Gloom without Doom

Frank Kermode

  • Letters of Leonard Woolf edited by Frederic Spotts
    Weidenfeld, 616 pp, £30.00, March 1990, ISBN 0 297 79635 6

Leonard Woolf’s earlier years coincided with the last great age of letter-writing. Moreover his friends were people who had what may now seem an unusually pressing need to keep in touch with one another, even when not very far apart, and this need was well served by the Post Office, which, before 1914, gave London eight deliveries of mail each day. Woolf himself had a long spell as a colonial administrator in Ceylon, and finding there very little society he was willing to describe as congenial, he sought consolation by correspondence with his Cambridge friends, especially Lytton Strachey. Later on, he wrote a multitude of letters as editor, publisher and politician. So it is not remarkable that in the course of his life he wrote thousands of them. We still do that, even nowadays, in an age of reduced epistolary incentives, but fewer thousands and more trivial letters. What makes him different is that he wrote so many of substance and on such a variety of occasions and topics. And the interest of their contents, as well as the palpable authority of the writer, and the fact that most of the addressees were letter-keepers, ensured that many thousands were preserved.

The mere quantity of the correspondence surviving from such authors means trouble for their editors, who, in consultation with publishers, have to make up their minds first what kind of edition the stature of the writer or the interests of the public will justify. Virginia Woolf rated an almost complete edition (admittedly her letters amount only to a more manageable four thousand) and so did Lawrence, but Forster, fifteen thousand of whose letters survive, has been cut down to a few hundred. Even Shaw and Henry James were reduced to four admittedly vast volumes apiece, a very small proportion of what is extant.

Leonard Woolf, of whose letters eight thousand were available, has had to be shrunk to this one sizeable volume of about six hundred. His editor naturally regrets this limitation. One can believe him when he says that all ‘the letters are of remarkably even quality and interest,’ for Woolf seems to have been an exceptionally self-consistent man, a man of integrity, if that expression is still, in post-modern times, permissible. Of course it might be that the selection has been made to reinforce this opinion of him – for Spotts is a great admirer, though he does go out of his way to include some letters by other people who didn’t like Woolf. But other, non-epistolary evidence makes his judgment plausible.

He announces the principles on which he made his choices. All letters to Virginia Woolf are included, which was no doubt to be expected, though they are the only ones in the book that aren’t really worth reading, for they are mostly love letters, and the love letters of this stern and unillusioned figure are as likely as anybody else’s to decline immediately after the salutation, or even during it, into mere babble. Omissions include, for instance, solid discourses about a minimum wage for women, along with almost all Woolf’s memoranda on political matters and five-sixths of the letters relating to his publishing career.

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