A Painter at Her Easel

The Letters of Virginia Woolf Vol. One: 1888-1912 Edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; 531 pp.; $14.95

"A TRUE LETTER...should be as a film of wax pressed close to the graving of the mind." So, in 1907, 25-year-old Virginia Stephen--soon to become Virginia Woolf--began her first long letter to Clive Bell, her new brother-in-law. Yet what follows is one of the most awkward, befuddled, pretentious things she ever wrote. Rather than simply telling him she has gotten a telegram, she writes:

...A telegram...with its necessary knock and its flagrant yellow, and its curt phrase of necessary English--I know not which sense was more offended--hit me in the wing and I fell a heaped corpse upon the earth. The sense, if that can be said to have sense which has so little sound, was to discredit the respectability of a house in Fitzroy Square. And there you see me in the mud. Shall I argue that a mind that knows not Gibbon knows not mortality? or shall I affirm that bad English and respectability are twin sisters, dear to the telegram and odious to the artist?...

It was not only her first long letter to Bell, but her first such letter to any man outside her immediate family. She was desperate to impress her new relation, but was desperately unsure how to go about it. What is interesting is that she does not follow her own prescription and speak her mind, but relies instead on her artfulness to attract Bell's attention.

The letter, from the newly published first volume of Woolf's massive correspondence (over 3800 letters exist) is a good example of the extent to which Virginia was secure in her literary abilities and insecure in her dealing with people. In these letters one might expect that she would use her skill to express herself more clearly, but, invariably, it is precisely herself that she chooses not to express. She circles all about it, speaking of what she's done, whom she's seen, where she's been; but as to how all this affects her, what she feels--at that the reader can only guess.

Happily, although the letters exemplify the narrator's tendency to stay in the background, they also illustrate a novelist's eye for detail and ear for language. Here she writes gaily of her meeting with Henry James:


...We went and had tea with Henry James today...[He] fixed me with his staring blank eye--it is like a childs [sic] marble--and said "My dear Virginia, they tell me--they tell me--they tell me--that you--as indeed being your fathers daughter nay your grandfathers grandchild--the descendent I may say of a century--of a century--of quill pens and ink--ink--ink pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me--ahm m m--that you, that you write in short." This went on in the public street, while we all waited, as farmers wait for the hen to lay an egg--do they?--nervous, polite, and now on this foot now on that...

Clearly these letters do convey a feeling of Virginia's personality, but it is conveyed only indirectly. In the early letter to Clive Bell, for instance, it appears that she has communicated more of herself--her shyness, her insecurity, her distrust of men--than, doubtless, she intends. To see the Virginia Woolf in them, these letters must be read between the lines. What she does not say is often more interesting than what she does.

THE PRESENT COLLECTION of letters--edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann--covers the years up to Virginia's marriage to Leonard Woolf. The editors inform us that five more volumes will be published annually from 1975 to reproduce the rest of her correspondence. This first volume is of interest because it covers the years before the Bloomsbury group's heyday and Woolf's major fiction, years which generally receive little attention. It shows that Virginia Woolf was a writer long before Bloomsbury ever came into existence.

Woolf, who grew up in a literary household, always planned to be a novelist. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a distinguished author of the 19th century literati. In fact, Virginia's first letter, written at the age of six, was attached to a brief note of her father's to her godfather, James Russell Lowell. Inscribed all in capitals, it goes:


As she grew up she became absorbed in the literature that surrounded her, virtually to the exclusion of everything that lay beyond. One thinks of her in her childhood as she portrays herself in one letter--sitting alone in the corner at a dance, reading Tennyson's In Memoriam. She exclaims, "I would give all my profound Greek to dance really well."

As the letter to Bell shows, Virginia was uncertain how to deal with men. In his biography, Quentin Bell (Clive's son) goes so far as to say she feared them, tracing this fear back to an incident in her childhood when a Ducksworth cousin abused her sexually. As Nicolson points out in his introduction, that theory seems unlikely in the light of these letters since some of the most convivial ones are addressed to this same Ducksworth. However, it is true that she preferred the company of women to that of men and that she expressed no interest in sex whatsoever. In the letter to Leonard that gave him hope that she would marry him she confessed, "As I told you brutally the other day, I feel no physical attraction in you. There are moments--when you kissed me the other day was one--when I feel no more than a rock."

Instead of a social life, the young Virginia had her books. When she was not reading she was writing, at a peculiar four-foot desk, at which she stood to work, like a painter at an easel. "When I see pen and ink," she wrote to Lady Robert Cecil, "I can't help taking to it, as some people do to gin." This was her exercise and her liberation.

WRITTEN in the pre-telephone age, her letters were, understandably, preoccupied with news, and when there was no news, with gossip. Virginia adored gossip. She was fascinated by the details of existence--the comings, the doings and the goings--and writes about them at length. On one occasion, though, even she finds it tedious: "This is the sort of thing I have to write to you about. There is nothing else to do."

Virginia's correspondence eased her loneliness. Much of it seems to have been written only to get letters in return. Desperate for affection, often in the most childish way, she created pet names for all her correspondents. Her cousin Emma Vaughan was variously "Toad", "Todkins", and "Toadlebinks"; her sister Vanessa was "Dolphin", "Sheepdog" or just "Nessa"; her brother Thoby was "Gribbs", "Grim", "Herbert", or "Thobs"; and she signed herself just about anything: "Billy Goat", "Goat", "Goatus Esq.", "Wallaby", "Kangaroo", "Apes", and so forth. Over half the letters in this volume are addressed to Violet Dickinson, a six foot two spinster aunt who seems to have served as Virginia's foster mother. In these, Virginia's childishness reaches its pack: