Clare MacCulloch


Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolfe, edited by Joanne Trautmann Banks. New York: Harcourt Brace jovanovich, Publishers, 1990.

By 1941, the year of Virginia Woolf's death at fifty-nine, the inspiration that was the Bloomsbury saga had waned for most of its participants. Since then, the cultural contributions have seen further decline and lack of interest. What remains though is a fascination with the cult of personalities of that era. We can't seem to get enough of these people and we turn to the cast of characters rather than their artistic expressions. Diaries, letters, biographies, reminiscences: the "literary" sections of most book stalls are glutted.

Clive Bell, first amorist and later brother-in-law of Virginia Woolf, in his delightful reminiscences, Old Friends, recounts a charming, albeit somewhat romantic, memory.

I remember spending some dark, uneasy, 
winter days during the first war in 
the depth of the country with Lytton 
Strachey.  After lunch, as we watched 
the rain pour down and premature darkness 
roll up, he said, in his searching, 
personal way, "Loves apart, whom would 
you most like to see coming up the drive?"
I hesitated a moment and he supplied the 
answer: "Virginia, of course."

That anticipation forever denied us, her letters are perhaps the nearest thing to capturing the quickness, the wonder that is Virginia Woolf. What "was" is lost. The diaries, more contemplative and piercing than the letters, are more revealing of the working out of problems, literary and personal, of her overeducated mind. The letters are more spontaneous, from the heart, and delicious.

The letters were first published in six large volumes between 1975 and 1980. And what a literary feat that was. After the widespread critical acclaim of the first volume, we waited anxiously for each successive volume edited by Joanne Trautmann (now Trautmann Banks) and Nigel Nicolson. Thirty-nine hundred letters made for quite a read. Since 1980 approximately one hundred more letters have surfaced. Trautmann Banks concludes that: "It seemed that the attics of her correspondents had been emptied and not much more of interest would be found." The audience for these recent finds was somewhat selective as the letters were published in Moderm Fiction Studties in the summer edition of 1984. Recently twelve "new" letters have appeared and they have proven Trautmann Banks to have been hasty in her judgement; indeed, "much more of interest" has been found.

A box of files being moved to Charleston - the country home of Vanessa, Clive Bell, and Duncan Grant and now a literary shrine of jewel proportion - contained four very interesting letters. The first two are from Virginia when she was perhaps five. One of them is to the "evil stepbrother," George Duckworth (of later infamy due to his influence on Virginia Woolf's complex sexual attitudes), and is undated.


Little did anyone realize that the many letters to follow over a lifetime, that is surely one of the most complex and socially revealing, would be such a continuing treat. The promotional material provided to reviewers from Lester & Orpen Dennys puts it this way:

Reading CONGENIAL SPIRIT is like opening
a beautifully wrapped box of rich, 
Belgian chocolates and discovering that
each chocolate is unique, and that you 
can eat as many as you want without 
guilt.  Here is Virginia Woolf brought 
to life.  With her letters, she reveals
to us a woman who is simultaneously 
vulnerable, flirtatious, cheerfully 
malicious, perceptive, witty, gossipy, 
and, above all, shockingly entertaining.
She possesses an enviable talent for 
playing to her readers' interests, 
making it seem as if their concerns are
her own passionate concerns as well.  
To Roger Fry she writes about reading; 
to E.M. Forster about writing; to Clive 
bell about love; and she flirts with 
numerous men and women in innumerable 
ways.  She is a great and generous 
hostess who uses the page as her 

Margaret Drabble is more succinct: "They are a wicked delight."Congenial Spirits is a distillation by Trautmann Banks of those six volumes plus all the recently discovered letters, fragments, and "four public letters to editors of periodicals." "They were excluded from the complete edition on the grounds of their being another form, more polemic than correspondence." And that is fine for the general reader who wants/needs his reading edited for him. But who is this gentle reader? Surely no one who tackles the letters of Virginia Woolf. It is more shocking to learn that for all the breadth of the six volumes, that too was bowdlerized. Surely an editor of Nicolson's standing and a scholar in Trautmann Bank's league would not be in the expurgation business. The rationale falls short, in my opinion, of acceptability.

Among the new material must be counted
restoration of excerpts omitted from 
the complete edition for fear of 
hurting people then alive.
Cuts have been made within the 
majority of the chosen letters.  
This is also controversial.  A good 
argument can be made that letters 
should be printed in their entirety so 
that a writer's rhythms and intentions,
however casual, are not broken.  But my
reasoning ran like this.  Cutting 
allows more letters to be printed in 
the space allotted.  Uncut versions may
be read in the complete edition, where,
of course, apart from possibly libellous
language, nothing was omitted within a 
letter.... I have made no cuts in the 
new letters.

So are there cuts or aren't there? One hopes not. But the facts are confusing.

just as annoying is the directive regarding Trautmann Banks' footnoting principle. "The passages are gossip about friends' love lives, and curious readers will have to search them out themselves." The synopsis on the book jacket belies this judgement call.

Virginia Woolf was a correspondent 
of genius - high-spirited, inventive,
witty - whether commenting on a 
domestic crisis or the state of the 
nation, a social outing or a 
peregrination of the writer's mind.  
She wrote to charm and entertain her 
friends, with the added seductiveness
of gossip and cheerful malice.

Spare us omissions. Besides with so much published, most of us have picked up the details we are interested in from other sources; we would like to read the facts directly in their context.

But this is not to agree with Trautmann Banks' conclusion that Virginia Woolf "lives in her letters." The fact is: Virginia Woolf is dead. What we have here, at best, are documents from/of that life.

The Virginia Woolf who creates herself
here is different from the one who 
slowly emerges from the six original 
volumes. This Virginia is simultaneously
more vulnerable and more admirable 
... her laughter is heard even more

If she "lives in her letters" then the life cannot be manipulated by condensation or clever editing. Such a process demeans what was her life. And she cannot defend herself from the grave.

Give us back the "complete" collection, all six (plus additions) volumes of it with no omissions or editing. Throw this abbreviated collection to the Readers' Digest people. This is like getting a postcard of a detail of a painting or it is like hearing a few strains of classical music on the radio and then making believe that we have heard a symphony. I began by being very excited about this book. When I finally got through the first eighteen pages of introduction, I was ready to give the letters themselves another chance.

And then comes this.

The condensation of time in the first
group of letters - inevitable because
few fine letters were written and 
fewer kept - makes Virginia's early 
life go by in a rush.  The important
events, the illnesses and deaths, 
appear to happen off-stage.  Of course
they were central.

So much for Virginia Woolf living in the letters.

There is, though, a very interesting letter in this first batch. As Trautmann Banks rightly points out, Letter la contains "one remarkable sentence that can fairly be described as the earliest Virginia Woolf narrative now in print."

... Mrs Prinsep says that she will 
only go in a slow train cos she says 
all the fast trains have accidents 
and she told us about an old man of
70 who got his legs caute in the weels
of the train and the train began to go
on and the old gentleman was draged 
along till the train caute fire and he
called out for somebody to cut off his
legs but nobody came he was burnt up. 
Good bye.


Because "inevitably, the story told by the letters left gaps," Trautmann Banks partly solved this problem by providing firstrate linking passages and footnotes. She refers the reader to the cc superb biography of his aunt" by Quentin Bell and she does not assume that the reader knows most of the background and cast of characters. I would further refer anyone coming fresh to this material toBloomsbuiy, also by Bell. In just one hundred and eighteen pages, he tells the Bloomsbury story better than anyone else has thus far managed. I would also caution the reader not to make too much of the voluminous amount on the period and the players. In a letter to me on 17 December 1976, Duncan Grant wrote:

It is indeed a bewilderment to me that
the world should take so much interest
in what, so far as I was concerned, was
only a group of friends: all very 
different but sharing a love of truth,
beauty, and the honesty of your own 

But perhaps, as the century draws to a close, we know too well the price of letting light in upon the magic.

Acknowledging that "Olivier Bell's assistance to scholars everywhere is the backbone of Woolf biography," Trautmann Banks has included concise biographical material, lead comments, footnotes and references. The Family Tree is informative and the index is excellent.

It is only the ending, like the beginning, which I find unsatisfactory. Trautmann Banks feels that, taken as a whole, Virginia Woolf's life should not be perceived as a tragedy. But surely every life's end is a tragedy and Virginia Woolf's pathetic and desperate end is poignant to say the least. This condensation of the letters points this out too sharply.

To be sure, condensing a life usually
falsifies it.  A life often comes to 
seem more tragic in summary than when
it was lived at its normal rhythms.  
Loves, illnesses, achievements and 
disappointments pile up and death comes
in 500 pages.

Agreed. And that is the problem with this collection. But then Trautmann Banks turns the point. "Sometimes, though, the process of condensing distils an essence that the whole disguised." And then she finds the new Virginia Woolf "simultaneously more vulnerable and more admirable."

Furthermore, her laughter is heard 
even more clearly.  In spite of its
end, at 59, in suicide, hers does not
seem a tragic life.  After all, why 
should a life be judged by its eleventh
hour?  Surely that's too literary.  For
her and for her family, her mental 
illness was truly terrible, but for 
decades she was sane, prolific and 
inventively comic.  In the end her 
supporting web dissolved almost 
completely.  She could only throw one 
thin line to Vanessa and two to Leonard
before giving over her fragmented self 
to the waters.  But for most of her 
years she was the brilliant fulfilment 
of the imaginative, playful little girl
whose letters begin this volume.  Given
her griefs, it was a courageous life.

Courageous, yes; and hence the more tragic.

The world was eventually too much with her. Her house was hit while the rest of her beloved London was bombed and her heart, like her spirit, was broken. And then it all came closer and the River Ouse in Sussex beckoned irresistibly. The writing was surrendered for the easier talk and consolation was found in reading.

I've had too many distractions to 
write.... But not too many to read
your paper.  I find it useful, 
suggestive, and sound.  I agree with 
most of your arguments.  I wish we 
could meet and discuss them.
           (Letter to Shena, Lady Simon,
Your letter reduced me to two days 
silence from sheer pleasure.  You wont
be surprised to hear that I promptlv 
lifted some paragraphs and inserted 
them in my proofs.  You may take what
action you like.
                   (Letter to G. B. Shaw,
                          15th May, 1940)
Its a good thing to have books to believe in.
                  (Letter to Ethel Smyth,
                          17th May, 1940)
Did I tell you I'm reading the whole of
English literature through?  By the 
time I've reached Shakespeare the bombs
will be falling.  So I've arranged a 
very nice last scene: reading Shakespeare,
having forgotten my gas mask, I shall fade
far away, and quite forget. . .
                  (Letter to Ethel Smyth,
                    1 st February, 194 1)

But, of course, that is the world of fiction, not reality; romance not history.

The last words were in a letter and to Leonard.

   You see I cant write this even, 
                  which shows I am right.

After gratitude and acknowledgement of their affection, she added this numbing postscript: "Will you destroy all my papers." Leonard, in the name of literature, denied her last request. And that has made all the difference. But he couldn't make her come alive again. Nor can Trautmann Banks in The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf.

However, after looking through these excerpts, editions, selections, one is titillated back to the original six fine volumes. Those are the Belgian chocolates unlike these bon-bons. Back to the full set, the slow life. And then one thinks of Strachey and what it all was. "After lunch, as we watched the rain pour down and premature darkness roll up (on us all) loves apart, whom would (we) most like to see coming up the drive?" "Virginia, of course."