Woolf’s Letters

Well now that’s done and I’m glad it’s over.—T. S. Eliot

I feel a bit like Eliot’s poor typist, home at tea-time and glad to shut the door on the young man carbuncular.

For the past three hours, I’ve been thumbing through a heavily post-it flagged volume of Woolf’s letters, read in July 2009, and typing every quotation therein which might be of use for the Dalloway edition. 

I have found many, many gems: wonderful little tidbits that will make great footnotes. I have learned so much about Woolf’s composition process and her imagination. Woolf’s dressmaker, for example, was called Sally Young; Clarissa Dalloway’s is called Sally Parker. But don’t these two Sallys make you think again about what it means that she chose to call Clarissa’s best friend Sally, too?

That said, I do not like Woolf’s letters.

I would have guessed that the worst of Woolf would emerge in the diary. So often, in articles, a scholar triumphs to demonstrate how a tone-down opinion in a novel or essay is expressed with greater venom (be it snobbery or anti-Semitism or hatred of the poor or horror of bodily functions) in the diaries, that I feared that I’d find the diaries hard going.

In fact, it’s the letters that seem to show Woolf at her worst: snobby, manic, overly eager to please, too clever by half. There are many many wonderful moments to be sure, but there are icky ones too. And I just don’t find icky  moments elsewhere in her work. And the diaries, such private documents, seem to observe a greater sense of decorum than the letters. I think this is so because she was her own audience in the diaries—they are not a special command performance for a friend or her sister—they are a place in which she asked herself to think with precision about an event, a person, or an image.