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.

In the circumstances these decisions are understandable, but the abridgement of some of the letters that are included is more dubious. So, I think, was the decision to group the letters according to theme. This is all right when ‘Cambridge’ is followed directly by ‘Ceylon’, but after Woolf’s return from the colony his career is split up into ‘Life with Virginia’, ‘Publisher and Editor’, ‘ “Socialist of a Rather Peculiar Sort” ’ and ‘Later Years’. This causes a lot of discontinuity and overlapping, when a simple chronological arrangement would have given a clearer image of the life reflected in the letters. But these are cavils, and Spotts has given us an impressive collection, with valuable biographical introductions to each part.

The early letters, mostly to Lytton Strachey, use a lot of in-group Cambridge language and are very G.E. Moore. As expressed by a 20-year-old, such convictions might seem cliquish or snobbish. It was a good idea to include a letter in which (Sir) Arthur Gaye, who was at Trinity with Woolf, tells Woolf bluntly that Strachey and his friends are ‘the most offensive people I have ever met, and if I had continued to meet them I would not be answerable for anything I might do.’ Much later in his life Woolf received comparably disagreeable letters from his mother and from his brother, who intemperately called him a mean cad and ‘a lickspittle of greater intellects’ – this when Woolf was 73; he insisted on reproducing it in his autobiography. But although his air of superiority, or his superiority, annoyed or hurt some people when he was young in Cambridge and Ceylon, and later as well, he obviously grew much more tolerant as time went on, as befitted his adherence to socialist doctrines which he might call peculiar but which seem entirely honourable, sincere and considered. Still, there remained a sense of privilege, which, given his habitual candour, was bound to come out, as it sometimes does in his autobiography – for example, at the beginning of Downhill all the way, written when he was in his late eighties.

In youth it is possible for a habit of gloom to co-exist with a strong sense that one is among the saved. Woolf wrote from Ceylon to inform Strachey that ‘The Present is, for the most part, made up of the pain of desires & the ache of regrets,’ and in his twenties he talks about the best of his time being over – even, more than once, of suicide. He had chosen, very reluctantly, to go into the Colonial Service because the only alternative was school-mastering, and he believed his decision to have been inspired by Principia Ethica. In Ceylon, however, he was a great success, having more conscience and more energy than his colleagues. Though he seems to have played a lot of tennis and bridge with them, he found them vulgar (a word he used a lot). The East itself was, though often remarkable or beautiful, in many ways filthy and frightful. Like Orwell later, he found himself lashing out with his stick at importunate natives. One colleague he describes to Strachey as ‘without sense, or feeling or intelligence or character, a dolt, a stone, a fool, an imbecile, a toad’. ‘The English are hell, the Australians Sodom and Gomorrah.’ People not to be thought of as real, as by Ansell in the opening pages of The Longest Journey, were in Apostolic jargon called ‘phenomena’, and one way or another Ceylon – ‘a land of blood and mange’ – was full of phenomena. Even persons still at home and with some claim to have escaped phenomenal status – Forster, for example, and Keynes – are given some severe treatment.

It might be said that much of what Woolf wrote in those days was designed to impress Strachey. Possibly for that reason among others, there are several exchanges on the subject of sodomy. Strachey remarked that in Woolf’s place he would be tormented by ‘desire to copulate with a bronze bottom without copulating with a brown face’. Woolf, heterosexual (though he thought most women ‘extraordinarily ugly’ when naked), had a mild expatriate affair, and probably enjoyed work and play more than he lets on. He does mention specifically the delights of hard riding (‘it is better I think as a pleasure than copulation’).

His work, though arduous, more obviously suited him well, calling on his evident physical strength and administrative ability, and he rose rapidly to senior positions. Among the amazingly various and responsible jobs that fell to the young man was that of witnessing hangings. A striking letter to Strachey starts off with a passage about the glories of Madame Bovary and then goes on to describe very forcefully the execution of four men. The mixture of testimony as to the pains and pleasures of these seven years may account for an apparent, though perhaps not a real, muddle in Spott’s biographical remarks: on one page he calls Woolf ‘a model imperialist’ and on the next says he was ‘not a typical imperialist’.

The letters Woolf wrote as an editor and publisher really are models, evidence of an ethical discipline Aristotle would have approved: where necessary firm without anger, or when anger is proper and unavoidable, temperately angry. He was generous, as when he insisted on paying Freud royalties for works for which he had earlier contracted without incurring an obligation to do so, or when writers whom he had helped to establish left the Hogarth Press to seek larger advances from bigger houses. He tells Cecil Day-Lewis he doesn’t mind him taking his detective stories to Collins, but adds that he won’t accept an arrangement whereby he gets sent the books that probably won’t sell while the others are reserved for somebody else. On such topics he meditates with a common sense that still has its relevance to the business of publishing. He says exactly what he means, even if the consequence is a letter of truly daunting severity, such as that to J.B. Leishman, who, having fallen out with his collaborator Stephen Spender on the vexed issue of a Rilke translation, suggested that he do it alone.

To J.R. Ackerley, as literary editor of the Listener trapped in the BBC machine, he sends comments on that organisation which come from the other side but remind one of those we have been hearing lately from Lord Wyatt and others (‘reactionary and politically and intellectually dishonest... they habitually choose the tenth rate in everything, from their music hall programmes and social lickspitters and royal bumsuckers right down the scale’). Mostly, though, he responds equably to the irritations incident to his professions. A certain Stephenson wanted the Hogarth Press to publish his book on citrus culture in Ceylon because Woolf had had a fling there, long before Stephenson entered the scene, with Stephenson’s wife, then 17: ‘It is monstrous that the sins of one’s youth should be visited upon one in the shape of a citrus manual forty years later.’ There are occasional cross words – a fairly dignified row with John Lehmann and some bickering with Kingsley Martin.

All this is more interesting than the political letters, at any rate as they are here represented, though there remains much to be said for Woolf’s ‘peculiar’ socialism, which was feminist, anti-messianic, anti-Stalinist, respectful of the individual’s rights, and very firm on the point that the end never justifies the means. In 1968 he had a particularly successful exchange with Lord Fisher of Lambeth, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury, applying this principle to the problems of Palestine. Lady Fisher, supported by her husband, had seemed to condone an act of Arab terrorism (the bombing of a bus containing children) by talking about ‘brave men... acting for their own country’. Woolf won’t have such acts justified, whether those who commit them are Arabs, Jews, French or British. And he strongly censures the prelate for saying: ‘We need not go to Jesus Christ for a ruling on this.’ That is just where the atheist Woolf thinks we ought to go, and especially in the case of a man who had ‘stood officially’ for his Christ’s doctrine.

It is his power to say with quiet force exactly what he means that makes Woolf’s letters so distinguished. No doubt that power is also displayed in the many letters about his wife’s health that are excluded from this collection. It shows even in the late love letters to Trekkie Parsons, which suggest that men in their sixties, given the occasion, can write better love letters than the more impassioned young.

All through the book there are glimpses of the incredible number of tasks Woolf set himself, as chairman, gardener, politician, publisher, executor of Virginia Woolf, and helpful friend. Though in his maturity grandly egalitarian, he was set apart from ordinary people by his talents and energy. At 75 he wrote reproving Gerald Brenan for saying that ‘ “Bloomsbury” regarded all but a few chosen people as being beyond the pale’. ‘This,’ he says, ‘is quite untrue’, except possibly of Strachey; it cannot be said of ‘Virginia, Roger, Desmond, Clive, Duncan, Morgan and myself’. And yet all these letters demonstrate that in one sense, and a good sense, it was true of him. He really wanted a place within the pale for everybody, even if they were at present vulgar or filthy, and he worked towards that end: but he could not live as if he believed it would soon happen. Now and again the old gloom returned, not without cause, and he repeated that Europe had in the first half of the century destroyed its civilisation: but in his long old age he seems to have been for the most a sternly cheerful figure, still wanting justice for everybody, still careful of friendships, still a gardener, and still writing firm, equable letters.