Saturday, 30 June 2018

Leave the Letters Till We're Dead: The Letters of Virginia Woolf 1936 - 1941.

Virginia Woolf by Gisèle Freund (1939). 
Leave the Letters Till We're Dead is the final volume of the letters of Virginia Woolf edited by Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautman, from 1936 to her death in 1941 (from the ages of 54 to 59). In this period Between the Acts, her final novel, was written, and The Years (1937), Three Guineas (1938) and Roger Fry: A Biography (1940) were published.

It's a mistake to frame these final letters in terms of her suicide in 1941: how would Virginia Woolf know in January 1936 that she would drown herself in March 1941, after all? But I couldn't help it, especially with the later letters, thinking 'This was her last autumn', 'this was her last Christmas', 'this was the last letter to Ethel Smyth', 'this was the last letter to Vita', and so on. But there's more to it than the morbid lasts of course - this covers 5 years. As with the previous volume, The Sickle Side of the Moon, there was much loss to be reckoned with: Lady Ottoline Morrell, for example, a close friend of Virginia's, died in 1938, but the worst of all was the death of Julian Bell in 1937. He was her nephew, the son of Vanessa Bell, and was only 29 when he died. That year he joined the Spanish Civil War as an ambulance driver, sympathising with the anti-fascist socialist movement over there. He died on 18th July 1937 in Villanueva de la Cañada having not long been there after a bomb exploded near him. Vanessa Bell was distraught. As Virginia wrote to Vita Sackville West (letter #3285, 26th July 1937),
Dearest Creature,
I was very glad of your letter. I couldnt write, as I've been round with Vanessa all day. It has been an incredible nightmare. We had both been certain he would be killed, and the strain on her is now, perhaps mercifully, making her so exhausted she can only stay in bed. But I think we shall drive her down to Charleston on Thursday. 
Lord, why do these things happen? I'm not clear enough in the head to feel anything but varieties of dull anger and despair. He had every sort of gift - above everything vitality and enjoyment. Why must he get set on going to Spain? - But it was useless to argue. And his feelings were so mixed. I mean, interest in war, and conviction, and a longing to be in the thick of things. He was the first of Nessa babies, and I cant describe how close and real and alive our relation was. As for Nessa - but as I say I'm so stupid what with ordering the char to buy mutton, and generally doing odd jobs I cant think, or as you see write - so forgive this egotism. Shall you come over to M.H. one day?
Another key event was the outbreak of the Second World War (which began on 1st September 1939). England knew it was inevitable so for the months before hand there was much talk and preparation, as well as nervousness, and when it was finally declared she wrote to Vita the next day saying she was "dumb and chill" though kept thinking of her. There is one particularly poignant letter in which she remarks that she is surrounded by the broken remnants of her London home which was bombed in the autumn of 1940, and there are many references to the many air raids of the time.

Other than those milestones, much of these letters run on in the same vein as before - Virginia firing off chatty, gossipy letters, many to Vanessa Bell after Julian's death to cheer her up and on, and of course responses and thanks to the congratulatory letters she received following the publications of her books. There was one notable episode - Vita and Virginia had quite an argument over the Three Guineas after Vita wrote, "You are a tantalising writer, because at one moment you enchant with your lovely prose and next moment exasperate with your misleading arguments". Several somewhat sarcastic letters from Virginia were sent, and a telegram from Vita in response to one of them - "Horrified by your letter", but once sorted they remained friends and in touch.

But as we all know it came to an abrupt halt. On March 28th 1941 Virginia drowned herself. Before that, on 20th March she wrote to her publisher voicing her concerns that Between the Acts was inadequate, then to her lifelong friend Nelly Cecil remarking "I cant help wishing the invasion would come. Its this standing about in a dentist's waiting room that I hate". Another one that day was sent to Lady Tweedsmuir in which she mentions the broken furniture I referred to before: "We have been completely bombed out of London, and lead a rather vegetable existence here, surrounded by the melancholy relics of our half-destroyed furniture. All this afternoon I've been trying to arrange some of my father's old books" (her father Leslie Stephen was mentioned more in the final two volumes of letters than the others). Then comes the final letter to Vita Sackville West, a strange one on budgies:
Look at this letter, sent to the New Statesman, addressed to 'Miss Virginia Woolf'. - What a queer thought transference. No, I'm not you. No, I don't keep budgerigars.
Louie's survive: and she feeds them on scraps - I suppose they're lower class, humble, birds. If we come over, may we bring her a pair if any survive? Do they all die in an instant? When shall we come? Lord knows -
After that another to John Lehmann, her publisher, saying she'd gone through Between the Acts but her "head is very stupid at the moment", then the first of the suicide notes, one to Vanessa written on 23rd March interspersed with another to John Lehmann asking him not to publish Between the Acts, and finally a letter to Leonard Woolf telling him of how happy he had made her, and how she could not go on any more. The letter to Vanessa expresses a similar sentiment, and a concern that Leonard show know that it was not his fault, it was her decision and he was entirely blameless.

It was a sudden and distressing end to great volumes of witty, clever, and brilliant letters she had sent in her lifetime. Though I knew how it ended of course, I wasn't quite prepared for the sadness and finality of it. I've been reading these letters since March and I began them on a whim, and I'm so glad now to have read them, and will certainly do so again, but however unpleasant Virginia Woolf could be, she was also a brilliant writer of letters, enchanting, entertaining, and always intriguing. 

2 comments:

  1. i think i've mentioned that i read Leonard's five volume autobiography... interesting and entertaining; he was quite different than Virginia, and lived a very long life, close to ninety, as i remember... but i really sympathize with VW's situation, bombed out and on the point of invasion; it must have seemed like the end of the world.... she looks very tired in the picture... i hope i can get around to reading these letters sometime... tx for the posts...

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    1. Glad you enjoyed them. It's been great for me - I've read a lot of biographies, so it was good to see her life through her letters. So terribly sad, though, the last volume. I'm the same with biographies though, I hate it when the person dies in any circumstance.

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