THESE LETTERS will appeal to any reader, but particular kinds of audiences will revel in them. For hypochondriacs, who will clutch this volume to palpitating hearts, there's a sufficiency of detail about Woolf's imagined and real illnesses, accompanied by her witty comments on her valetudinarianism. Bohemians will be fascinated by her scandal mongering, which often centers on her complaints about male homosexuals in and near the original Bloomsberries. Socialites can check up on chat about Who Was Who then and which wonderful parties were going on a raffish elegant London. Advocates of family ties will be charmed by her tender and acerbic letters to her nephews, Julian and Quentin Bell, and to her neice, Angelica Bell. For the literarcy historians and scholars, Woolf leaves wise remarks on novels, on literary realism, on the impossibility of drama after Shakespeare.
The editors claim that this volume focuses on the composition and publication of The Waves and on Virginia's relationship with Ethel Smyth, the composer. The first observation is more true than the second. These letters really document, yet again, her deepest love for Vita Sackville-West, for her brother-in-law, Clive Bell, for her nephews and niece, and especially for her sister, Vanessa Bell.
The compelling and obsessional nature of her complex relationship with Clive Bell constantly emerges. In a letter of 8 November 1930, Virginia writes to Vanessa: "You were a bold woman to marry into the Bells: the mixture is pretty thick...I feel like a Rabbit looking at a Cobra." Virginia's attraction to-and for-Clive shines forth in her witty letters to him, about him-the latter often making delightfully sarcastic remarks about his various, complicated love affairs. (He and Vanessa did not live together during this time; she was living with Duncan Grant, Angelica's father, in southern France.) But a somber note comes in as Virginia chronicles Clive's failing eye-sight and the difficulties it raises for those who love him. Even Mary Hutchinson, with whom Clive had had a very stormy 12-year liaison, is willing to sleep with him once a week if it will help.
Vita Sackville-West-whose novel,The Edwardians was published by the Woolf's Hogarth Press in 1930-remains a center of Virginia's life. Virginia's letters, though laced with jealousy of Vita's affairs with other women, demonstrate her sense of her importance in Vita's life. On 30 August 1931, Virginia write to Vita, "So you've found someone [Evelyn Irons] sweet and pure to sit under live Oleanders by the Bay of Biscay is it? But you'll never find anyone you like as much as me; because I'm so clever, so good, so pure-so extremely interesting. There! I'm now going to shut my eyes and think about my being so interesting." And there is a series of hilarious letters in which Virginia chronicles the death and revival of "Potto", a nickname she uses to refer to herself when writing to Vita. One means of restoring Potto to life was Virginia's feeding him orris root on the terrace at Monk's House, the country cottage of the Woolfs. And we see Virginia tending to business, sending Vita report after report of the tremendous success of The Edwardians . And Virginia cultivates her friendship with Harold Nicholson, husband of Vita, with requests for copies of his lectures or with appreciative accounts of Virginia and Leonard listening to Harold and Vita when they broadcast on the BBC.
But it is Ethel Smyth and Vanessa Bell who receive the longest, most intimate letters. Both of these women, highly accomplished and dedicated professionals, obviously also stand for mother figures in some way for Virginia. The letters to Ethel Smyth often appear to be written from a distance, with Virginia using a carefully controlled mask. Her manipulations of Ethel's terrible tempers and outbursts are very skillful indeed. In writing about Ethel to her other correspondents, Virginia constantly complains of Ethel's demanding nature, and she writes of her in imagery of flame and fire and candles or as a giant crab or as "that old sea-monster encrusted with barnacles." But their love and friendship endures, is grounded on a bedrock of request for the other's professional accomplishments and range of intellect.
The letters to Vanessa demonstrate the variety of subjects in which Virginia takes an interest. We find letters about her contribution to Angelica's clothing allowance, Virginia's furniture in her cottage near Vaness'a home at Cassis, and the usual social arrangements peppered with complaints about Clive. But we also read letters which have brief passages of Virginia's observations on life.
In writing on 23 May 1931 to Vanessa about their differing perceptions of their friends, she says: "I suppose its something to do with the illusion of sex: the male sex illudes you; the female me: Thus I see the male in its reality; you the female. Or how do you account for it? About books and pictures our taste is respectable; about people, so crazy I wouldn't trust a dead leaf to cross a pond in it." There is no posing, no posturing in these engaging letters to Vanessa. She needs no mask to protect herself against excessive demands, as she does with Ethel Smyth.
This volume, like the earlier collections, is especially pleasant to hold and to read. Very useful footnotes, prepared by Jane Lancellotti, identify many of the people who drift in and out of Virginia Woolf's life. The type-face is set off to good advantage on the beautiful creamy yellow paper. There are eight pages of excellent photographs, including the stunning and haunting one of Virginia (done in 1929 by Lenare), the magnificent bust of Virginia by Stephen Tomlin, a surprisingly sedate Vita with puppies on her lap, and two stern looking Ethel Smyths, one with dog. The index is extremely detailed and highly valuable in searching back through for references to people and topics.
Virginia Woolf's reputation, soaring over the last decade, will be enhanced by this volume of engaging and delightful letters. A strong, Vibrant, sensitive and extremely thoughtful woman emerges from them.