THIS FIFTH VOLUME of the Virginia Woolf letters covers the years 1932-1935. During that time two of the most important men in her life died: Lytton Strachey in 1932 and Roger Fry in 1934. It is women to whom she addresses most of the nearly 600 letters; over half are written to her sister Vanessa, to Vita Sackville-West, Lady Ottoline Morrell and Ethel Smyth. Indeed more than a fourth are to Ethel Smyth, the English musician of whose compositions the contemporary reader may have heard only one -- the theme song of Shoulder to Shoulder, the BBC history of the women's suffrage movement.
Born in the 1860s, Smyth never achieved in England the musical stature she expected after her early recognition in Germany. When her music was finall performed and she herself was feted during the early '30s, Smyth remained embittered about the years of neglect. The battered but gallant old woman of 70 adored Virginia Woolf who felt a basic affection and admiration for her too, even though these letters more often reveal her surface annlyance and contempt. The relationship was clearly burdensome and exasperating for Woolf, but fascination with Smyth's egotism and vitality prevented her from making a final break -- although at least twice during these years a rupture was averted only because Smyth was virtually incapable of taking offense.
Unfortunately Woolf's scolding responses to Smyth's bullying affection are as tedious at times as Smyth herself. But at least at one point they show how naive is Nigel Nicolson's discussion of Woolf's feminism in his introduction. He describes her arguments in Three Guineas as largely anachronistic because the professions, university education, the vote were all available to women at the time she wrote. Q. D. Leavis' review of Three Guineas, he writes, pulled her arguments to pieces. Actually contemporary feminists are likely to view Leavis' scathing "Caterpillars of the Commonwealth Unite." as the token woman's defense of her territory against other women and to agree with Woolf when she advises Smyth to be impersonal in discussing unequal treatment of women, not to cite herself but to cite statistics.
In 1979 it is still not the natural and inevitable thing for the "daughters of educated men" to become lawyers, doctors, professors. It certainly wasn't in the 1930s. Carrington, who committed suicide in 1932, did little painting after she set up house with Lytton Strachey. Patricia Preece, who married the painter Stanley Spencer, is described in a footnote in this volume as one who "despite considerable talent, achieved no great success as an artist." Woolf describes her as "being quite soberly, done to death by a business father, who wont allow her a penny, or a day off."
But Woolf was not interested only in women's artistic strivings. There is no sign in these letters that her relation to Vita Sackville-West was based on shared literary pursuits. A sincere admirer of Vita's poetry, Woolf always thought less of her novels and was particularly unimpressed by The Dark Island (1934). Affectionate entreaties fill her correspondence with Vita whom she often describes as living detached from others in her Pink Tower, i.e., Sissinghurst Castle, and addresses as "dearest Creature." By late 1935, however, we find Woolf describing Vita rather heartlessly: "I cant really forgive her for growing so large: with such tomato cheeks and thick black mustache -- Surely that wasn't necessary . . . "
Such capacity for criticism is nowhere evident in connection with Vanessa who remains -- as in all earlier volumes -- the one correspondent wholeheartedly and unremittingly loved. To her Virginia always writes her most intimate and often her most fascinating letters. Some of the happiest ones, about a trip to Greece, are to Vanessa. Some of her funniest and most salacious -- for example, a 1932 letter speculating on Nan Hudson's copulating with her beloved bulldog, and one describing herself absent-mindedly offering a sandwich from her handbag in response to a request for a match -- are also to Vanessa.
Her letters to her two nephews, Vanessa's sons, first to Quentin in Switzerland for his health in 1933 and then to Julian while in China as a teacher in 1935, are the only ones coming close in ease and simple affection to the correspondence with Vanessa. These two young men could in no way replace Strachey and Fry whose loss permanently colored the rest of her life, but they reinvigorated her interest in the future. Our own historical awareness of Julian's early death in the Spanish Civil War, the heavy bombing of London during the Second World War, and Virginia Woolf's suicide in the river Ouse suggest what awaits us when the sixth and final volume of the letters is published.