Thursday, 29 March 2018

The Flight of the Mind: The Letters of Virginia Woolf 1888 - 1912.

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford (1902).
A while ago now I finally collected up a series of books of the letters of Virginia Woolf published by Chatto & Windus:
  1. The Flight of the Mind (1888 - 1912).
  2. The Question of Things Happening (1912 - 1922).
  3. A Change of Perspective (1923 - 1928).
  4. A Reflection of the Other Person (1929 - 1931).
  5. The Sickle Side of the Moon (1932 - 1935).
  6. Leave the Letters Till We're Dead (1936 - 1941).
I've now read the first volume, and I wanted to say a few words but it's hard to know how to approach this! I'll start by saying that this first collection (which is a fairly vast collection of books with about 500 pages each) covers the first half of her life, starting when she was six years old and added a note addressed to a close friend of her father, James Russell Lowell from her father Leslie Stephen, writing on 20th August 1888,
MY DEAR GODPAPA HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE ADIRONDACKS AND HAVE YOU SEE LOTS OF WILD BEASTS AND A LOT OF BIRDS IN THEIR NESTS YOU ARE A NAUGHTY MAN NOT TO COME HERE GOOD BYE
YOUR AFFECTe
VIRGINIA
The next letter is from eight years later to her brother Thoby, and from there we have a wealth of letter to her friends and family covering her girlhood and young adulthood, a tumultuous time in which her mother, sister, brother, and father all died between the years of 1895 - 1906. Unsurprisingly she suffered several breakdowns in this period, once after the death of her father when she spent some time being supervised by psychiatrist George Savage (who blamed her education, thought to be unsuitable for a woman), then again in 1910 and 1912 (which would not be her last).

But, as ever, I think it's wrong to frame Woolf's life in terms of her mental illness. She was also a very vibrant woman and affectionate friend and sister. In these letters we learn of her love for her sisters and brothers (I'm not so much thinking of her half-brothers and sisters who Woolf fans already know was a very problematic and unhealthy relationship), and her friends, in particular (in this period), Violet Dickinson, seventeen years her senior. These letters to Violet Dickinson are at times an uncomfortable read: Woolf's crush on her developed rapidly and became remarkably intense, particularly during the period of Leslie Stephen's illness. They are at times very sweet, but Woolf overtly solicits affection and it can be particularly excruciating on more than one occasion, the knowledge of knowing we really oughtn't be reading these letters makes it all the worse. Another difficult aspect of reading these letters is that we can see her snobbery, unchecked as it would be in personal letters, and some antisemitism, though she would go on at the end of this volume to marry the Jewish author Leonard Woolf. There is, I believe, a high chance one could finish these letters and never wish to revisit Woolf again.

What I did enjoy about them was that we could see in her own words the birth of a writer and the development of her character and craft as well as her relationships with others (which is always fascinating to have it on paper!). We see her struggles and frustration as well as her successes, which would continue throughout her life. I love Virginia Woolf's writing, even (most) of her letters, but as a person I have long since come to terms with the fact that she isn't always particularly pleasant, and can sometimes be quite vile. Still, I loved reading this volume and couldn't possibly entertain the thought of stopping after just one!

4 comments:

  1. I really, really want to read these. I saw them come through on your Goodreads list and added them to mine!

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    1. I'm on to the second one now (not added it on GR yet) and really enjoying. It's lovely to read before I go to sleep :)

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  2. this sounds pretty interesting... i've got a volume of letters between Lytton Strachey and V. Woolf that reveals some of their mutual interests and points in common... Strachey is one of my favorite writers, just because of his very attractive prose style, not so much his personal life... something to be said, i think, for not knowing a whole lot about writers we admire... maybe not much, but something... expanding that idea, i sometimes wonder if life wouldn't be more satisfactory if a person just floated along not thinking or worrying about things so much, instead of probing into the roots of our curiosities and finding out more than we wanted to know. on the other hand, it's probably human nature to do that, so it's a moot point... and it's most likely impossible anyway... i do ramble along... sorry...

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    1. I think it is human nature, but I do agree nonetheless! It's just too interesting and tempting! :)

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