On the little vanity that I bought at auction last year sit six volumes of The Letters of Virginia Woolf, also bought at auction. I picked out volume three earlier and thumbed through looking for correspondence about writing.
The problem with volumes of letters is that unless you are thoroughly enchanted in every possible way with the writer, or a scholar of the writer, much of it is mundane. Small posts of a few lines involving dinner plans or the state of the garden or the state of the writer's health.
Still, I admit that any of the correspondence before the advent of smart-phones and the internet is leagues above what anyone writes today, and when the letter writer is also a poet and writer, even reports on the state of the garden is elevated to an art.
Yet as rich as the writing was, I'm not so committed to the study of Woolf that I want to devote a year of my life reading every correspondence she ever wrote. I wanted to find those letters where Woolf might reveal something of her writing process, something about a project, perhaps something about the frustration of the words having suddenly dried up, or conversely, the absolute fire of an idea coming to life.
I found this, all of it, in a letter to Vita Sackville West dated "9th Oct. 1927". Woolf had been having an affair with Vita and, inspired by her passion for Vita, embarked on the project Orlando: A Biography, later described by Sackville West's son as "the longest and most charming love-letter in literature".
Here's an excerpt from the letter where Woolf describes to Vita the new book she is writing, and hints at the idea that it may be about Vita (the above image shows the end of the letter and the beginning of a new one not excerpted here):
Yesterday morning I was in despair: You know that bloody book which Dadie and Leonard extort, drop by drop, from my breast? Fiction, or some title to that effect. I couldn't screw a word from me, and at last dropped my head in my hands: dipped my pen in the ink, and wrote these words, as if automatically, on a clean sheet: Orlando: A Biography. No sooner had I done this than my body was flooded with rapture and my brain with ideas. I wrote rapidly till 12. Then I did an hour to Romance. So every morning I am going to write fiction (my own fiction) till 12; and Romance till 1. But listen; suppose Orlando turns out to be Vita; and its all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind (heart you have none, who go gallivanting down the lanes with Campbell)--suppose there's the kind of shimmer of reality which sometimes attaches to my people, as the lustre on an oyster shell (and that recalls another Mary) suppose, I say, that Sibyl next October says "Theres Virginia gone and written a book about Vita" and Ozzie chaws with his great chaps and Byard guffaws, shall you mind? Say yes, or No: Your excellence as a subject arises largely from your noble birth. (But whats 400 years of nobility, all the same?) and the opportunity thus given for florid descriptive passages in great abundance. Also, I admit, I should like to untwine and twist again some very odd, incongruous strands in you: going at length into the question of Campbell; and also, as I told you, it sprung upon me how I could revolutionize biography in a night: and so if agreeable to you I would like to toss this up in the air and see what happens. Yet, of course, I may not write another line.
You will come on Wednesday undern? You will write, now, this instant, a nice humble letter of duty and devotion to me.
I am reading Knole and The Sackvilles. Dear me; you know a lot: you have a rich dusky attic of a mind. O yes, I want very much to see you.
"Dear me; you know a lot: you have a rich dusky attic of a mind". Swoon. I would totally marry anyone that paid me that compliment.
Your word this week is from that very line, because it pleases me so, particularly this word: