Saturday, October 22, 2005

In her own write

(If you've come here, rejoiced at the appearance of new content but were hoping for reflections on the new Arab Strap album or the last episode in the second series of 'Nighty Night', then please excuse this - an indulgence, but one that might possibly be of some wider interest.)

It must be one of the principal reasons for the difficulties the Post Office has faced in recent years: the decline in letter-writing, in direct proportion to the rise in the popularity of email. Does anyone really write letters anymore? Proper letters, conveying sentiment and emotion, rather than merely formal communiques?

Of course, such missives are still sent, but emails are a transient and ephemeral form that most often bloom for a day and are then erased - another symptom of our throwaway culture.

What's remarkable about reading Virginia Woolf's 'Congenial Spirits: Selected Letters' - an edited and condensed single volume drawn from the multi-volume 'Complete Letters' but with a few new discoveries thrown in as titbits for the completist - is not simply the fact that one person could write so many letters in their lifetime, but that so many survive, saved for posterity by her correspondents and ultimately published for a much wider audience. In one letter she claimed: "I'm writing, though I've nothing to say. How was it that in such circumstances our ancestors at once wrote such letters as could be printed verbatim?". As if to emphasise the irony, this particular letter is reproduced in its entirety.

What's also striking are her frequent references to volumes of letters that she herself devoured and enjoyed. Such volumes were read just as we might breeze through an airport novel. Of course, her being an inveterate reader, the references to works of fiction are even more numerous, as are such eminently quotable and aphoristic pronouncements on the genre itself as "literature is the only spiritual and humane career" and "very few people have the brains to write a really BAD novel; whereas anyone can turn out a respectable but dull one".

In many letters Woolf reflected upon and sought to explain her own fictional practice, often adopting a defensive and apologetic tone which may be disingenuous but which hints at a degree of insecurity. One preoccupation was with the difficulty of finding the right words and articulating herself adequately (a subject which some of you will know is close to my heart...). She told her sometime lover Vita Sackville-West: "I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can't cross: that its to be pulled through only in a breathless anguish. Now when I sit down to an article, I have a net of words which will come down on the idea certainly in an hour or so. But a novel, as I say, to be good should seem, before one writes it, something unwriteable: but only visible". And elsewhere: "one's sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish; and if one brings it up it wont be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea".

If her defensiveness about her own writing suggests a lurking insecurity, then so does her frequent belittling of and acerbic commentary upon her contemporaries. "There's not a single living writer (English) I respect", she once declared, and countless writers find themselves in the firing line, including D H Lawrence ("a cheap little bounder ... a genius, but not first rate") and James Joyce.

Turned down by publishers all over Europe, Joyce approached Woolf and her husband Leonard in the hope that their publishing firm, The Hogarth Press, might publish 'Ulysses'. Virginia, however, was decidely unimpressed, and - amusingly - not only artistically: "First there's a dog that p's - then there's a man that forths, and one can be monotonous even on that subject - moreover, I don't believe that his method, which is highly developed, means much more than cutting out the explanations and putting in the thoughts between dashes". Later, when she actually read the work properly (it having eventually found a publisher in Paris, the capital of the "dirty books" trade), she opined: "my impression, after 200 out of 700 pages, is that the poor young man has only got the dregs of a mind compared even with George Meredith. I mean if you could weigh the meaning on Joyces page it would be about 10 times as light as on Henry James'".

Some of the attacks are even more personal, and more entertaining in their spitefulness. Of the poet and novelist Elinor Wylie, she wrote: "I expected a ravishing and diaphanous dragonfly, a woman who had spirited away 4 husbands, and wooed from buggery the most obstinate of his adherents: a siren; a green and sweetvoiced nymph - that was what I expected, and came a tiptoe in to the room to find - a solid hunk: a hatchet minded, cadaverous, acid voiced, bareboned, spavined, patriotic nasal, thick legged American". A marvellously bitchy put-down, if ever I saw one.

To read these letters is to be transported into the heart of early twentieth century literary and artistic culture. Woolf is something of a namedropper, but this isn't simply gratuitous - she really was at the centre of things, perpetually entertaining the great and the good, or being entertained by them. T S Eliot, author of probably the most significant poem of the last century, is laughingly but affectionately referred to as "poor Tom".

Woolf's first impressions of 'Ulysses' might suggest a stiff-backboned Victorian attitude towards matters sexual and scatalogical, but the Bloomsbury circle of artists and writers of which she was a part was defined in part by the social unconventionality of its members' private lives. Woolf herself indulged in a lesbian affair with the married Vita Sackville-West, while her sister Vanessa first married one painter, Clive Bell, then had a lengthy affair with another, Roger Fry before spending the rest of her life co-habiting with a third, Duncan Grant, her lover but also "basically homosexual". Even more remarkable was the bizarre love triangle involving Woolf's close friend, the biographer Lytton Strachey. A gay man, he lived with Dora Carrington, a woman who was infatuated with him. Carrington married Ralph Partridge (who worked for Hogarth Press) despite not loving him as he did her, and while the three were living together Strachey developed an unrequited passion for Partridge. If the writing team behind 'EastEnders' want some ideas for how to revive their flagging soap, then they could do worse than read a biography of Bloomsbury.

The Bloomsbury set, and Woolf in particular, have often been accused of being apolitical, but one thing that emerges from these letters is the extent to which Woolf was involved in political matters (even if mainly by virtue of association - Leonard was deeply interested in politics and stood as a Labour candidate). The letters detailing the National Strike suggest a flurry of frenzied activity on behalf of the striking workers, even if the motives weren't entirely altruistic, Woolf expressing a very middle-class annoyance at being inconvenienced. "We're going to have a strike dinner and drink champagne with Clive, the Frys and other spirits", she claimed. The original champagne socialists, it would seem.

On other occasions, however, her snobbery is rather more difficult to stomach. On a visit to the University of Manchester, she sniffily described the professors as "provincial, smug, destitute of any character, hopelessly suburban, yet trying to live up to the metropolitan intellect (me, I mean) which they can't do".

Though Woolf spent much of her time in London, she and Leonard also owned a house in “the provinces” (in Sussex), and they did on occasion visit other parts of the country. One trip to my home county of Northumberland inspired the following comments to her sister: "We have struck about the most beautiful country I've ever seen here. Except that it has no sea, I think it is better than Cornwall - great moors, and flat meadows with very quick rivers. We are in an Inn full of north country people, who are very grim to look at, but so up to date that one blushes with shame. They discuss Thomson's poetry, and post impressionism, and have read everything, and at the same time control all the trade in Hides, and can sing comic songs and do music hall turns - in fact the Bloomsbury group was stunted in the chrysalis compared with them - But why did you never prepare me for the Scotch dialect, and the melodious voice which makes me laugh whenever I hear it?". How times change. Somehow I get the feeling that if you were to walk into a pub in Ashington or Blyth, post-impressionism wouldn’t be the subject of discussion – though those present might well be “very grim to look at”.

Enjoyable though reading the volume is, it can also be an unsettling experience – not least when you stumble across passages which eerily foreshadow what is to come. In 1937 she told a correspondent: "We were on the front at Seaford during the gale ... The waves broke over the car. Vast spouts of white water all along the coast. Why does a smash of water satisfy all one's religious aspirations? And its all I can do not to throw myself in - a queer animal rhapsody, restrained by L[eonard]". Four years later, at the age of 59, she filled her pockets with stones and threw herself into the River Ouse.

There’s also the uneasy sense of eavesdropping on private correspondence, reading something that was meant for one person’s eyes alone – a sense exacerbated by Woolf’s own comments. To Lady Ottoline Morrell she wrote: "Do you think people (I'm thinking of Lytton and Walpole) do write letters to be published? I'm as vain as a cockatoo myself; but I dont think I do that. Because when one is writing a letter, the whole point is to rush ahead; and anything may come out of the spout of the tea pot". Ironically, the metaphor itself betrays the thought and care that has gone into the writing and perhaps suggests a disingenuousness, but elsewhere she reacted with horror to the possibility of her letters being made public: "Talk of my obstinacy and folly in not liking my letters to be quoted! I wrote one, casually, to an unknown but accredited American the other day, hinting at a mild literary scandal. She replies that she gave it to a friend of hers who is publishing it in The Atlantic Monthly! So thats why I write 'Private', or should, in future".

And that’s why the very last line of her suicide note to Leonard reads: "Will you destroy all my papers". Thankfully for many readers, myself included (as well as countless literary critics), he and others chose to disregard her last wish.

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