I own this book and am constantly browsing through it. I have a kind of mental block against saying I’ve “read” a book that I haven’t read every last sentence of, but I think I can claim to have read at least 75% of this, so what the heck. Feel free to ignore this review on that grounds.
This is Virginia Woolf at the height of her powers, writing most of the books she is famous for, and as far as I can tell, completely incapable of writing a clumsy word. I have a peculiar confession: I do not like the letters to Vita Sackville-West very much. They are the great gossipy interest of this volume: the lesbian affair of one of the greatest writers of all time! The love of her life! But in her letters to Vita I find the Virginia Woolf I like least, snarky and bitchy, putting down everybody (brilliantly), showing off, or so it seems to me. She seems to have loved Vita more than Vita loved her, not to mention a class element–Vita of course was every inch an aristocrat–which is just present enough that this ignorant American could catch a whiff of it, and I get a constant sense of Virginia straining to please, just the slightest bit, but enough to put me off. It is of course the last thing I associate with her writing elsewhere, which is written as though there was not even an audience to please.
That said, the rest is pure delight: her letters to Vanessa Bell, which are everything the Vita letters are, minus the annoying parts; her letters to Bloomsbury friends, which sparkle and flash like the flower petals in her story “Kew Gardens”; her miscellaneous business letters and invitations to dine (I always find these kind of quotidian letters fascinating), and especially her letters to the dying Jacques Raverat, and briefly after his death, to his wife Gwen. With Raverat, unlike Vita, Vanessa, or anyone else that I can find, she had a correspondent with whom she felt completely equal, and could discuss art and her work completely seriously and earnestly without any jocularity or false modesty. I have no real idea who Raverat was, outside of these letters, but he brought out the best in her, somehow–perhaps his absence from her daily life, or his foreignness, helped, but it also seems that he had a great mind that she was really stimulated by. Her letter to Gwen after his death is to me one of the most moving things she ever wrote–and as she is probably my favorite author, that is saying an enormous amount.
There are other points of interest–Katherine Mansfield dies at the beginning of the volume, and as I’m always fascinated by their relationship, it’s interesting to see Woolf’s attitude toward her change, deepen, when her threatening competition is gone. There are letters to Leonard Woolf which are unexpected insights into their relationship. And of course there are discussions (generally hidden under jokes) of her great novels written during this period. But as always with Woolf, these more ‘indirect’, if that is the word, pleasures are secondary to the simple joy of reading her writing, which in is never lighter and more charming, more quick and funny, than in her letters.