IN 1936 VIRGINIA WOOLF read the nine volumes of Flaubert's correspondence and found them even better than his novels. Now the publication of her own letters is complete in six volumes, and if they are not "better" than her novels, they must be recognized as a magnificent achievement in themselves -- along with the letters of Flaubert and Keats, one of the great literary correspondences of all time.
Readers of Virginia Woolf's novels will recognize in the letters similar qualities of intense lyricism, although there are few studied pieces of description. This is the offhand poetry of everyday life, composed of details of place and time: where she is sitting, what her husband is doing, how the light falls on the marshes of the country or the squares of London, what strange postures the people around them have adopted. "It's a hazy hot day here; Leonard had been clipping his yews; I have been maundering over the downs, and trying to write Congreve, and theres not much village news, save that Louie [their cook] went in a boat yesterday for the first time in her life. How, being a mother at 14, she preserves this innocene of all other adventures I don't know." The weather changes, and Leonard is sometimes out walking the spaniel in the square, sometimes picking apples, sometimes putting his tortoises to bed in the lily pond, but Virginia is almost always reading or writing. Just as the great achievement of her novels is the rendering in fluid prose of the fluid nature of the inner life, the great activity which Virginia Woolf's letters record is the movement of her own mind. "I've just been walking on the marsh: a winter sunset; and I was thinking, what do Kingfishers do in winter, when lo and behold, one shot out under my feet, skimmed the river, and caused me about as much pleasure as an angel . . . no . . . I don't care for angels." More than her novels, more than her diaries, the letters seem to give us direct access to this most mobile of minds, reproducing the geysers of invention which her closest friends treasured in her conversation.
One of the particular interests of this volume is that Woolf's inimitable apparatus for perceiving and evoking is turned upon the experience of living in Britain in wartime. The single most gripping letter (apart from her suicide notes, of course) is one in which she describes for her sister, who was in France at the time, what London was like during the Munich crisis of 1938, when many people expected the city to be blasted out of existence within hours. wYet even in those extraordinary circumstances ordinary life went on. A larger than usual crowd gathered at the National Gallery to listen to a lecture on Watteau, and in the London Library, Virginia Woolf tried to read while an old man swept the dust from under her chair and reminder her to get fitted for a gas mask. When war came and the bombing began, the Woolfs moved to their country house in Sussex. "We play bowls, and try to go on with our painting and gardening as if we were sure of living another ten years." She rejoiced to have books to believe in at such a time. She welcomed the "little drudgeries" which took their minds off the war: ordering food, rehearsing a village play. She quoted Montaigne, "Let death find me planting cabbages." On occasional trips to London she saw the city destroyed bit by bit. It was a "very dreary game of hide and seek played by grown ups."
The author of Three Guineas , who had portrayed war as the ultimate expression of masculine self-aggrandizement, was peculiarly positioned as an observer of World War II. She resented the notion that it was more "real" than a good work of art. "Why do people think whats unpleasant is therefore real?" With her odd angle of vision, she could be alive even to the beauties of war, like searchlights sweeping the sky over Rodmell for German fighter planes, or the way in which, after a bomb burst the bank of the Ouse, the river spread out over the marshes like a sea. The ware was an unexpected shaft of light onto character as well as landscape, creating in her an unwonted admiration for chars, shopkeepers, even politicans, and "the tweed wearing sterling dull women here, with their grim good sense: organizing First aid, putting out bombs for practice, and jumping out of windows to show us how." Perverse as it would be to read these letters for information, they offer a unique and intimate view of wartime Britain.
Virginia Woolf letters are as remarkable for what they omit as for what they include. For example, the most devastating event in the years covered by this volume was the death in the Spanish Civil War at the age of 29 of Woolf's nephew, Julian Bell. Yet there is no strained effort to describe what Julian's life or his death meant to her or her sister, who was bedridden with grief. There is only a series of cancellations of engagements, accompanied by the sparest record of the facts; there are thanks for condolences and allusions to Vanessa Bell's grief. "You will understand," she writes to one friend after another. She knows what she doesn't have to write about. The grief of a parent at the death of a child needn't be described. Many of life's most momentous happenings needn't be described. What does need creating, in and through words, is the sustaining fabric of daily life, the tissue of small joys which keeps us suspended on this side of the grave, the fabric of affection.
If a friend were sick, Virginia Woolf sent a letter as one might send flowers. Her letters were gifts, each finely calculated to please the recipient. To T.S. Eliot she offered literature allusions and an ever-so slight professional deference. To Vita Sackville-West she offered flirtatious references to their past passion. To Vanessa, she offered her fullest accounts of her life as well as her enduring love. One of the most poignant passages in this volume is the series of love letters Virginia wrote to her sister after Julian's death as though to offer some small compensation for the loss of his love. To each correspondent she offered some image of their own uniqueness. Of all great letter-writers, she is the one from whom one would most like to have received a letter, for she had supremely the gift of mythologizing life for others, For example, this -- to Ethel Smyth, the septuagenarian composer who had fallen in love with her: "At the dead of last night . . . I thought of you with a clap of admiration, exercising the puppy, writing the book -- thought of you as a little tossing tug boat might think of a majestic sea going whitespread, fountain-attended dolphin-encircled ship -- forging on and on. And I whip and tumble in your foam."
The most conspicuous absence in the Woolf letters is that of self-involvement, self-analysis, self-revelation. In pointing this out I don't mean to imply that the letters are shallow but that they are civilized and energizing, supremely social instruments which never allow a transaction conceived of as a conversion -- however onesided -- to degenerate into confessional or therapy session. Her darker thoughts were reserved for her diary. In consequence, the letters are welcoming to a contemporary reader. At least (and despite the writer of private references) one does not feel an intruder. But, although they conclude as hauntingly as any correspondence has ever concluded, with her suicide notes, they do not present a compelling narrative of Woolf's inner life and offer no emotional context for her final act of despair.
The editors, by identifying unfamiliar names and explaining opaque situations, are generally helpful. But an absence of imagination or humor sometimes leads them astray. For example, when Woolf, writing to Mary Hutchinson, refers to Baroness Budberg as "Bugger," the editors explain that she has misread "Baroness" as "bugger" in an earlier letter from Hutchinson, when clearly she is punning on "Budberg." Back in Volume I, when Virginia Woolf wrote that she had offered her heart to a Venus in Paris, the editors pointed out that she had never been to Paris but was perhaps referring to a lady who lived there. She was referring to the Venus de Milo. There are small matters. Much more important is the dating of Virginia Woolf's two suicide notes to her husband, because at issue is whether her suicide was a final act of discipline and will in the face of returning madnes, a Roman death, or whether it was an Ophelia-like act of disintegration and letting go. The editors consider the matter in an appendix but conclude the collection wrongly, I think, with the less coherrent of the two suicide notes.
Few people now read the nine volumes of Flaubert's correspondence, Selected editions of Keats' letters are also successful. And as great as Woolf's letters are, I confess to a fitful resentment of her publisher for bringing them out first in a form calculated to be most costly to the reader. Anyone who started out buying Woolf's letters with Volume I and lost heart (or fortune) got the wrong end of the series, for the letters get better and better. Someday, surely, a selected version of this correspondence will be published, and then it will be possible to see if there lies buried in this vast expanse a narrative or the record of a maturing mind such as one finds in Keats' letters. But even in the novels Woolf tried to dispense with plot, as untrue to life. And whether or not six exhaustive volumes is the proper form for them, Virginia Woolf's letters constitute something like an extended poetic novel. They are destined to be a radiant addition to our literary heritage.