that this was published only days before the epic stock market crash that plunged the world into The Depression; that there are beautiful passages about writing and city walking and time passing. That I will invariably reach for this again in 2022. And now, back to the books! I’m excited to read the letters/diaries to see the reactions Room received!