Trained to silence

John Mepham

  • The Sickle Side of the Moon: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V, 1932-1935 edited by Nigel Nicolson
    Hogarth, 476 pp, £12.50, September 1979, ISBN 0 7012 0469 9
  • Leave the Letters till we’re dead: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. VI, 1936-41 edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautman
    Hogarth, 556 pp, £15.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 7012 0470 2
  • The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol. III: 1925-1930 edited by Anne Olivier Bell
    Hogarth, 384 pp, £10.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 7012 0466 4
  • Virginia Woolf by Michael Rosenthal
    Routledge, 270 pp, £7.95, September 1979, ISBN 0 7100 0189 4
  • Virginia Woolf’s Major Novels: The Fables of Anon by Maria DiBattista
    Yale, 252 pp, £11.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 300 02402 9

Having read some of Henry Brewster’s letters to Ethel Smyth, Virginia Woolf wrote to Ethel that she found them ‘very witty, easy, well written, full of sparks and faces and shrewdness’, though she admitted that she got ‘a little tired of the lunches and dinners and Pasolinis and Contessa this and that’. Most important, however, the letters lacked intimacy. ‘I want more – now what is it? – just saying things as they come into one’s head. I cant catch him off his guard. But thats, it may be, because he writes so well.’

Reading Virginia Woolf’s own letters from the period 1932-35 gives much the same impression. It is as if the very freedom and fluency with which she writes allow her to evade intimacy, to protect herself from deeper and more open communication. Perhaps, even in conversation with her friends, she did not allow herself to be caught off her guard. It is difficult to imagine, on the basis of these letters, just what she actually talked about or her tone and manner of talking on the many different social occasions that are recorded here. She sometimes notes what other people said, but somehow gives the impression that she was herself present only as an observer. One guesses that she was both self-effacing and voluble, throwing up verbal screens to protect herself from exposure. In the new volume of her diary we can read about a holiday in Cassis where she and Leonard had stayed at a hotel with several other English people. The hotel exhibited ‘such odd relationships: as if human nature were now reduced to a kind of code, which it has devised to meet these emergencies, where people who do not know each other meet, and claim their rights as members of the same tribe. As a matter of fact, we got into touch all round; but our depths were not invaded.’ It was, she says, a time of perfect happiness.

In her letters she seems to devise for each correspondent a particular code that allows her to write safely fast. To Ottoline Morrell she wrote:

Do you think people ... 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. Now, if I thought, Ottoline will put this letter in a box, I should at once apply the tip of my finger to the end of the spout.

But the metaphor is a misleading one. If, in her letters, the words flow freely, this is because they are a very shallow stream. They chatter, flatter and flirt, politely inform or courteously withhold. But they rarely contemplate or analyse. There are far fewer letters here which directly and openly communicate at any deep level than there are in previous volumes. She is now rarely caught off her guard.

Her letters often suggest that she is playing parts. They are revealing in that they tell us which parts she chose to play. With Vita Sackville-West she played a rather childish game, simulating intimacy by adopting animal personae. ‘Well, my faithless sheep dog’ and ‘Yes, my clever colly,’ she wrote. She had earlier enjoyed playing the lover with Vita, and had come as close with her as with anyone to acting like her namesake in The Waves by living through her body (‘Jinny, honest, an animal’). But the only way she had of coping with the part of Jinny was to domesticate the animal, to dress it up in fur and nursery names. For Vita she was Potto, the rather pathetic, neglected lemur, needing to be touched but not invaded. Physical intimacy could thus be bounded and rendered harmless. In the years of these letters the quality of her relationship with Vita changed; the passion went out of it. They had to negotiate the transition to a more distant, less demanding fondness – a process that seems to have made Virginia uncomfortable and nervous. But the verbal games continued, and they become less attractive than ever, the tone more false, the posturing more dishonest: ‘Potto said he was drawing you a picture – 3 robin red breasts against the moon – but its still unfinished. (Did you know that he has taken up art, to cure his heart? Neglect broke it.)’

With Ethel (her ‘uncastrated cat’) her relationship was more adult, had less fantasy in it, but also much less affection. She seemed to tolerate Ethel rather than like her. She had been bowled over by Ethel’s vitality and openness, but could now scarcely stand the violence of her intrusions. The letters show the relationship sometimes verging on disintegration; it survived because of Ethel’s generosity and solidity. Virginia was content to receive Ethel’s constant noisy flattery as long as she did not have to give very much in return. Her letters to Ethel, though more intimate than those to anyone else, are cool, always lacking in affection and full of half-concealed ridicule. In the whole of this volume there is remarkably little straightforward expression of affection. Even her fondness for her sister (whom she called Dolphin), which we know was deep and of great importance to her, is rarely openly expressed and is sometimes distorted by a playful, rather unattractive display of sham abandonment (her persona in this case is that of the neglected Billy Goat).

In the later 1930s the tone of her letters to Ethel and Vita (published in the sixth and final volume) shows a significant change. She became more willing to express her affection, more generously supportive and explicit in her attachments. After the publication of The Years in 1937 her edgy, nervous jealousy gave way to a warmer, more placid style. Her letters, less deformed by insecurity, are far more attractive. She gave more and demanded less. When stung (for example, by Vita’s criticism of Three Guineas), she would quarrel rather than collapse. With Ethel she could now be patient and reassuring. In this year, at the age of 55, she seems to have achieved an important breakthrough in her relationships with her women friends. Calmer now, perhaps less driven by fantasy, she seems a gentler, more appealing correspondent.

This transformation coincided with a dramatic change in her relationship with her sister, whose son Julian was killed in Spain in July 1937. His death was an overwhelming tragedy for Vanessa. Virginia was suddenly called upon to support her and protect her in the most terrible of circumstances. She reacted to her sister’s need with immense love and patience and was with her almost daily through the slow months of Vanessa’s grief. The change in her letters to Vanessa is astonishing. She discovered a whole new vocabulary of sustaining love. The letters lost their earlier childishness for ever. The new relationship had its limitations, however. The editor reports that ‘Vanessa told Vita, finding it impossible to say it to Virginia herself, that her only comfort was her sister’s love. “When she is demonstrative, I always shrink away.” No sentence that Vanessa ever wrote reveals more about their relationship.’ The whole experience brought home to Virginia a difficult truth. She wrote to Philip Morrell:

One cant, even at my age, believe that other people want affection or admiration; yet one knows that there’s nothing in the whole world so important. Why is it? Why are we all so tongue tied and spell-bound?

The greater openness with her friends which Virginia achieved so late in her life did not affect a deeper and more lasting reticence. In 1931 she wrote to Ethel perhaps the most revealing thing she ever said in a letter:

For months on first knowing you, I said to myself here’s one of these talkers. They don’t know what feeling is, happily for them. Because everyone I most honour is silent – Nessa, Lytton, Leonard, Maynard: all silent; and so I have trained myself to silence; induced to it also by the terror I have of my own unlimited capacity for feeling – when Lytton seemed to be dying – well yes: I can’t go into that, even now. But to my surprise, as time went on, I found that you are perhaps the only person I know who shows feeling and feels. Still I can’t imagine talking about my love for people, as you do. Is it training? Is it the perpetual fear I have of the unknown force that lurks just under the floor? I never cease to feel that I must step very lightly on top of that volcano.

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[*] The first two volumes, The Flight of the Mind and The Question of Things Happening, have been published in paperback by Chatto at £3.95 each.

[†] Hogarth Press, 1976.