In my last blog post about the "American Christmas Cards, 1900-1960" exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center, I mentioned the absence of hand-written letters in our culture today. As I was thinking about the great letter writers of the past, one name came to mind. Virginia Woolf. The image of her sitting down to write a letter in her signature purple ink to her family and friends is one that is embedded in my mind. I spent many happy hours reading her letters when they first came out. I remember the milestone event many years ago when the six volumes of her letters were published. It was am important literary occasion made even more special by the fact that the editor was Nigel Nicolson, son of Vita Sackville-West.
I went back and looked at some of the letters that she wrote and once again marveled at the beautiful writing that they contain. And I realized that if you want to learn about literary and artistic life amongst the bohemian group known as Bloomsbury, there is no better way to know it than through these elegant, witty, descriptive, and conversational letters. It's almost as if we are sitting in a room with Virginia Woolf and listening as she regales us with gossip and stories. She was known as a great story teller and though she often embroidered the facts, there was always a core of truth and illumination. She was one of our great story tellers, in her books as well as in real life, making all that she described a bit more beautiful and magical by the way she recounted a story. I think that our great storytellers add a glow and beauty to real life by their tales which are often imaginatively enhanced in the telling.
In 1922 Virginia Woolf writes to Gerald Brenan,
"Very stupidly I came away without your letter...and now I can't take it up and answer it as I had meant. But no doubt that is just as well. What one wants from a letter is not an answer."
Her letters were infinitely more than just answers; they were gifts. Containing so much more than just an answer, they are offered up in the spirit of generosity. In them she paints scenes, reports events, captures personalities, and evokes the general atmosphere of whatever she is describing. She does all this for her correspondent in order to share her personal vision of life, "so infinitely desirable is it." Letter writing is a lost art and it is illuminating to go back and read the letters of one of the masters at this art. If as in the case of Virginia Woolf, these letters were saved by the recipients, we have them forever to give us an idea of the times.
To get an idea of what it was like to live in London and Sussex in the early twentieth century as a cutting edge female writer living amongst the bohemian artists of the time, pick up a volume or two of these letters. She and her husband Leonard Woof were going to parties and literary salons and meeting Noel Coward, Gertrude Stein, Hugh Walpole, Edith Sitwell, Vita Sackville-West and Arnold Bennett. As her fame increased so did the invitations from the reigning literary hostesses, such as Ottoline Morrell. There are snippets and vignettes of description that make the literary and social world of London come alive as vividly as any biography or memoir.
Virginia Woolf in the 1920's
To Lytton Strachey, one of her favorite correspondents, she conveys the sense of boldness and freedom of the time:
"Here we are...plunged into a mild form of society...to me the climax of dissipation. What with the approach of peace and the Russian dancers, the gallant Sitwells...Duncan (Duncan Grant) covered with paint...Robbie Ross found dead in his shirtsleeves...Oscar Wilde's widow bursting in dead drunk...all the things that invariably happen in London in October."
She captures the mood of giddy excitement felt by those involved in the Post-Impressionist art movement:
"Nessa (Vanessa Bell) left the room and reappeared with a small parcel the size of a large slab of chocolate. On one side are painted 6 apples by Cezanne. Roger (Roger Fry) very nearly lost his senses...Imagine snow falling outside, a wind like there is in the Tube, an atmosphere of yellow grains of dust, and us all gloating upon these apples. They really are superb."
Lady Ottoline Morrell's flamboyant behavior lent itself easily to Virginia's love of dramatizing and exaggerating her friends' behavior:
"Ottoline has been in London...in the grand style...in order to catch Charlie Chaplin...She heard that he was to be at a party given by Wells (H. G. Wells). She does not know Wells...She telephoned...She bought herself an early Victorian umbrella; put white feathers in her hair...reached Wells'; demanded Charlie Chaplin; But he had not come. Whereupon she took up a commanding position in the middle of the room; Her influence is said to have struck people dumb...And the Wells' utterly disappeared."
She writes about Charleston Farmhouse, the home of her sister Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant:
"Belgian hares, governesses, children, gardeners, hens, ducks, and painting all the time, till every inch of the house is a different color."
On a personal level, she writes to Vita Sackville-West:
"You will say I am not stark, and cannot feel the things dumb people feel. You know that is rather...rot, my dear Vita. After all, what is a lovely phrase? One that has mopped up as much Truth as it can hold."
Of the dinner party scene in To the Lighthouse, she writes:
"I think...the dinner party is the best thing I ever wrote: the one thing that justifies my faults as a writer ...I don't think one could have reached those particular emotions in any other way."
She writes to Vita about style:
"Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words."
And after reading the writer Marcel Proust for the first time, she writes:
"I am writing in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped -- and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical -- like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.
These letters read like an engrossing novel. And if you want to read a biography of Virginia Woolf and get a taste of what life was like in London at the time, read the one written by Quentin Bell which is delicious and contains many excerpts from the letters.