Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen

Sweet biography of Virginia Woolf’s dad, organized by his pal Fred Maitland and consisting of Stephen’s letters interspersed with reminiscences from friends, pages from Leslie’s mother’s diary, and memories from Woolf’s own pen. The ordained Cambridge clergyman who turned his back on religion and made his way with journalism in London, surviving two wives’ deaths and churning out books and articles and managing the Dictionary of National Biography in between long walks. Beati omnes qui ambulant. I appreciating his mellowing with age, “I know a good many plants now, and feel the pursuit excellent for an elderly gentleman. It gives a motive for many pleasant strolls at a mild pace.”

Virginia Woolf: A biography

I don’t know why I was so reluctant to read her nephew’s biography. You can clearly see his bias and inflating certain areas of her life (undue emphasis on the competition between VW and the author’s mother about having had children, perhaps too much emphasis on her mental illness), and if you’re aware of it, you can tolerate its presence. Bell does an admirable job weaving together bits and bobs from her diaries and letters at a time when not everything was public, when in fact his wife was doing the far more heroic job in transcribing and editing Woolf’s journals. Worth reading, obviously.

The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 6: 1933-1941

And now we really come to the end. This last volume had her final burst of essays along with extensive appendices and several previously uncollected essays from 1906-1924. A true Woolf nerd delight, pages of errata detailed painstakingly, the three BBC broadcasts Woolf did are here transcribed, this is a hugely valuable resource.

My silly notation marked certain things like her calling Melville a “poet novelist” (alongside Emily Bronte and Hardy), but most extensive appreciation was for “The Leaning Tower” (1940) where she delves into philosophy of words/writing.

A writer, more than any other artist, needs to be a critic because words are so common, so familiar, that he must sieve them and sift them if they are to become enduring. Write daily; write freely; but let us always compare what we have written with what the great writers have written. It is humiliating, but it is essential. If we are going to preserve and to create, that is the only way. And we are going to do both. We need not wait till the end of the war. We can begin now. We can begin, practically and prosaically, by borrowing books from public libraries; by reading omnivorously, simultaneously, poems, plays, novels, histories, biographies, the old and the new. We must sample before we can select. It never does to be a nice feeder; each of us has an appetite that must find for itself the food that nourishes it. Nor let us shy away from the kings because we are commoners. That is a fatal crime in the eyes of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Virgil, and Dante, who, if they could speak—and after all they can—would say, “Don’t leave me to the wigged and gowned. Read me, read me for yourselves.” They do not mind if we get our accents wrong, or have to read with a crib in front of us. Of course—are we not commoners, outsiders?—we shall trample many flowers and bruise much ancient grass. But let us bear in mind a piece of advice that an eminent Victorian who was also an eminent pedestrian once gave to walkers: “Whenever you see a board up with ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’, trespass at once.”

Moments of Being

Five unpublished autobiographical reminisces were a perfect way to wind up the project of reading all of Woolf’s work. Three of these pieces were papers read to the Memoir Club in the years after the Great War, and aside from her diary these are the only autobiography she wrote. For the pieces written for her Bloomsbury audience, she delighted in thrusting her spear at the sitting ducks in the audience, recalling her first meeting Duncan Grant as he shuffled up to her and Adrian at the Louvre, or perfectly nailing Desmond MacCarthy’s personality to the board for analysis. The memories of St. Ives and Cornwall are the bedrock of her consciousness, everything creative springs from that eternally refreshed well.

Between The Acts

Stunning. Her best work? I feel this after finishing everything she wrote, and yet this makes a strong case for being her most ambitious work that succeeds in achieving the vision she had. Mixture of poetry and play and prose, dipping into people’s psyches, noting the precarious state of the world on a June day in 1939 as England hovered on the brink of war, the village come to Pointz Hall to view a play that pulled them through the many ages, culminating in flashing mirrors to reflect the audience itself. Gorgeous luscious writing, a miracle of assembly and disassembly, unity and separation. This signals the end of the works she intended for publication, as it came out a few months after her death. Yet my project marches on, into the autobiographical essays she perhaps never intended for publication, Moments of Being.

The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf

Alongside all the letters, diaries, essays, biographies, novels, and plays, I was also reading Woolf’s shorter fiction squeezed appropriately in chronologically. This excellent resource included all the stories collected in Monday or Tuesday and Mrs Dalloway’s Party plus many more. She frequently turned to short stories as a way of relieving her brain, to amuse herself, to give voice to the burst of words bubbling up inside as she worked on larger, more intense projects.

Her evolution as a writer is on display in this collection spanning 1906-1941. I was particularly struck by the sound design she evokes in In the Orchard, dated 1922, describing a woman sleepily reading beneath an apple tree. The sound of schoolchildren reciting the multiplication table is described as a “shrill clamour as if they were gongs of cracked brass beaten violently, irregularly, and brutally.” The sound of the church organ “floated out and was cut into atoms by a flock of fieldfares flying at an enormous speed.” Then bells “thudded, intermittent, sullen, didactic…” And the weather vane squeaks as it turns, and the reader realizes she’ll be late for tea.

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 6, 1936-1941

Reading the volumes of letters in tandem with the diaries is absolutely essential. I finished the diary yesterday, which means I finished the letters yesterday, too, only the volume included an Appendix of dozens of letters that had been discovered too late for inclusion in the earlier volumes. And so I lingered a bit with Woolf’s ghost, reading snippets from 1903 onward, after I had already read up to the point of her death. (Like this lovely 1923 ululation during a trip to Spain that “I am reading Proust, I am reading Rimbaud. I am longing to write.”)

The letters are always chatty and entertaining, light, meandering, poetic. As Nigel Nicolson notes in the introduction, a letter “was a wine-glass to hold her delights, or a sump for her despair.”

This volume contains many examples of the unease with the coming of war, like this 1936 to Victoria Ocampo, “Here we live under the shadow of disaster. I’ve never known such a time of foreboding. Even the artists mope and pine and cant get on with their pictures.” And in Jan 1938: “Lord what a year of incessant catastrophe–but that years over, so lets hope the best for this one.” Aug 1938: “As for politics, I feel as if we were all sitting downstairs while someone slowly dies.” Feb 1941: “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…”

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5: 1936-1941

It seems appropriate that it’s a grey drizzly morning when I finally close the pages of this last volume. I’ve gently sipped at this diary for the past four months, admittedly dragging my feet for the last few weeks not wanting to get to March 1941.

I am prepared for it as I head to the end, we all know what’s coming. And this project of reading everything she wrote chronologically has prepared me better than anything I could have comprehended. I’ve been with her all these years, and with the onset of the second world war, the nightly bombing raids which destroyed their London flat and sent all their possessions scavenged from the wreckage (thankfully including all volumes of the diary) stowed in barns across the village, it makes sense. Her deteriorating mental condition is completely understandable when there is no future to look forward to. But up to the last entry, what a romp, what a delight it has been! Thank god Leonard disobeyed her injunction to destroy all her papers. This five-volume series of diaries is one of the most magnificent documents in the history of literature.

I have dozens of markers glittering along the pages noting things I wanted to remember here, but I’ll start at the end and work backwards:

24 December 1940: “By shutting down the fire curtain, though, I find I can live in the moment; which is good; why yield a moment to regret or envy or worry? Why indeed?”

She envisions what death by German bombing would feel like (Oct 2, 1940): “I shall think—oh I wanted another 10 years—not this—& shant, for once, be able to describe it. It—I mean death; no, the scrunching & scrambling, the crushing of my bone shade in on my very active eye & brain: the process of putting out the light,—painful? Yes. Terrifying. I suppose so—Then a swoon; a drum; two or three gulps attempting consciousness—& then, dot dot dot”

Relieved to have the servant gone and cooking for herself: “Domestically, a great relief & peace, & expansion, it’ll be tomorrow, into merry kitchen harum scarum ways.”

Thinking again of what death by German bombing would be like (Aug 28, 1940): “It wd have been a peaceful matter of fact death to be popped off on the terrace playing bowls this very fine cool sunny August evening.”

In July: “So, the Germans are nibbling at my afternoon walks.”

General feeling of unease during the war: (June 1940) “I mean, there is no “autumn”, no winter. We pour to the edge of a precipice … and then? I can’t conceive that there will be a 27th June 1941.”

22 June 1940: “I would like to find one book and stick to it. But can’t. I feel, if this is my last lap, oughtn’t I to read Shakespeare? But can’t. I feel oughtn’t I to finish off P.H.: oughtn’t I to finish something by way of an end? The end gives its vividness, even its gaiety and recklessness to the random daily life. This, I thought yesterday, may be my last walk…. The old problem: how to keep the flight of the mind, yet be exact. All the difference between the sketch and the finished work. And now dinner to cook. A role. Nightly raids in the east and south coast. 6, 3, 22 people killed nightly.”

May 30, 1940: “And was very happy—the moment can be that: only theres no support in the fabric—if you see what I mean, as Charlie Sanger used to say—theres no healthy tissue round the moment. It’s blown out. But for a moment, on the terrace, no one coming, alone with L., ones certainly happy.”

August 7 1939: “Oh & I thought, as I was dressing, how interesting it would be to describe the approach of age, & the gradual coming of death. As people describe love. To note every symptom of failure: but why failure? To treat age as an experience that is different from the others; & to detect every one of the gradual stages towards death which is a tremendous experience, & not as unconscious at least in its approaches, as birth is.”

July 30, 1939: “I take my brain out, & fill it will books, as a sponge with water.”

Jan 18, 1939: “I am going walking & adventuring going to see pictures of an afternoon; & often come face to face, after tea, at odd moments, with the idea of death & age. Why not change the idea of death into an exciting experience?—as one did marriage in youth?”

Watching the world march into war (Sept 22, 1938): “The prospect of another glissade after a minor stop into abyss. All Europe in Hitler’s keeping. What’ll he gobble next?”

Sept 17, 1938: “Just as in violent personal anxiety, the public lapses, into complete indifference. One can feel no more at the moment.”

June 23, 1937: “Its ill writing after reading Love for Love—a masterpiece. I never knew how good it is. And what exhilaration there is in reading these masterpieces. This superb hard English! Yes, always keep the Classics at hand to prevent flop.”

The radio after the King died only allowed official pronouncements, and so “if you turn it on you only hear the ticking of a vast clock” (Jan 1936).

Roger Fry: A Biography

Very much enjoyed slowly working my way through Woolf’s biography of her friend Roger Fry. I think the second read much better than my first read 4 years ago. It helps to fit the book exactly in her chronology as I work my way through her diaries, letters, books and essays. This project was one that she had simmering on the back burner while she finished off The Years and Three Guineas, and my appreciation deepened as a result of knowing what a struggle it was for her to sift through masses of letters and walk the tightrope of what was socially acceptable to put into print. I somewhat agree with Leonard’s assessment that she relied perhaps too heavily on quoting Roger, especially when she re-iterated by reusing the same quote multiple times. But just a brief glimpse, a cursory search for “Roger” in the ebook I have of her diaries shows that she was “absorbed in Roger” as she worked those many years on the biography:  “brew more Roger”, “heap of Roger’s papers”, “I’m strung into a ball with Roger”, “rubbed against Roger”, “weight of Roger”, “distressed by Roger”, “been titivating Roger”, “hold the Roger fort”, “work on Roger”, “grind of Roger”, “Roger seems hopeless”, “Dreamt of Roger last night”.  He came to life again under her craftsmanship, paying back the debt she owed him to the encouragement he gave and conversations they had.

Three Guineas

I have to agree with Leonard that this was not her best work. I gushed over this six years ago when I read it for the first time, so not much more to add except how interesting it was to read in the chronology, having read the drumbeats of war leading up to it, including their drive through Nazi Germany in 1935.

Her take down of religion’s keeping women out of paying positions was particularly delicious and she backs up her arguments with Biblical quotes. I agree with her assessment that “those who have not been forced from childhood to hear it thus dismembered weekly assert that the Bible is a work of the greatest interest, much beauty, and deep meaning.”

The Years

Oddly, I can’t find a previous entry for this book although I have vivid memories of reading it in New York on one of my summer sabbaticals. The image of the final party was the one that stuck with me, and it becomes vivid again upon rereading. I read this one slowly, carefully, knowing exactly what a toll it took on Woolf to write, slogging through drafts and cutting and rewrites for years. Perhaps the title can also be a nod to the length of time it took her to complete this work.

The book follows the Pargiter family across the years, from 1880s through “present day” which would have been the 1930s. Eleanor is the oldest girl, caring for their aging father into her spinsterhood. Rose fights for suffrage rights. Delia marries an Irish gentleman. Edward teaches classics at Cambridge. One of their nephews, North, is back from farming in Africa. Sally/Sara befriends the Polish “Mr Brown” and her sister Maggie marries a Frenchman, Rene/Renny. Peggy becomes a doctor, tired from her work and wondering what it all means.

Perhaps Woolf sums it up best in a letter to Stephen Spender:

But what I meant I think was to give a picture of society as a whole; give characters from every side; turn them towards society, not private life; exhibit the effect of ceremonies; Keep one toe on the ground by means of dates, facts: envelop the whole in a changing temporal atmosphere; Compose into one vast many-sided group at the end; and then shift the stress from present to future; and show the old fabric insensibly changing without death or violence into the future—suggesting that there is no break, but a continuous development, possibly a recurrence of some pattern; of which of course we actors are ignorant. And the future was gradually to dawn.

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4: 1931-1935

She seems to be relying on the diary a bit more as time goes on, using it to cool her brain as she struggled mightily writing The Years. As she captures daily life, we see a picture of Europe marching toward war. It’s horrifying to read her travel diary through Germany in May 1935, towns with signs saying Jews not welcome, she notes after they cross safely over the border that Leonard says it’s ok to write the truth again, they had suppressed their real thoughts until they were free.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In 1931, Lytton is still alive, but dying. And the swirl of death in the air has her talking to Leonard about “death: its stupidity; what he would feel if I died… And the feeling of age coming over us: & the hardship of losing friends; & my dislike of the younger generation…”

In January 1932: “And I want to write another 4 novels: Waves, I mean; & the Tap on the Door; & to go through English literature, like a string through cheese, or rather like some industrious insect, eating its way from book to book, from Chaucer to Lawrence. This is a programme, considering my slowness, & how I get slower, thicker, more intolerant of the fling & the rash, to last out my 20 years, if I have them.”

14 July 1932 worth quoting in full: “‘Immunity’ I said to myself half an hour ago, lying back in my chair. Thats the state I am (or was) in. And its a holy, calm, satisfactory flawless feeling—To be immune, means to exist apart from rubs, shocks, suffering; to be beyond the range of darts; to have enough to live on without courting flattery, success; not to need to accept invitations; not to mind other people being praised; to feel This—to sit & breathe behind my screen, alone, is enough; to be strong; content; to let Nessa & D. go to Paris without envy; to feel no one’s thinking of me; to feel I have done certain things & can be quiet now; to be mistress of my hours; to feel detached from all sayings about me; & claims on me; to be glad of lunching alone with Leonard; to have a spare time this afternoon; to read Coleridge’s letters. Immunity is an exalted calm desirable state, & one I could reach much oftener than I do.”

Recording the suffering of an 92-year-old woman in the village who prays to die every night, repeating her misery over and over. “This is what we make of our lives—no reading or writing—keep her alive with doctors when she wishes to die. Human ingenuity in torture is very great.”

“Here I sit on my bed in the windy seaside hotel, & wait for dinner, with this usual sense of time shifting & life becoming unreal, so soon to vanish while the world will go on millions upon millions of years.”

On reading the Bible in 1935: “At last I am illuminating that dark spot in my reading.”

Catching up with Hugh Walpole at a party, she admits that films are an amazing art form: “Six months at Hollywood has completely changed him. When we said something about upper class, he laughed. Classes have been wiped out. He has seen through everything. Given up the Book of the Month; no longer frets about fame & reviews; & is taking to the great new art—the complex & amazing art of colour, music, words all in one. Of course there may be something in it.”

“Habit is the desirable thing in writing.”

And to end on a humorous note: “Last night L. was woken at one, by a man shouting abuse of Woolf & Quack in German under his window. Ought we to tell the police? I think it was a drunken undergraduate.”

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 5, 1932-35

I feel myself dragging my feet to delay the end of this project since it’s giving me so much joy. And yet here I am at the end of 1935 already, finishing a volume of letters and a volume of the diary at the same time, the first coinciding.

During these years, Ethel Smyth remained her most-frequently corresponded with friend, although Vita still lingers on the outskirts. Glimpses of VW’s life are best seen through the letters interspersed with her diaries. Below are just bits I dogeared for later:

  • She encourages Elizabeth Bowen to start a LoudLatinLaughing of sorts – “I hope you will carry out your idea of a diary of books… I mean not tea parties but Milton and so on”
  • She continues to dodge the spotlight: “limelight is bad for me: the light in which I work best is twilight.”
  • “When one is writing a letter, the whole point is to rush ahead…”
  • “Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.”

Her 23 Jan 1935 letter to Ethel Smyth has lots of good quotes:

“I have 3½ mins: before settling down to read the Bible. Why did you never tell me what a magnificent book it is! And the Testament? and the Psalms!… Oh I’ve been in such a howling duststorm—to sit alone and read the Bible is like drawing into a sunny submarine hollow between deep waves.”

“I agree with you entirely about death from Cancer: I forget how you said it: something about having a chance to die standing up.”

 

Freshwater

Impossible to categorize this– is it fiction, non-fiction? It’s a dramatic farce based on Woolf’s real life great aunt, Julia Cameron, known for her fuzzy out-of-focus classical photographs which Woolf lampoons. Originally planned for Christmas 1923 production, it was shelved and actually performed (much re-written) in 1935. Cameron famously took coffins on her last voyage to India, planning to die there and not convinced they would have quality coffins. Lord Tennyson recites Maud, Ellen Terry scampers away from her husband the elderly painter Watts, and the maid who marries a peer is included. All is grist for the mill for Woolf in retelling her great-aunt’s life.

Flush: A Biography

I was as unexcited to read this as Woolf was to have it published. She started this project as a lark, as a way to relieve the pressure of having created The Waves, dreaming up the biography of Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog. Not being much of a dog person, I was reluctant to add this to my collection, but it’s still filled with dazzling VW sentences, and I liked the notes in the back that she writes to explain away her choices (we know Flush died, but not exactly when, etc.)

Interesting to read about the conflict between the haves and have nots, the scoundrels who kidnapped Flush and demanded a princely ransom (equivalent of $2500 in today’s currency) for his return. Other dog owners who didn’t pay received their dog’s paws severed from the dog’s body. Yikes.